If it's an "America First" presidency, where does that rank human rights?
President Donald Trump's refusal to put public pressure on Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is raising a question that has dogged his foreign policy. In dealing with Russia, across Asia and, this week, in the Mideast, Trump has often appeared comfortable downplaying concerns about rights abuses and dismissing the importance of U.S. moral leadership. The onetime real estate mogul is as likely to let U.S. financial or security interests guide his choices and his words.
In an Associated Press interview Tuesday, Trump repeated the Saudi royals' denials of any involvement in Khashoggi's apparent killing and suggested he trusted them.
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"I spoke to the crown prince, so you have that. He said he and his father knew nothing about it. And that was very important," Trump said. He compared blame directed at the Saudis over Khashoggi, who Turkish officials have said was killed in the Saudis' Istanbul consulate, to the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. Both, he suggested, had been considered "guilty until proven innocent."
Not many U.S. leaders would cast Saudi Arabia as innocent. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a bloody civil war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and exacerbated a famine that has killed many more. Domestically, the absolute monarchy strictly regulates speech and dress, and its security services have been accused of torture.
Trump has shown no interest in calling out the kingdom over Khashoggi — or calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin on assassinations or North Korea's Kim Jong Un on political prisoners. Where past presidents in both parties used their office to promote U.S. values and ideals — even when their action didn't align — Trump has rarely seized the chance. Instead, he says what others would not, openly embracing the compromises he justifies as best for the American bottom line.
"We're not going to walk away from Saudi Arabia. I don't want to do that," he told Fox Business News on Wednesday.
Trump made clear that he was prioritizing the nation's economy, not morality.
"I don't like stopping massive amounts of money that is being poured into our country," Trump said last week. "I know they are talking about different kinds of sanctions, but (the Saudis) are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country. I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States."
White House aides have suggested that while Trump is reluctant to criticize certain world leaders publicly — most notably when he did not upbraid Putin at their Helsinki summit — he has been willing to deliver tough messages behind closed doors. They have pointed to his discipline with Kim and Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, two authoritarian leaders who eventually released Americans held in their custody.
Still, Trump's transactional approach isn't sitting well with some of his Republican allies in Congress. His party for years championed the idea that the U.S. had a duty to promote U.S. values and human rights and even to intervene when they are challenged. Some Republicans have urged Trump not to abandon that view.
"I'm open to having Congress sit down with the president if this all turns out to be true, and it looks like it is, ... and saying, 'How can we express our condemnation without blowing up the Middle East?" Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said. "Our foreign policy has to be anchored in values."
Trump dismisses the notion that he buddies up to dictators, but he does not express a sense that U.S. leadership extends beyond the U.S. border.
In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday, he brushed aside his own assessment that Putin was "probably" involved in assassinations and poisonings.
"But I rely on them," he said. "It's not in our country."
Relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are complex. The two nations are entwined on energy, military, economic and intelligence issues. The Trump administration has aggressively courted the Saudis for support of its Middle East agenda to counter Iranian influence, fight extremism and try to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
One key for the U.S. administration has been the bond between two young princes. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are frequently in contact, and their relationship played a role in Riyadh being the unlikely first stop on the new American president's maiden international trip in 2017. Trump, despite endorsing a travel ban on many Muslim-majority countries, became the first U.S. president to make his official first trip to an Islamic nation.
The over-the-top greeting Trump received in Riyadh — complete with sword dances, gleaming palaces and images of him on the sides of buildings and highway signs — set the template for how he would be received on future foreign trips, with hosts leaning on flattery and pageantry.
"If you look at Saudi Arabia, they're an ally, and they're a tremendous purchaser of, not only military equipment, but other things," Trump said Wednesday. "When I went there, they committed to purchase $450 billion worth of things and $110 billion worth of military. Those are the biggest orders in the history of this country, probably the history of the world. ... And you remember that day in Saudi Arabia where that commitment was made."