The world's dictators and autocrats watching, Mr. President.
The words and actions of America’s president are supposed to reflect the nation’s values.
In this regard, President Donald Trump is failing miserably by letting Saudi Arabia’s leadership off the hook for murdering and dismembering Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist critical of the regime.
Although the White House sanctioned 17 Saudis last week, it was an insufficient response, especially now that the CIA has concluded the killing was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Congress must take stronger action and show the world that the United States finds this unacceptable, especially from an ally.
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With the world’s dictators and autocrats watching to see if there were repercussions, Trump issued a statement equivocating about the murder and praising Saudi Arabia for helping to lower oil prices, pledging to keep investing in the U.S. and buying American arms. Oil prices rose the following day.
This continues Trump’s dangerous and un-American attacks on the free press. That includes Trump last month praising a Montana congressman’s physical attack on a reporter, which led to a conviction of misdemeanor assault for U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, and tweets calling the press the enemy of the people.
By emphasizing that his paramount concern is Saudi spending, the question rises again about whether Trump’s foreign-policy decisions are distorted by his personal business interests. He boasted on the campaign trail about Saudis paying him “millions and hundreds of millions.”
“I like the Saudis, they’re very nice, I make a lot of money with them,” he said in 2015.
Trump also denigrated the work of U.S. intelligence agencies by stating that “we may never know all of the facts” and ignoring the CIA’s finding that the prince is culpable. Disregarding the CIA’s conclusion weakens the U.S. in the eyes of autocrats. They are emboldened to do bad things, believing they can get away with it, even if caught by the CIA.
“Look at the optics of what the president said the other day — ‘maybe they killed the guy, maybe they didn’t, but we have business with them, we can’t afford to lose the money,'” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue. “That’s just shocking and appalling. A crime like this shouldn’t come down to money, it shouldn’t come down to a discussion that if you buy enough stuff from us you can commit whatever international crime you want to commit.”
Some Republicans are also rightly outraged. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said there will be strong bipartisan support “for serious sanctions against Saudi Arabia, including appropriate members of the royal family, for this barbaric act which defied all civilized norms.”
“While Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of the crown prince — in multiple ways — has shown disrespect for the relationship and made him, in my view, beyond toxic,” Graham said in a prepared statement. “I fully realize we have to deal with bad actors and imperfect situations on the international stage. However, when we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset.”
Smith, who is line to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he’d support resolutions condemning Saudi Arabia for the action, ending arms sales to the country or broadening sanctions.
“This is a larger deal than just what Saudi Arabia did,” Smith said. “This is a battle over whether we are going to have political freedom and free speech all over the world.”
America’s president must be on the right side of that battle.