With the Saudi monarchy apparently still not prepared to tell the world what happened to Jamal Khashoggi during an interrogation in Turkey, America must act decisively and immediately to oppose authoritarian violence against journalists and critics.
As our president assails news media as “enemies of the people,” Congress must step up to compel action in defense of human rights and a free press.
Khashoggi—a legal permanent U.S. resident since 2008, and an outspoken critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies—was last seen October 2 entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He sought paperwork so he could marry his Turkish fiancée. He never emerged.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post published his last column in which he wrote, “Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate.”
Turkey claims to have recordings proving that a Saudi squad tortured, murdered and dismembered Khashoggi—but President Donald Trump has since dithered and dissembled, suggesting perhaps “rogue killers” were responsible, touting King Salman’s “very strong” denial, and complaining that the Saudis aren’t getting a fair shake.
Trump shows disdain to any who dare question him, just like strongman despots he admires such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. It was his constant demonization of journalists—along with an uptick in physical attacks on American reporters—that led me this year to introduce the Journalist Protection Act, to make a federal crime of certain attacks on those reporting the news.
But his soft-pedalling of this particular outrage is even more appalling because it seems like just business to him.
Saudi Arabia buys a lot of U.S. military arms; though Trump’s claim of a new $110 billion deal last year was debunked, sales do number in the tens of billions. It's unlikely our “Art of the Deal” president would want to scratch Saudi arms deals, even if they murdered Khashoggi. “If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling this situation,” he said.
Asked whether the Saudis’ abysmal human rights record has been overlooked for too long, the president predictably engaged in “whataboutism” by citing Iran’s and Syria’s records. This kindergarten-level “well, THEY did it first” response shames our nation.
This reflects the president’s obsession with running government like a business—a foolish idea even if he was a good businessman. Businesses exist to make money; government exists to uphold the Constitution and serve Americans’ needs. And Americans don’t need allies, customers or friends who torture and murder journalists.
Sadly, this also reflects the president’s personal interests. His ties with the Saudi government and business executives date back decades through his real estate and hotel businesses. He said it himself in 2015: “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
Trump sold his 282-foot yacht to a Saudi businessman when he was hurting for cash in 1991; that same member of the royal family helped buy New York City's Plaza Hotel from Trump a few years later. Trump’s first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and top adviser, has cultivated so close a relationship with the Crown Prince—heir to the throne—that the prince boasted Kushner was “in his pocket,” according to press reports.
Unlike other presidents, Trump won’t distance himself from his private business interests, so he and his family keep getting richer as their companies take money from foreign powers. That’s why I introduced the Prevent Corrupting Foreign Influence Act in July: It would significantly improve upon our “Emoluments Clause” ban on America’s highest officials receiving financial benefits from abroad. Americans deserve to know that our president works only for us, not having his own wallet fattened by foreign interests.
Congress isn’t helpless to stand up for a free press and human rights even when the president won’t. Already, lawmakers from both parties have urged the president to invoke 2016’s Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which lets him impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world who commit human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.
The president also must immediately withdraw Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin from the Future Investment Initiative conference—which some call “Davos in the Desert”—later this month. America must not validate the Riyadh regime with our presence while this vile situation remains unresolved.
And the FBI should be ordered to leverage its overseas contacts to aid in this investigation.
Anything less amounts to an abdication of the moral responsibilities of any President of the United States.
Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) is Ranking Member of the CIA Subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and also serves on the House Committee on the Judiciary. Follow him on Twitter at @RepSwalwell.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.