Suspected murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi can't be swept under rug

There was much to be disappointed by in President Donald Trump’s “60 Minutes” interview over the weekend, from his curious belief that climate change might reverse itself to his contention that his mocking of alleged sexual assault victim Christine Blasey Ford is immaterial now that “we won” and Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court. But there’s at least one thing he said that ought to disturb Americans right in their core beliefs. Asked about the apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump vowed “severe punishment” if it turns out that Saudi Arabia ordered his death, but he expressed great reluctance to use the most powerful leverage available to him — the pending $110 billion arms sale to that country — on the grounds it would hurt U.S. manufacturers.

In other words, the U.S. is against the Saudi royal family sanctioning death squad hits on journalists critical of the Saudi government, but, even if an independent investigation confirms Mr. Khashoggi was killed in such a premeditated and savage manner in the Saudi consulate in Instanbul (down to being chopped into smaller pieces for stealthy removal) as has been alleged, the nation that is looked to as the defender of truth, honor and freedom is not going to do anything that might hurt the bottom line of the defense industry. “I tell you what I don't wanna do,” the president told Lesley Stahl. “Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these [companies] — I don't want to hurt jobs. I don't want to lose an order like that. There are other ways of punishing, to use a word that's a pretty harsh word, but it's true.”

So there it is. The price of justice has been set. Do at least $110 billion worth of business with a favored industry within the United States and human rights are meaningless. Truth is meaningless. Once again, the Saudi royal family is demonstrating to the world that everyone has a price. The values that Americans claim to hold dear are actually negotiable when contracts and jobs are on the line. No wonder China and Russia and other regimes with questionable human rights records want to do business with the U.S. We are a paper tiger made from greenbacks. Lock us into enormously valuable contracts, and we’ll purr like kittens.

Might it be too early to judge the Trump administration morally bankrupt when the matter hasn’t been fully investigated? Perhaps. But President Trump doesn’t exactly have a sterling record for investigations, given the FBI’s recent whitewash of Professor Ford’s alleged teen encounter with Judge Kavanaugh, neither of whom federal gumshoes could be bothered to interview. What similar treatment is waiting for the case of the missing Washington Post columnist? Rounding up the usual suspects? Blaming MS-13? You don’t have to be a Democrat to be appalled by this administration’s tolerance of Saudi misconduct. Congressional Republicans are grumbling about the response, too — including Sen. Marco Rubio who was on TV Sunday saying neither Saudi money nor its occasional help reining in Iran should cause the U.S. to lose sight of its role as a defender of morality and human rights.

Indeed, congressional action may ultimately be the only way to be certain a serious punishment is meted out against the Saudis — much as it took Congress to force the administration to keep pressure on Russia and Vladimir Putin. Mr. Trump’s loyalties often seem to run toward making money and not toward defending this nation’s ideals. He’s only too willing to risk economic success in trade wars. He’ll take that gamble in the name of greater economic success. But standing up for free speech? That’s doesn’t seem to be in the Trump DNA. At least not like commiserating with autocrats about the hardships of dealing with reporters (“enemies of the people,” as the president likes to say).

The apparent death of Jamal Khashoggi matters. Not just because he was a harsh critic of the Saudi government but because there are many more Jamal Khashoggis out there writing and reporting on the terrible things other countries and other regimes are perpetrating against their citizens. If the U.S. and its allies are willing to look the other way in this case, even slightly, what is to keep all those other despots from doing the same? Earlier this month, we got the answer when the body of 30-year-old Viktoria Marinova was fished out of the Danube. The Bulgarian TV journalist had been beaten, raped and strangled after reporting on corruption in her country. She was the third European journalist to be murdered this year. Who will stand up for them and for the people they are helping inform if not the U.S.?

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