I worked under two presidents, a Republican and a Democrat, to condemn and punish foreign officials who abused democratic freedoms.
I worked on public statements and designed sanctions as the United States government often led efforts to hold foreign governments accountable for harming their own people.
Now, it’s happening here.
Hours after tear gas was used against peaceful protesters so that President Trump could wave a Bible in front of St. John’s church, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted about how Hong Kongers deserve “a voice and a chance” after brutal crackdowns by mainland China on the island’s democratic freedoms. Later in the day, he met with survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Trump, I’ll pause to note, praised the massacre at the time, saying in 1990 that "the Chinese government almost blew it. They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down straight.")
The secretary of state is doing his job by advancing US foreign policy interests like protecting democracies overseas and supporting peaceful protesters all over the world, the rule of law, and freedom of speech and the press. His portfolio doesn’t include domestic developments and nor should it.
But—there’s a problem. Trump’s actions are the opposite of what we’re demanding from other countries. He himself has supported protests overseas—in Venezuela, in Iran, and in other countries where he doesn’t have a trade deal to do.
That hypocrisy makes him the biggest liability to our foreign policy agenda, because he’s harming Americans while we demand other governments treat their citizens decently. The State Department and other agencies hard at work promoting democratic freedoms can’t expect to be taken seriously while the president is denying people here the right to peacefully protest. Having one system and standard for Trump and another for everybody else just doesn’t work.
While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, for example, have condemned the Chinese Communist Party’s actions against Hong Kong’s autonomy, when it comes to tear-gassing peaceful protesters or militarizing the streets of our capital in the name of security, Republicans say nothing. This double standard hurts Americans and it hurts the global order—we now risk being laughed out of the room whenever our team tries to promote democratic freedoms and civil liberties abroad.
The scenes unfolding on our streets are all too familiar for those of us that have witnessed crackdowns overseas. As Amnesty International demanded, authorities here need to stop attacking peaceful protesters, arresting journalists, and stop allowing police violence. These are demands that the group has historically made of countries like Sudan and Egypt and Iran. Now they are demanding that the U.S. government led by President Trump give Americans democratic freedoms like a free and safe press.
The US press freedom rating had already dropped under this administration, and this week’s events will likely drop it even further. Trump has tweeted about “fake news” and called the media the “enemy of the state” before, but now—while members of the media are being arrested, and targeted—he’s still at it. This has—or had—no place in America.
The State Department rightfully condemned China’s efforts to censor Hong Kong, saying, “Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions.” In its annual human rights reports, State calls out countries that restrict fundamental freedoms and compromise the rule of law in the name of security.
Those of us in the national security space have seen militarization of “democracies” overseas in the name of security. Now, here in America, the president demands that governors “dominate” their streets, or he will call in the military to do it for them. The secretary of defense says that we need to “dominate the battle space” when the battle space is the United States. Again, I’ve heard this kind of language before. Not in America, but from military juntas and dictatorships.
As government officials warn that peaceful protests about police abuses have already been exploited and are ripe for abuse by various domestic and foreign actors, including white supremacists, Trump and Attorney General William Barr have focused almost exclusively on the far left, disingenuously claiming that he is going to designate Antifa as a terrorist organization—something he doesn’t have the statutory authority to do under existing U.S. law. The president is myopically only focused on calling out actors when he deems it politically expedient while ignoring the actual, diverse threat landscape. Again, I’ve seen this before.
As the country yearns for leadership and real change, President Trump is engaging in behavior that would be the target of strongly worded statements, and, if continued, punitive action if it were happening anywhere but here.
Operationally, that means Trump is undercutting his own team’s ability to try to promote democratic freedoms abroad. With each tweet, each incendiary comment, each degradation of our freedoms, the president is acting more and more like the officials his own team rightfully condemns.
That risks degrading the international order that the U.S. has led, for decades. We know that’s been high on Vladimir Putin’s agenda; removing it from ours will require that each of us speak loudly and consistently against what we are witnessing.