Witcover: Trump puts arm contracts before rule of international law

President Trump says Saudi King's denied any involvement in the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Does Donald Trump not see the irony in his calling on Saudi Arabia to deliver justice in the case of a missing or dead Saudi journalist, while he continues to call the press "enemies of the people?"

Our president's crocodile tears for Jamal Khashoggi have been accompanied as usual by strong words, promising "severe punishment" of the Saudis if the report of Turkish authorities that the Washington Post columnist was tortured and killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is proved true.


At the same time, however, Donald Trump the real-estate tycoon balked at any idea that a $110 billion arms sale to the Saudis would be cancelled. It would be, he said, "very foolish of our country" to do so. "I actually think we'd be punishing ourselves if we did that," adding there were "other things we could do that are very, very powerful, very strong, and we'd do that."

To no one's surprise, Mr. Trump did not say what they were, only giving assurances he would press the Turks to reveal alleged audios and videos documenting the mayhem.


Instead, he was quick to translate the challenge to terms familiar to himself as a global business dealer. He told CSBS News on "60 Minutes" Sunday of the arms deal: "Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it and we got all of it, every bit of it."

When he was asked whether he might cancel the deal, Mr. Trump made clear where he stood on the fate of the prominent Saudi journalist. "I'll tell you what I don't want to do. Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, I don't want to hurt jobs. I don't want to lose an order like that."

Mr. Trump reported that his son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner had the word in a phone conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman that there was no Saudi government involvement in the matter. So much for the conduct of high-level discourse in the Trump administration.

All of this raises the question of Mr. Trump's commitment to the American ideal of freedom of the press, which he has consistently denounced in his own country. His vicious and blanket campaign to poison all news reporting other than what is turned out by his unofficial propaganda arm on select Fox News programming strives to discredit all other journalism.

His naked characterization of the horrific Khashoggi saga casts it in terms of the financial stakes for corporate American interests, as opposed to the nation's traditional defense of press independence and the people's right to know what is being said and done in their name.

Here at home, Mr. Trump's success in stirring his political base to join him in his war on the press has led many of his campaign-style rallies to feature crowd denigrations and physical threats against reporters covering them.

His own repeated allegations that news media professionals deal in "fake news" is particularly onerous given that it has been Mr. Trump himself who has been found repeatedly to misrepresent the truth. Fact-checkers in and out of the journalism profession have presented irrefutable evidence of it.

The president nevertheless was sufficiently emboldened Sunday to face sharp questioning on "60 Minutes" on some of his whoppers. He bobbed and weaved with evasive responses, finally playing his ace card against interviewer Lesley Stahl by reminding her: "I'm the president and you're not."

The comment itself was no iron-clad guarantee of "truthiness," inasmuch as long after George Washington owned up to chopping down that cherry tree, our presidents have notably taken liberties with the facts.

In recent memory, from Richard Nixon's "I'm not a crook," to Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Oval Office occupants have been caught in barefaced lies. Some were more serious than others, as when George W. Bush sold his 2003 invasion of Iraq based on alleged weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist.

But Donald Trump will keep doubling down on his own "fake news" to discredit those pesky fact-checkers, even as he calls for justice for Khashoggi, who -- though a reporter -- was never an enemy of his own people.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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