If a foreign journalist living in America and writing about the Iranian government's noxious policies were murdered by agents of Tehran, the president of the United States would take it as evidence of the need for tough action. Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, however, was a Saudi writing about the Saudi government, which is a U.S. ally.
After Khashoggi disappeared while visiting Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul, Donald Trump was a portrait in timidity. "We want to find out what happened," he bleated more than a week later. "He went in, and it doesn't look like he came out." What happened is pretty clear. Since Khashoggi entered the building October 2, he has not been seen or heard from.
The evidence is that his disappearance was no random event. "The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts of Saudi officials discussing the plan," reported The Washington Post. The Turks have told U.S. officials they have audio and video recordings of Khashoggi being tortured and killed inside the consulate.
Trump responded with the limp evasions he reserves for tyrants who have seduced him. "We don't like it, and we don't like it even a little bit," he ventured. If it turns out that the Riyadh regime murdered Khashoggi, he said, "it would be a very sad thing." But he also proclaimed that our relationship with the Saudi government is "excellent."
No doubt. Trump is not about to let a trifle like the premeditated murder of a journalist who had applied for permanent residence in the United States get in the way of his own priorities. The president intimated that those in favor of cutting off weapons sales to Saudi Arabia—a group that includes members of Congress from both parties—fail to grasp the value of those shipments.
"We have a country that's doing probably better economically than it's ever done before," he asserted with his usual inattention to factual accuracy. "Part of that is what we're doing with our defense systems and everybody's wanting them, and frankly, I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country."
Leave aside for the moment Trump's heartfelt conviction that we should indulge assassins as long as they are loyal customers. He also managed to showcase his bottomless store of ignorance and deceit.
The supposed arms deal he reached with the Saudis last year amounted to $110 billion. But as Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel points out, the announced agreement "was fake news then and it's still fake news today. The Saudis have not concluded a single major arms deal with Washington on Trump's watch." The transaction was aspirational, not actual.
Even if the vapor of Trump's claims were to solidify, his deal would stretch over 10 years, making it worth an average of $11 billion annually. That is a huge amount for a military contractor's bottom line but a tiny amount for a $20 trillion economy such as ours.
It's less, in fact, than the amount Trump plans to pay out to American farmers who have suffered from his trade war with China. It's far less than the cost of his threatened tariffs to our economy —a "tough pill" he has been eager to force down our throats.
We might also want to count a notable cost that is easy to ignore because it falls on innocent people far away. A U.N. report in August concluded that the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians, citing airstrikes that "have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities." Such attacks, the panel found, "may amount to war crimes."
Much of the weaponry used by the Saudis comes from the United States. Trump could blame Barack Obama for many of those shipments. Instead, Trump lifted one of the few curbs imposed on the Saudis, letting them buy "smart bomb" components that Obama had blocked.
What have we learned about Trump from his handling of the apparent hit job on Khashoggi? That he is amoral, mendacious, weak, and deaf to matters of humanity. Those are qualities we have seen in him many times before. But sometimes, he exhibits them in a way that retains the power to shock.