Monday, October 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He helped an authoritarian regime excuse the murder of an American journalist, intentionally or otherwise.

Trump has been visibly reluctant to respond to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist working in the United States. This morning, Trump quoted the official Saudi line:
I just spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia, who denies any knowledge of what took place with regard to, as he said, his Saudi Arabian citizen. I’ve asked — and he firmly denied that... The King told me that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are working hand-in-hand, very closely, on getting to the bottom of what happened. So we’ll see what happens. But Mike Pompeo — excuse me — Mike Pompeo is leaving literally within an hour or so. He’s heading to Saudi Arabia. 
We are going to leave nothing uncovered. With that being said, the King firmly denied any knowledge of it. He didn’t really know. Maybe — I don’t want to get into his mind — but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial.
Hours later, CNN reported that the Saudi government was preparing to acknowledge that Khashoggi had died in their custody, but planned to blame the murder on agents working "without clearance and transparency."

Or, in other words, that the men who apparently tortured and executed Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate with the full cooperation of its staff were "rogue killers."

NBC later confirmed that reporting. Notably, the Saudi government has not pushed back on these reports, even though Trump's endorsement of King Salman's denial was less than a day old.

There are two ways of explaining the fact that Trump signed on to a foreign government's lie, only to have it immediately abandoned. One is that Trump simply assumes that foreign leaders—especially those of the authoritarian stripe he personally admires—are always telling him the truth. This fits a pattern in his presidency where he has also vouched for the trustworthiness of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

The other possibility is that Trump is simply has too much political and financial capital invested in Saudi Arabia and feels forced to defend its government regardless of what it has done.

What is the problem with this?

  • It shouldn't be this easy to manipulate (or fool) a president.
  • In a democracy, leaders are supposed protect journalists from dictators, rather than the other way around.