Trump Proves He Doesn't Care If Journalists Get Killed By Shrugging Off the Disappearance of a Reporter from His Most Hated Newspaper
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and a columnist for the Washington Post, was killed by the Saudi Arabian government, according to Turkish officials.
Khashoggi has been missing for more than a week. Since he has been a prominent Saudi dissident, many American politicians and defenders of press freedoms were concerned for his safety when he disappeared. The Post obtained photos of Khashoggi entering a Saudi consulate last Tuesday, where he had last been seen alive, and the Turkish officials now believe he was killed there. The Saudi government has denied any involvement and said Khashoggi left the consulate alive.
Among those who evinced little serious concern for Khashoggi's wellbeing was President Donald Trump.
When asked by reporters on Monday about the disappearance on Monday, Trump said, "I am concerned about it. I don’t like hearing about it. Hopefully, that will sort itself out. Right now nobody knows anything about it, but there’s some pretty bad stories going around. I do not like it."
For a president of the United States, this was exceptionally mild language about a journalist likely captured by an authoritarian ally.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), for one, was at least calling for an explanation from the Saudis on Tuesday, which Trump had failed to do.
“It points to the idea that whatever has happened to him, the Saudis—I mean, they’ve got some explaining to do,” Corker told the Daily Beast.
Politico noted that both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike pence both put out much stronger statements than the president, calling for an investigation and defending the rights of journalists.
It also noted that defenders of press freedoms were dismayed by Trump's lack of interest in defending the press:
Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the Chatham House think tank, said the Saudis were sure to notice when Trump said he knew “nothing” about Khashoggi’s case.
“For them, that’s a great signal,” he said. “He’s not particularly bothered by this. He’s not going to rake (them) over the coals for this, it’s not a major issue that deserves or requires his attention. He’s almost nonchalant.”
Margaux Ewen, the executive director of Reporters Without Borders North America, said she was encouraged that Trump expressed concern but wished his statements had been stronger. As shocking as Khashoggi’s case is, she said, her overriding concern is that Trump, with his frequent attacks on “the fake news media” in America, “sets the overall tone that the US doesn’t really value press freedom.”
“We’re not leading by example, and so whenever we make condemnations of other country’s anti-press behavior, it may seem like hollow words,” Ewen said.
Of course, none of this is new. Trump has been openly disdainful of the press, even those who are in harm's way and in dictatorial countries, while he has consistently praised authoritarian leaders. The fact that Khashoggi is a columnist for the Washington Post, which Trump consistently attacks, may have made it even less likely that Trump would make it clear he was concerned about the disappearance. It's hard to believe that something so petty could be relevant in a case this serious — but with Trump in the White House, it's impossible to deny it as a factor.