Let’s begin with the obvious. The president only truly values American citizenship. From doubting Barack Obama’s birthplace to authorizing a sweeping child detention policy that targeted immigrant families, time and again, Trump has riled up his base by flouting the customs, intentions and sacrifices of people living outside U.S. borders. In a recent tweet issued by the president, responsibility for Jamal Khasoggi, the slain Washington Post journalist and permanent U.S. resident, was essentially dropped for no better reason than he’s not a full U.S. citizen. “Just spoke to the king of Saudi Arabia who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened “to our Saudi Arabian citizen.” He said that they are working closely with Turkey to find answer. I am immediately sending our Secretary of State to meet with king.”
A not so subtle reminder to his base that this allegedly murdered journalist is not one of us. By raising the matter of Khashoggi’s citizenship, he is also calling into question the real nature of the man’s association with America, as well as his overall significance as someone worth spending political and economic capital on. The same reason he does not want to know why a mother separated from her child at the border would leave her native land in the first place, is the same reason he is content to accept Muhammad bin Salman’s word for it. As the president sees it: Not our citizen. Not our problem. How else can you oversee a 21st century Japanese internment camp for children as young as 4? As this article goes to print, more than 200 children remain separated from their families, many living in prison like detention centers for no other reason than their lack of U.S. citizenship.
Another factor which makes the president not really care about what happened to Mr. Khashoggi is the simple fact that Khasoggi is a Muslim journalist. Throughout his volatile career — both in business and politics — Trump has used the Islam faith as a useful if not bane prop in his campaigns of fear and intimidation. Trump has never wavered when it comes to the ready deployment of this tactic in battle. In his grand strategy, the religion of Islam has always presented an existential threat to the cultural values of the United States, (at least this is what he believes about most Republican voters in places such as Texas and Iowa). The fact that we are talking about a tortured and mutilated journalist should be shocking to any sane individual, but in Trump’s calculation, the victim is, at the end of the day, a Muslim journalist who worked for a newspaper that spreads falsehoods about his personal life, the White House he leads, and the very motivations that drove him into politics.
Setting aside his tactical use of Islamophobia, the president’s war on journalism and mainstream news has been relentless. Other than CNN and the New York Times, is there another mainstream news outlet that Trump has more antipathy for than the Washington Post?
Regarding the topic of business interests, Trump recently tweeted, “For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia” — something his tax returns might belie. However, there is one reason that Trump has given in public for believing the official response from Muhammad bin Salman and his Saudi operatives that they had nothing to do with it: its the $180+ billion investment in weapons sales that these two nations agreed to earlier in the president’s term. Put bluntly: Trump does not care who or how the man was killed. What matters far more is the money he is set to make from this weapons deal, a transaction that will bolster a military alliance that holds together the White House’s entire Middle Eastern policy. Fine journalist that he may be, advocating for a real investigation into his death is simple not worth the price tag.
Lastly, Trump really doesn’t care who killed Jamal Khashoggi because the journalist has already become a political symbol, one that serves a means to an end for the president. If nothing else, Trump has an uncanny ability to sense where exactly the opposition sees an opening, and rushes in to close the hole as soon as possible. As he predicted, CNN and others pounced on the story, surmising an opportunity to expose Trump’s weakness on human rights, the unlawful war in Yemen, and his hypocrisy towards the Muslim world in general. In other words, a nice counterpunch after Kavanaugh. Noticing that a condemnation of the Saudi crown is a rebuke against his own foreign policy objectives, the president has done what he always does: dig in, double down, dish it out, and deny, deny, deny. As soon as he saw the Democrats planning to use this assassination against him for political gain, he made a decision to totally side with the Saudis. Better the devil you know than to risk momentum before the midterms by becoming an apostate in the eyes of your foreign benefactors and ingenuous in the eyes of your domestic base.
I wish I could be less cynical about this. I wish I could say that the president wants to learn the truth because what happened appears to be a grave crime against human rights. Although not a full American citizen, Khashoggi was a provocative journalist who added to the national discourse in a way that demanded people’s readership and respect. Why can’t the president acknowledge that fact without feeling like he himself is being personally attacked?
I can’t say for sure. But as it has played out, this is just another tragic example of how indigent and banal politics in this country has gotten. Freedom of the press is less important than covering up for the crimes of a theocratic mafia. Freedom of speech is less important than signing off on missile contracts that result in the obliteration of Yemeni school buses and villages. A tragic commentary indeed.