Witcover: Trump flunks another foreign leadership test

Donald Trump's tepid response to the absurd Saudi Arabian explanation that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in fistfight in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul poses his toughest test yet to his claim of credible leadership on the world stage.

Having rolled over for Russia's Vladimir Putin earlier this year at their Helsinki summit meeting, Mr. Trump followed with his cave-in to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Now, he has added insult to injury by failing to challenge the Saudi fairy tale about the brutal death of Khashoggi, who at the time of his death was a Washington Post contributor.

First labeling the Saudi monarchy "credible" and declining to challenge the Saudis' unconvincing denial that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the murder, Mr. Trump has chosen to punt on the matter.

Acknowledging only that "obviously there's been deception and there's been lies," Mr. Trump has seemed to buy into other world leaders' conclusion that the Saudis are falling back on a ludicrous cover story to shield the royal family.

Of the crown prince, the president offered Sunday to the Washington Post only that "nobody has told me he's responsible, nobody has told me he's not responsible ... I haven't heard either way."

Thus has Mr. Trump continued to view the killing of Khashoggi, a Virginia resident at the time of his death, as an inconvenient bump in the beneficial financial relations with the oil-rich Middle East regime.

Particularly embarrassing for the real estate tycoon in Oval Office is the relationship between his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and MBS, as the crown prince is called in the West. Mr. Kushner increasingly comes off as a naive greenhorn diplomat in over his head in the snake pit of the Middle East.

Also in the mix is Turkey and its inflammatory president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose intelligence officials are said to have audio tapes confirming the killing and dismembering of Khashoggi at the Istanbul consulate. Mr. Trump's second secretary of state, former conservative Congressman Mike Pompeo, has reported he has not heard nor read a transcript of the tapes but has met with MBS seeking clarification, without success so far.

Mr. Trump for a time appeared to buy into a Saudi cover story wherein "rogue' hired guns from Saudi Arabia had been enlisted to carry out the killing, before retreating into his observation that it all sounded fishy to him and he would have to wait for eventual word for the dust to clear.

Other leaders in the international community, however, were not waiting to call for United Nations or other inquiry into the bizarre death of a prominent journalistic critic of the Saudi regime. They included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a prime Trump critic, as well as the prime ministers of several European Union nations.

Beyond Mr. Trump's disinclination to address the Khashoggi slaying out of concern it could imperil American arms sales and other deals with the Saudi regime, it comes at an uncomfortable time for his war on the U.S. press as "an enemy of the people."

His hollow reaction to the brutal killing of the Saudi journalist made a further mockery of Trump's relentless vendetta here against journalism and freedom of the press.

As he continues his crash campaign in key states at home to salvage Republican control of both houses of Congress in the Nov. 6 midterm elections, the president has intensified encouragement to the faithful to target reporters covering his rallies with allusions to physical violence against them.

At a campaign rally in Missoula, Mont., the other day, he commended Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte, who is seeking re-election, for having previously body-slamming a member of the press corps, and offered his own imitation of the feat from the platform. The partisan crowd wildly cheered and applauded him.

With Mr. Trump now focused on shoring up his own political base for the midterm elections, his foreign policy weakness in dealing with foreign strongmen and regimes may not be a factor. But it reveals the price America pays in her reputation abroad for having a president in office unequal to the task.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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