“Can you imagine anybody other than Trump?” Donald Trump likes to say that. That may be why, in a fit of anger, or defiance, as he left for his long Thanksgiving weekend at his exclusive resort in Florida, he issued a statement no other president would ever issue:
The world is a very dangerous place!
The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
Why Iran and why now? But this wasn’t about Iran. This was about Saudi Arabia. We’ll help Saudi Arabia with their war in Yemen. We’ll help Saudi Arabia starve to death the entire population there – millions of women and children will die slow excruciating deaths. Iran asked for it. It’s the right thing to do. It’ll be fun.
No. Trump didn’t say that. He only implied that. Yemen wasn’t the issue. The New York Times’ Mark Landler covers the real issue:
President Trump defied the nation’s intelligence agencies and a growing body of evidence on Tuesday to declare his unswerving loyalty to Saudi Arabia, asserting that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s culpability for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi might never be known.
In a remarkable statement that appeared calculated to end the debate over the American response to the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, the president said, “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Mr. Trump added. “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
And that was that:
His statement, which aides said Mr. Trump dictated himself and reflected his deeply held views, came only days after the CIA concluded that the crown prince, a close ally of the White House, had authorized the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for The Washington Post.
This was another screw-the-CIA moment. He believed Putin. There was no Russian interference in anything. He believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He said he had nothing to do with anything. That’ll do. What do these experts know anyway? Landler explains where that leads:
In 633 words, punctuated by eight exclamation points and written in an impolitic style that sounded like Mr. Trump’s off-the-cuff observations, the statement was a stark distillation of the Trump worldview: remorselessly transactional, heedless of the facts, determined to put America’s interests first, and founded on a theory of moral equivalence.
In a world of malefactors, Mr. Trump argued, Iran’s crimes exceeded anything Saudi Arabia had done. His words seemed certain to alienate Turkey, a NATO ally that has raised the pressure on Saudi Arabia to offer a full accounting of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
They also drew outrage from members of Congress and human rights activists, for whom the grisly killing has become a test of America’s willingness to overlook the crimes of a strategically valuable ally.
They thought this was too much:
“The behavior of the crown prince – in multiple ways – has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and the ranking Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, sent Mr. Trump a letter demanding that the administration determine whether Prince Mohammed was responsible for the death of Mr. Khashoggi.
Ayn Rand’s Atlas shrugged. Trump shrugged:
Far from criticizing Prince Mohammed or other Saudi leaders, the president came close to embracing the narrative of Mr. Khashoggi’s critics in the kingdom: that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an “enemy of the state” bent on undermining the House of Saud.
When the press becomes the enemy of the people – or the state – these things will happen. That is not to say he will send in Navy Seal Team Six to chop up CNN’s Jim Acosta or Don Lemon, or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or Katy Tur. That would be wrong:
“My decision is in no way based on that,” Mr. Trump insisted. “This is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”
And that’ll do, because if this:
Punishing Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trump said, would put at risk $110 billion in military sales to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other military contractors, as well as $340 billion in other investments, which the Saudis have agreed to make since he became president.
Economists and military analysts said those numbers were so exaggerated as to be fanciful.
That doesn’t matter:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would continue to assess new information in the case. “Facts will, obviously, still continue to come to light,” he told reporters. “It’s the way the world works.”
But he made clear that Mr. Trump would weigh any further action against the nation’s interests, which the president has said lie with the Saudis, not with Mr. Khashoggi.
On the other hand:
“An innocent man, brutally slain, deserves better, as does the cause of truth and justice and human rights,” the Post’s publisher, Fred Ryan, said in a statement.
That’s a matter of perspective, and Trump’s statement ends with this:
I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm.
Very simply it is called America First!
Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s friend and colleague at the Post, says the opposite is true:
In a juvenile, clumsy White House statement on Tuesday full of falsehoods, Trump repeated the Saudi lie that Jamal was an “enemy of a state” and that the “United States would stand steadfastly by Saudi Arabia,” even though its regime lured, killed and dismembered a peaceful Post op-ed writer who lived in Virginia.
In effect, Trump is doing his best to help the Saudi regime get away with the murder of a U.S. resident and one of the Arab world’s most prominent writers.
If the administration continues down this path, it will further destroy whatever is left of America’s moral credibility on global human rights and freedom of expression. It puts truth-seekers and journalists who dare challenge the Saudi regime and other intolerant governments in grave danger, no matter where they live. Trump’s refusal to act gives a symbolic green light to the young, power-drunk Mohammed bin Salman so he can continue his reckless exploits in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, for possibly the next 40 to 50 years, and face zero consequences.
