The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive, corrupt, and militaristic countries on earth. It is also a major ally of the United States, and current US President Donald Trump is a particularly big fan. Now that the Saudi government is believed to have murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, likely on orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pressure is mounting on Trump to stand up for journalists and free speech. Instead, he’s standing up for Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi was a Washington Post contributor and a critic of the ruling class of his native Saudi Arabia, as well as its invasion of Yemen. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since he entered the Saudi consulate in Turkey on October 2. Turkish officials claim to have audio evidence of Khashoggi’s murder, reportedly a grisly affair that started with torture and the severing of his fingers, and ended with his decapitation and dismemberment. One Saudi official already lost his job over the incident when he was heard saying, “Do this outside; you’re going to get me in trouble.”
World leaders, including US Senators and Representatives, have called for action against Saudi Arabia. The Trump Administration, however, has stood by the kingdom. On Wednesday, President Trump said, “We’re not going to walk away from Saudi Arabia.” The president complained that Saudi Arabia was being treated like his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, as “guilty until proven innocent.” There is a great deal of evidence, not to mention an obvious motive, to implicate Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Rather than a crusader for the presumption of innocence, Trump might more accurately be described as a champion of guilt without consequence. As he recently told 60 Minutes, whether Kavanaugh was guilty of the heinous allegations against him or whether his accusers were treated with respect is irrelevant: “It doesn’t matter. We won,” Trump declared. Trump has implied that even if Saudi Arabia did murder a journalist, our relationship with them is too important to mess with over it.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed the “important relationships – financial relationships between US and Saudi companies, governmental relationships.” Trump put it even more explicitly: “We don’t like it even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country… that would not be acceptable to me.” Though they haven’t spent nearly as much as Trump claims – reportedly only $14.5 billion – Saudi Arabia has long been the top buyer of American weaponry. They’ve used those weapons to, among other things, wage an internationally condemned war in Yemen that’s rife with war crimes and human rights abuses.
Trump essentially declared that he’d never let a little thing like the assassination of a journalist stop the Saudi war machine from filling the pockets of American weapons manufacturers. It’s jolting to hear a president so unashamedly articulate the depths of corruption that go into policy decisions. On the campaign trail he was equally open about Saudi Arabia corrupting him personally, telling crowds, “I make a lot of money from them… They spend $40 million, $50 million… Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
To be fair to Trump, America’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia goes back to the kingdom’s 1933 founding. Despite Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Wahhabism, the radical strain of Islam that is thought to be “the main source of global terrorism,” our relationship has only grown stronger during the so-called War on Terror. Hillary Clinton’s State Department increased arms sales to Saudi Arabia by billions of dollars around the same time as the Clinton Foundation received between $10 and $25 million in donations from the kingdom.
What makes Trump’s defense of Saudi Arabia so alarming is his pattern of deference to dictators and strongmen, as well as his own war on journalists. Since becoming president, Trump has gotten along famously with leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un, all of whom abuse human rights and control their media. Trump’s media allies have rushed to the president’s defense and downplayed Kashoggi’s disappearance as no big deal. Some, like Breitbart, have smeared Kashoggi as a terrorist sympathizer and escalated their propaganda against American journalists. At a rally this week, Trump celebrated the physical assault of a Guardian journalist.
In response to ever-increasing pressure, Trump eventually promised “severe consequences” if Saudi Arabia killed Khashoggi. But Trump may never be convinced. Earlier in the same week, he cast doubt on climate science and professed his belief in Kavanaugh’s innocence. In Trump’s mind, a “strong” denial from a “tough” guy is equal to any evidence against him. One of his earliest responses to the Khashoggi controversy was to tweet, “Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.”
No one should suggest we go to war over Khashoggi’s disappearance, but it should prompt a reexamination of our long-problematic relationship with Saudi Arabia. People should be outraged that a government murdered a critical journalist. They should be outraged that their tax dollars subsidize a deadly and immoral war on the other side of the world. Trump’s effort to make Americans accept not just the cruelties and evils of the world, but our own role in them, is one of the most chilling aspects of his presidency.