While President Donald Trump is largely shrugging off the apparent murder of United States resident and Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he has taken full credit for American pastor Andrew Brunson’s release from a Turkish prison.
The other nations of the world always watch America’s president and take cues on what they can and can’t get away with. They constantly assess his penchant for drawing red lines, and they evaluate the likelihood that he will retaliate if crossed.
Having watched these two high-profile incidents, the American people should ask themselves, “Is this a weak president who is unwilling to stand up to human rights violators, or is this a strong president who protects those who have had their rights violated?”
There are moments where he looks like the latter. Take for example, Brunson’s release. Would he still be locked away in Turkey if someone else were president? Probably so. After all, Trump forcefully condemned Turkey over the Christian pastor’s detention, and he also ordered economic sanctions.
To save face, Turkey is denying that the U.S. pressured it into releasing Brunson. According to Time, however, “The value of the Turkish lira has fallen almost 40 percent against the dollar in 2018, sending inflation sky high and sparking fears of an economic crisis.”
An American wrongly held by Turkey is back unharmed on American soil today, and his return is largely thanks to Donald Trump. Coming on the heels of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation and the lowest unemployment number in decades, the timely release reminds me of how countries finally started respecting America when Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as president.
But let’s not get carried away. Every time the “good” Trump emerges, you know it’s only a matter of time before “bad” Trump reappears.
Regarding the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump seems (for now, at least) to be taking the word of Saudi King Salman, after a telephone conversation with him. "It wasn't like there was a question in his mind. The denial was very strong," Trump said Monday morning, adding that the king "firmly denied any knowledge" of Khashoggi’s disappearance. (Well, if he “firmly” denied it, then it must be true!)
Trump’s credulity flies in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence that the Saudis killed Khashoggi. What is more, it is reminiscent of Trump’s tendency to believe Vladimir Putin’s denials about interfering with the 2016 elections. "My people came to me… they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be,” Trump said in July.
What does Trump think actually happened to the Saudi journalist? In the case of Russia’s hacking, he suggested the culprit “could be somebody sitting on their bed [who] weighs 400 pounds). In the case of Khashoggi, Trump is now floating the idea that “rogue killers” got to him. There’s always a theory that is much less plausible than the obvious one. (On a related note, Trump now concedes that Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings, but argues that “it’s not in our country.”)
When it comes to Brunson and Khashoggi, it would be easy to suggest that Trump has sent mixed messages. But I think that the discrepancy fits into Trump’s strategy of focusing on “America First” (instead of universal human rights) and rewarding his socially conservative base (instead of broadening it).
Do you think Trump’s political base cares more about Brunson or Khashoggi? Should we be surprised that Trump is more interested in returning an American evangelical pastor than in retroactively exacting revenge for the murder of a journalist who was a citizen of Saudi Arabia?
We are left with two very different stories that have two very different endings. One man, a journalist who was a U.S. resident and a Washington Post contributor appears to have been murdered by a U.S. ally in a rather gruesome fashion. The president is content to believe his likely murderers. Another man, an American pastor, was released by Turkey (ostensibly, an American ally) after Trump forcefully pushed for his release and followed up by taking strong action.
Trump isn’t a weak president. Nor could he be considered a strong president who protects democratic values abroad. Instead, Trump lacks an overarching human rights framework. When it comes to punishing abuses, he prefers a situational approach. As such, the warning to the world is clear. Don’t mess with anyone… who is important/useful to Donald Trump.
That leaves us with is a nation that is respected based on its ability to project power when it is deemed to be in our (or Trump’s) self-interest—but also one devoid of any moral authority to stand as some sort of beacon of hope.
This should come as no surprise. It’s a pretty accurate reflection of the president’s own view of the world. It’s about power and self-interest. For better or worse, this is Donald Trump’s America.