That’s not America first:
“If we allow a murderer to get away because we think we can make some deals with him, we are just reinforcing the idea that money can silence everybody”, says Abdullah Alaoudh, a senior scholar at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. “And this is the dangerous message that created Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. We can better protect the good relationship with Saudi Arabia in the long run through building a relationship with the Saudi people, institutions and even the majority of the royal family. Or we can risk losing all that by protecting one powerful individual who has been implicated in a horrible crime.”
Trump chose the latter, so America chose the latter, and Jonathan Chait is a bit cynical:
The first two sentences – “America First! The world is a dangerous place!” – set the basic predicate for his argument. People get murdered, dismembered, dissolved in acid, all the time, and we need to look out for our interests.
And he notes this:
“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them,” said Donald Trump as a candidate for office in 2015. “They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
One might dislike them anyway:
Several women’s rights activists who have been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for more than six months have been subjected to psychological or physical abuse while in custody, including sleep deprivation and beatings, according to four people familiar with the conditions of the activists’ detention.
Some of the abuse occurred during interrogations in which several of the women were administered electric shocks or flogged, two of the people said, citing a witness account. Other women displayed what witnesses said were apparent signs of abuse, including uncontrollable shaking or difficulty standing, the people said.
The allegations of abuse and torture were impossible to independently confirm. Families are reluctant to repeat what they hear from the detainees during prison visits, fearing retaliation by the authorities. The four people who spoke about the abuse, all Saudi citizens, have contacts in the prison or had been briefed on conditions there. They spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern that revealing their names could identify the detainees.
But there’s hope:
The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last month in Istanbul has heightened scrutiny of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and fueled rumors that Saudi authorities were considering releasing some of the female activists to blunt some of the criticism of the kingdom.
They won’t need to do that after Donald Trump’s statement, and Anne Gearan explains why:
President Trump’s declaration Tuesday that he won’t hold Saudi rulers accountable for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi distilled the president’s foreign policy approach to its transactional and personalized essence.
Nearly two years into his presidency, Trump is unswerving in his instinct to make everything – from trade to terrorism, from climate change to human rights – about what he sees as the bottom line…
The nothing-to-see-here tone, the fractured syntax and falsehoods, and the abundance of exclamation points were pure Trump – and as far from the massaged, nuanced products of past White Houses as one could imagine.
But he is who he is:
“It’s ‘America First,'” Trump told reporters Tuesday before departing for Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. “For me, it’s all about America First. We’re not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars in orders and let Russia, China and everybody else have them.”
Trump said that Saudi Arabia had helped him keep oil prices down and that without those efforts, “oil prices would go through the roof.”
That’s what matters, along with family:
Trump’s clannish management style is also a factor in the Saudi decision. He has entrusted the relationship to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has built a close partnership with MBS, as the young Saudi prince is known. Kushner has argued within the administration that the crown prince is crucial to assisting White House policy against Iran and in providing backing for a U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace package expected soon.
And the young Saudi prince has boasted that he has Jared Kushner “in his pocket” – but Jared Kushner must feel the same way. The “other guy” is naïve. That may be so. It’s one or the other. It isn’t the prince. And naivety is an issue:
Trump has also bucked convention and the advice of Cabinet and career government officials in pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord and in deploying punitive tariffs against allies and foes alike.
The president always places himself at the center of events and decides what to do from that standpoint, said Ross Kennedy, an American history professor and presidential scholar at Illinois State University. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s lavish welcome in Riyadh for Trump in 2017 set the tone, Kennedy said.
“He really personalizes his interactions, not just with people in domestic audiences or in business or with people he meets” at the White House, Kennedy said. “He does it with foreign leaders, and he bases much of what he does by how they treat him personally. The Saudis really laid it on thick.”
The Saudis knew what they were doing:
Past administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have prized a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and sometimes tempered criticism of human rights abuses, including religious persecution and the jailing of dissidents.
But President George W. Bush also argued that U.S. national security interests were served by defending human rights abroad, and his administration claimed to raise particular cases each time U.S. officials met with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia and other countries with poor human rights records.
On Iran, Riyadh has leveraged Trump’s opposition to the nuclear deal reached under President Barack Obama, appealing to Trump’s impulse to reverse his predecessor’s policies and giving Trump additional diplomatic footing to pull out of the agreement, Kennedy said.
Obama made a deal with Iran on their stopping development of nuclear weapons. Trump will reverse that. Obama, and presidents before him, told the Saudis knock off the medieval torture and murder stuff. Obama did that? Trump will reverse that. The Saudis point to Obama. That works every time. The Saudis are playing Trump. He’s in the prince’s pocket too.
And there are those who are laughing:
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded by mocking Trump on his English-language Twitter feed, including a reference to the U.S. president’s false claim that Finland spends “a lot of time raking” its forests to prevent wildfires.
