On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to the White House, where he briefed President Donald J. Trump on his meetings with Saudi and Turkish officials about the likely murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi, a critic of both Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was reportedly tortured, dismembered, and killed by a 15-man team at the direction of Saudi officials.
After the secretary of state departed the White House, where he said he urged the president to give the Saudis a little more time to conduct their own investigation of the “incident surrounding Mr. Khashoggi,” as Pompeo called it, Trump boarded his plane for a campaign rally in Montana, where he lauded U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte for having assaulted a reporter during the 2016 election campaign.
Gianforte’s attack against Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs took place after a campaign appearance, when Jacobs dared to press the candidate for an answer to a question about health-care policy.
“Greg is smart,” Mr Trump said of Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte, adding “By the way, never wrestle him.”
“Any guy that can do a body slam ... he’s my guy,” he said to cheers and laughter at a rally in Montana.
He said he had feared that the 2017 assault could have hindered Mr Gianforte's chances of winning the special congressional election that followed. Mr Trump told supporters: “I said wait a minute, I know Montana pretty well, I think it might help him—and it did.”
After praising Mr Gianforte, Mr Trump also mimicked a person being thrown forcefully to the ground.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports, a smear campaign against Khashoggi commenced in Republican circles, making its way into right-wing media.
Assertions of Khashoggi’s youthful flirtation with militant Islam, and his later reporter-source relationship with Osama bin Laden are being framed in conspiratorial terms, apparently to give Trump cover the moment someone releases definitive evidence of just what occurred inside the consulate after Khashoggi entered on October 2, never to be seen since. Trump’s first presidential visit abroad was to Saudi Arabia, a country whose wealthiest citizens Trump counts among his investors. And it’s been noted that Jared Kushner—Trump’s son-in-law, White House aide, and supposed negotiator of Middle East peace—enjoys a buddy sort of relationship with the crown prince.
The Trump base has long been primed, by the president himself, to hate journalists—to see them as “evil” and the news media as “the enemy of the people.” Already, the fact that Khashoggi was one of that ilk is providing something of a subtext for right-wingers seeking dismiss reports of his alleged murder as something that should roil relations between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “You don’t blow up an international alliance over one person,” Reverend Pat Robertson, a longtime organizer for the GOP, said on the Christian Broadcasting Network on Monday, according to Right Wing Watch.
As the Post reports, right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh was more explicit (emphasis mine):
“Donald Trump is keeping his eye on the ball, keeping his eye on the geopolitical ball, the national security ball. He’s not going to get sidetracked by what happened to a journalist, maybe, in the consulate there. He’s not giving cover to anybody,” syndicated talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh said Tuesday.
See what they’re doing here? Journalists are not people. They’re less than human, likely deserving of whatever sort of maltreatment is visited upon them. Body-slam one to the ground, dismember another while he’s still alive … the journalist probably deserved it.
And, as Trump noted in Montana last night, Gianforte’s physical assault of Jacobs “probably helped” Gianforte win the election.
Many have suggested that the news media’s keen interest in the Khashoggi story, even as it has given shorter shrift to the kingdom’s brutal war against civilians in Yemen, is likely because Khashoggi was a journalist. And that is partly true.
But the other part is the fact that journalists are targeted all over the world for murder and mayhem, as authoritarianism becomes the governing ethos of a growing number of countries, and the project of promoting democracy appears to be on the wane. When journalists are so targeted, there can be no freedom of the press.
Jamal Khashoggi may have been a Saudi national, but he was a legal U.S. resident writing for a U.S. newspaper. And he’s likely dead for what he wrote. His murder may not have happened on U.S. soil, but it almost certainly happened at the hand of a U.S. ally.
Given the president’s continued disparagement of journalists, how do we know our own demise as American journos won’t be outsourced to a U.S.-friendly regime that has no pesky Bill of Rights to contend with? After all, many of our number in other countries are already fair game, and the president, at best, seems to be in accordance with the ethos that led those countries to sanction those murders.
While Trump’s celebration of Gianforte for his attack on The Guardian’s Jacobs has prompted criticism across the media world, John Mulholland, editor of The Guardian’s U.S. operation, said it best:
The president of the United States tonight applauded the assault on an American journalist who works for the Guardian. To celebrate an attack on a journalist who was simply doing his job is an attack on the first amendment by someone who has taken an oath to defend it.
Katherine Viner, the paper’s editor-in-chief, wants a response from the Trump administration. She said in a statement: “The world’s press would welcome a clear statement from the U.S. government that it remains committed to the rights of journalists everywhere to do their work without fear of violence or repression.”
I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that, Ms. Viner. The coming clampdown on dissent has been clearly signaled. Only the American people can change that, and it will probably take us a while to set things right.