Jamal Khashoggi and the bloody bill for Trump's anti-press rhetoric

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

In July, President Donald Trump hosted A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, the outlet which is perhaps the biggest target of the president’s years-long effort to delegitimize the U.S. press. In a statement memorializing the White House meeting, Sulzberger said he had gone to the White House with a stark warning for the president: His vicious criticisms of the press, particularly the Stalinist description of journalists as the “enemy of the people,” could reap deadly results for reporters.

“I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists,” he wrote of their exchange. “I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.”  

Three months later, Sulzberger’s warning has proved horrifically prescient. A journalist who lives in the U.S. and writes for a major American newspaper has vanished, with reports indicating he may have been brutally murdered by an authoritarian U.S. ally. And Trump’s apathetic response sends a message to other nations that they can repress journalists with impunity, without fear of U.S. reprisals.

Jamal Khashoggi is a journalist, a critic of his native Saudi Arabia’s oppressive regime who had been living in self-imposed exile in Virginia, London, and Istanbul, Turkey. He has written for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions section since last year, using that platform to lament Saudi Arabia’s repressive atmosphere under its new de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That outspoken dissent, coming at a time when the prince was conducting a U.S. charm offensive, reportedly earned Khashoggi his wrath.

Ten days ago, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain a document for his upcoming wedding. He has yet to emerge.

It is not yet fully clear what happened to Khashoggi once he stepped inside the consulate, but the picture so far is grim. Turkish authorities have said that members of a Saudi security team interrogated, tortured, and then murdered Khashoggi, dismembered his body, and transported it out of the consulate; some theorize a kidnapping attempt may have gone wrong. U.S. intelligence intercepts suggest American officials knew he was in danger and did nothing. And the Saudis have denied everything, claiming with almost comic gall that Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed that day, but that they are unable to provide footage of him doing so because the consulate’s security cameras were not recording.

It’s difficult to overstate the brazenness of the Saudis’ alleged actions in targeting a U.S. resident who writes for an American paper while he was in a NATO country.

It seems unlikely that the Saudi regime -- dependent as it is on the U.S., and on the Trump administration specifically -- would have tried to kidnap or kill Khashoggi if its rulers thought it would upset Trump. But as Sulzberger warned, Trump’s derision toward reporters gave every indication that he didn’t care. And since Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump has signaled his ongoing apathy. The message the president is sending to dictators around the world is that it is open season on dissident journalists.

Past presidents, aware of the danger of signaling such indifference, might have reacted with outraged statements and a promise of dire consequences for the regime that dared to commit such a crime. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has tried to lay down such a marker, threatening sanctions against the highest levels of the Saudi government if it turns out to be implicated in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

But Trump’s vision of U.S. foreign policy is fundamentally transactional, looking with favor on despots like Crown Prince Mohammed who cater to his whims and sign hefty contracts for U.S. arms, while scorning our democratic allies for not paying “their fair share of common defense costs.”

His response to Khashoggi’s disappearance is in line with a general disregard for human rights: Trump has issued mealy-mouthed statements of concern while thus far rejecting the possibility of concrete action. He has warned that blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia in retaliation would “not be acceptable,” and demurred when asked whether the situation would jeopardize U.S. relations with the country.

Others in his administration have followed this policy of going through the motions, requesting information from the Saudis while steering clear of anything that resembles a consequence; while media outlets have begun withdrawing from a Saudi investment conference scheduled for later this month, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said this morning that he still plans to attend, calling Saudi Arabia “a very good partner.”

Even the president’s loyal propagandists at Fox & Friends have said that the administration needs to do more, arguing that Khashoggi’s disappearance is “way over the line” and must be met with sanctions that “really hurt” the Saudi regime.

Khashoggi is not the only victim of the U.S. abandoning even the pretense of standing for liberal values: Oppressive nations have responded with gusto to the changing world order. And just as Sulzberger warned, journalists have been a particular target; the last month alone has seen reporters arrested in Myanmar, imprisoned in Turkey, and murdered in Bulgaria.

But Khashoggi’s disappearance seems to be the clearest link yet from Trump’s anti-press demagoguery to state repression. Trump’s “rhetoric against journalists probably encouraged the Saudis to do it,” a close friend of Khashoggi’s said this week, convincing the regime that “Trump hates journalists and he would not react if we kill one journalist.” Unless Trump and his administration change course and make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable, this won’t be the last time.