President Trump seldom waits for the facts before rendering judgment. But when it comes to the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly killed by Saudi Arabia in Turkey, Trump has been strangely reticent.
Vice President Pence reacted by denouncing “violence against journalists” and said, “The free world deserves answers,” while Republicans in Congress warned that relations with Saudi Arabia would be rethought. The State Department backed an investigation.
But there was no outraged statement from the president, no summoning of the Saudi ambassador for an explanation. It didn’t even rise to the level of a tweet.
In the Oval Office on Tuesday, as Trump accepted U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s resignation, reporters asked if he had spoken to the Saudis about it.
“No, I have not, but I will be at some point,” he said.
At some point? Please do, Mr. President, if it’s not too much trouble. The Saudi journalist, who had been living in Virginia, disappeared last week, and The Washington Post reported Saturday that Turkish officials believe he was murdered in the Istanbul consulate of our supposed ally Saudi Arabia.
“I know nothing right now,” Trump added, as if the world’s most powerful man, with a vast intelligence apparatus on retainer, were just another passive consumer of Fox News. “I know what everybody else knows — nothing.”
If anything, Trump’s curiosity had diminished from Monday. Then, too, he said that “nobody knows anything about it,” but he at least pronounced himself “concerned” and said, “I don’t like hearing about it.” (He was more expansive in his answer to the next question, about Taylor Swift’s politics.)
Does Trump really know nothing? Or does he not want to know?
If what Turkish officials told their U.S. counterparts is true — that the body of Khashoggi, a Saudi government critic, was dismembered, removed from the consulate in boxes and flown out of the country in pieces — it would show that Trump is being played for a fool by a Saudi regime he has lavished with affection.
At the United Nations just a couple of weeks ago, he called King Salman “a great guy” and praised the kingdom’s “bold new reforms.” His administration previously cleared the Saudis to buy billions of dollars in U.S. military hardware. “We really have a great friendship, a great relationship,” Trump said in March. Contrasting that with what was “very, very strained during the Obama administration,” he said “the relationship, now, is probably as good as it’s really ever been, and I think will probably only get better.”
But Khashoggi’s disappearance puts on display the utter amorality of Trump’s foreign policy, a transactional policy befitting a real-estate developer, not a superpower. If leaders court him, he likes them, no matter what else they do. If leaders criticize him, he discards them, even if they are allies.
The Saudi government bought its friendship with Trump, with military acquisitions, foreign investment, ceremonial extravagance during his 2017 visit and appeals to Trump’s personal interests. (The kingdom’s conspicuous spending at Trump hotels surely didn’t hurt.) Trump, his ego thus stroked, called the Saudis his friends.
Many bad actors have been so befriended.
Trump, at the United Nations, praised the “courage” of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and he later told supporters that he and Kim “fell in love.” Never mind that Kim has made few tangible steps toward denuclearization and reportedly launched a crackdown on “non-socialist” behaviors, including unapproved hairstyles.
Most prominently, Trump embraced the word of Russia’s Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence, and hesitated to join ally Britain when it accused Putin’s government of a chemical attack on British soil.
But the Khashoggi killing, if confirmed, would test the limits of Trump’s amorality. Human rights are not the cornerstone of his foreign policy, but do they even appear in the facade?
Trump has already looked the other way as Saudi Arabia effectively kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, provoked confrontation with Qatar and caused mass carnage in Yemen’s civil war. In August, after a Saudi-led missile strike killed dozens of schoolchildren, a U.S. official, asked by reporters about the American role in the strike, replied: “Well, what difference does that make?”
It’s now fair, likewise, to ask whether Trump’s practice of labeling journalists the enemy of the people emboldened the people who reportedly killed Khashoggi, and those responsible for renewed crackdowns on the press around the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports a 50 percent increase in murders of journalists this year, with three months still to go.
“What difference does that make?”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.