Despots also lis­ten­ing when Trump called press ‘en­emy’

The Star Democrat - - OPINION - Linda Chavez is chair­man of the Cen­ter for Equal Op­por­tu­nity and a se­nior fel­low at the Niska­nen Cen­ter. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Cre­ators Syn­di­cate web­page at www.cre­

When Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump called the press the “en­emy of the peo­ple,” he wasn’t only speak­ing to his pep rally au­di­ence. Au­to­crats and despots around the world were lis­ten­ing. Right-wing gov­ern­ments from Poland and Hun­gary to Tur­key and the Philip­pines have cracked down on free­dom of the press over the past two years, with lit­tle worry that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would raise a fuss. But last week’s dis­ap­pear­ance and pre­sumed mur­der of Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Ja­mal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad in Tur­key should alert even this tone-deaf White House that words have con­se­quences.

Khashoggi, a U.S. res­i­dent who was born in Saudi Ara­bia, wrote fre­quently about his na­tive coun­try with the fear­less­ness any opin­ion writer for an Amer­i­can news­pa­per en­joys. He called shots as he saw them. When Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, the heir ap­par­ent to his fa­ther, King Sal­man, led eco­nomic re­forms and lifted bar­ri­ers to fe­male driv­ing, Khashoggi praised the moves. But he was also a critic of the crown prince’s au­to­cratic meth­ods. Writ­ing in the Post last year, Khashoggi said, “The crack­down on even the most con­struc­tive crit­i­cism — the de­mand for com­plete loy­alty with a sig­nif­i­cant ‘or else’ — re­mains a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to the crown prince’s de­sire to be seen as a mod­ern, en­light­ened leader.” Such crit­i­cism of your coun­try’s leader might get you dis­in­vited from din­ner par­ties in Wash­ing­ton but can get you killed in many places in the world. What is un­usual about this case is that the as­sas­sins thought they could act with im­punity against a per­ma­nent U.S. res­i­dent who ex­pressed his views in an Amer­i­can pa­per.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is in a bind over the Khashoggi dis­ap­pear­ance be­cause of White House se­nior ad­viser Jared Kush­ner’s close ties to the crown prince, who is pre­sumed to have or­dered the ab­duc­tion and mur­der of Khashoggi. The pres­i­dent’s son-in-law has op­er­ated through­out his ten­ure in the White House with an ex­pan­sive port­fo­lio and lit­tle su­per­vi­sion or re­straint from for­eign pol­icy ex­perts and ap­pointees, in­clud­ing the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and the sec­re­tary of state. Kush­ner was in­stru­men­tal in mak­ing Saudi Ara­bia the pres­i­dent’s first over­seas stop, in May 2017, and re­port­edly talks fre­quently with the 33-year-old crown prince, whom he most likely sees as a man much like him­self — young, am­bi­tious, used to get­ting pretty much any­thing he wants. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has made Saudi Ara­bia the linch­pin for its re­la­tions with the Mus­lim world and put it in an in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful po­si­tion in its Mid­dle Eastern pol­icy.

It would never oc­cur to Kush­ner — or even Trump — that the Saudis might in­ter­pret their new stand­ing as giv­ing them carte blanche to deal with a Saudi dis­si­dent. Whereas we view some­one like Khashoggi as a U.S. res­i­dent de­serv­ing the same pro­tec­tions and guar­an­tees that any­one who makes his home in Amer­ica does, the Saudi regime con­sid­ered him a sub­ject of the king­dom and a do­mes­tic threat. It doesn’t help that Khashoggi was a mem­ber of the Fourth Es­tate, which Trump con­stantly rails against. It is al­to­gether pos­si­ble that the Saudis ex­pected that the ad­min­is­tra­tion wouldn’t raise a fuss if a Saudi-born jour­nal­ist sim­ply dis­ap­peared.

Con­gress, how­ever, is not tak­ing the Khashoggi case lightly. A bi­par­ti­san group of se­na­tors has al­ready writ­ten to Pres­i­dent Trump to in­voke the Mag­nit­sky Act, which gives the pres­i­dent 120 days to de­ter­mine whether to place sanc­tions on any for­eign per­son, in­clud­ing the crown prince, in­volved in Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance. The in­vok­ing of the Mag­nit­sky Act, named af­ter a Rus­sian dis­si­dent mur­dered by the Putin regime, ought to be a warn­ing to this White House, as well. Surely, Kush­ner will see it as such, see­ing as he and the pres­i­dent’s son Don­ald Trump Jr. were among a group of cam­paign of­fi­cials who met in 2016 with a Rus­sian lawyer whose port­fo­lio in­cluded seek­ing a re­peal of the Mag­nit­sky Act, in the in­fa­mous Trump Tower meet­ing that has be­come a fo­cus in spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In cod­dling dic­ta­tors and defin­ing in­sti­tu­tions of democ­racy as en­e­mies, Trump has em­barked on a dan­ger­ous path, and not even he knows where it will lead.

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