“Mr. Trump bizarrely devotes the FIRST paragraph of his shameful statement on Saudi atrocities to accuse IRAN of every sort of malfeasance he can think of,” Zarif wrote. “Perhaps we’re also responsible for the California fires, because we didn’t help rake the forests – just like the Finns do?”
Others aren’t laughing:
Samantha Power, who was Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, called the president’s statement an “abomination that will define the ignorance, corruption, cruelty and recklessness of this presidency for generations to come.”
And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has become a reliable Trump ally, took the president to task for letting the Saudis off easy.
“One thing I learned during the Obama years is that when you look the other way regarding problems in the Middle East, it seldom works out,” said Graham, who added that there is “strong bipartisan support” for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia and members of the royal family.
Not one Republican will ever vote for anything of the kind. Trump’s base would rip them to shreds. Trump says the murder of pesky journalists is not that big a deal, so it isn’t, and that’s that. Not one Republican wants his or her political career to end, and Trump knows this:
Trump, fresh off the traditional pardoning of Thanksgiving turkeys at the White House, did not sound bothered about such criticism when he was asked who should be Time’s annual “Person of the Year.”
“That’s up to Time Magazine,” he said, noting that he had “been there before.” Trump was named “Person of the Year” in 2016 but was runner-up last year.
“I can’t imagine anybody else other than Trump,” he added, referring to himself in the third person. “Can you imagine anybody other than Trump?”
He says that a lot, but Slate’s Josh Keating notes that, in this case, that’s not exactly so:
Not surprisingly, on Tuesday, media observers, human right groups, and members of Congress all quickly condemned Donald Trump’s defense of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which posits that journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing – whether or not Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was involved in it – is less important than building a coalition to combat Iranian influence and the profits from arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But there’s been some pushback to all the outrage as well.
As Politico’s Nahal Toosi tweets, “One way to think about this whole Trump-Saudi thing is that he’s talking out loud about an approach that past presidents, Democrat or Republican, would have quietly implemented anyway.” Or as Vice’s Joshua Hersh puts it, using Ben Rhodes’ preferred epithet for the D.C. foreign policy establishment, “A lot of people in the Blob are upset today about what is effectively just an explicit (and I guess extra grotesque) articulation of longstanding US policy toward Saudi Arabia.”
Keating isn’t sure of that:
Previous presidents may have paid lip service to human rights concerns, but since the modern U.S.-Saudi relationship began with a meeting between Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud about the Suez Canal in 1945, every U.S. administration has prioritized the energy and security partnership with the kingdom over human rights concerns. But I think it goes too far to shrug at this statement and dismiss the reaction to it as hypocritical pearl-clutching.
For one thing, rhetoric clearly does matter to this this Saudi government, which has more or less lost its mind over relatively measured criticism from countries including Canada, Germany, and Sweden in recent months.
These are unstable people, but then our president is a bit unstable too:
Trump’s blanket defense of the Saudis and suggestion that we can’t afford to upset its leaders is also a remarkably servile posture for the “America first” president. From supporting the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 to signing the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, the U.S. has done plenty of things the Saudi government hasn’t liked. It has also used its leverage to constrain Saudi actions, such as providing heavy weaponry to Syrian rebels for fear they could fall into the hands of extremist groups. While it was far too little too late, the Obama administration did decide to block the sale of precision munitions kits to Saudi Arabia in 2016, over concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen. There are degrees of action between completely blowing up the U.S.-Saudi relationship and complete acquiescence to whatever Saudi Arabia wants to do in its region.
There may be degrees of action but this president seems to have only an on-off switch, which is inadequate to this:
Under MBS, Saudi activities abroad have also become more reckless and disruptive than in previous years, including the ill-advised blockade of Qatar, the apparent temporary kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon, the killing of Khashoggi, and the brutal, unrelenting, and strategically dubious war in Yemen. U.S. and foreign officials have been expressing concerns since last year that the unquestioning support of Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is personally close to the crown prince, “have helped motivate Riyadh to overplay its hand.” It’s hard to say that Trump’s public backing of Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Qatar in the summer of 2017 was simply a more honest expression of longstanding U.S. foreign policy given that his own secretary of state contradicted it.
No, there was no nod to history. There is only the future:
Other countries will also watch Trump’s rhetoric. Authoritarian governments around the world have nodded to Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the media and migrants to justify their own crackdowns. The case made in Trump’s statement, that the killing of a U.S. resident and journalist is regrettable but acceptable depending on a country’s strategic importance, will be noted by Cairo, Manilla, and Brasilia.
Can you imagine anybody other than Trump? Yes. Trump just lashed out in anger and defiance, and ignorance, and the world just got much darker.