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Disappearance of a Journalist: Jamal Khashoggi and the Stakes of Truth in Donald Trump’s America

The morbid mystery of the Washington Post columnist’s whereabouts underscores the global stakes for the administration’s contempt for press freedoms, among other civil liberties

Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi AP Images/Ringer illustration

There is rampant speculation that the Saudi government has assassinated a Washington Post columnist. Reportedly, Saudi agents detained 59-year-old journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen based in Washington, D.C., upon his visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday. There, the Saudi agents are said to have killed Khashoggi, hacked his body into pieces, and smuggled his remains from the consulate in boxes. The last acquaintance to lay eyes on Khashoggi was his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish citizen, who sat outside the consulate for 11 hours waiting on her fiancé to return. He never emerged.

Presumably, the agents targeted Khashoggi in official retribution for his critical commentary on Saudi Arabia. In Western media, Khashoggi routinely antagonized the Saudi royal family. He made a name for himself as a so-called dissident, though Khashoggi rejected the label for himself, prefering to think of himself as a constructive and patriotic critic of his homeland’s repressive government. Still—inevitably—Khashoggi found an enemy in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a charismatic strongman and sham “reformer” who has in recent months overseen a crackdown on rebellious activists and troublesome journalists. “I don’t think I’ll be able to go home,” Khashoggi told the BBC before the start of an interview taped three days before his disappearance.

The Saudi government denies having detained Khashoggi, much less killed him. Indeed, it has invited Turkish authorities to investigate the Saudi consulate in Istanbul for any signs of Khashoggi’s presence or remains. “He is not held and has not been harmed by the Saudi government. The Kingdom has sent an investigation team there to work in cooperation with the Turkish authorities,” an unnamed Saudi official told CBS News. “If he left, you have to prove it with footage,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded at a news conference in Budapest.

The Turks distrust the Saudis, and so Khashoggi’s disappearance has provoked a diplomatic standoff between the two Middle Eastern countries. Khashoggi’s prominence in Western media and his Washington Post columns will inevitably recruit Saudi Arabia’s most controversial ally, the United States, into the diplomatic fray. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence first addressed the news reports of Khashoggi’s death Monday. “If true, this is a tragic day,” Pence tweeted. “Violence against journalists across the globe is a threat to freedom of the press & human rights. The free world deserves answers.” Trump struck a far less urgent tone: “I am concerned about it. I don’t like hearing about it,” the president told reporters. “Hopefully that will sort itself out. Right now, nobody knows anything about it.” Tuesday evening, The Washington Post published a report claiming that U.S. intelligence intercepted communications about a covert plot to detain Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia. So it’s possible that the U.S. knew about “it” in advance. For now, the Saudi government has offered only denials.

Historically, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been friendly, but fraught; the two countries share crucial commercial and geopolitical interests despite religious differences and stark disparities in civil rights. Barack Obama routinely admonished Saudi leadership for its belligerence in Middle Eastern affairs, but the most recent Republican presidents, Trump and George W. Bush, have proved far more chummy with the repressive, ostentatious House of Saud; Trump marked Riyadh as the destination for his first presidential visit abroad. The Trump family’s fondness for bin Salman—a fondness that Western media has echoed for the past couple of years—will inevitably complicate the U.S. response to Khashoggi’s disappearance. Worse yet, there is speculation that Trump’s personal hostility toward the U.S. news media—including Khashoggi’s publisher, the Post—emboldened the Saudi government to assassinate Khashoggi without fear of substantial reprisals from the U.S. Under Trump, the U.S. seems especially disinclined to champion the cause of dissident journalists at home or abroad.

Trump’s signature attacks on the U.S. news media have bewildered, and occasionally demoralized, the journalists who cover the president. Before Khashoggi’s disappearance, the pessimism peaked four months ago when a furious gunman slaughtered four journalists and a sales assistant at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. The shooting followed two years of Trump’s characterizing U.S. journalists, including so many of his critics, as “the enemy of the people.” Though news reports revealed that the Capital Gazette shooter, Jarrod Ramos, held a seven-year-old personal grudge against the newspaper, Trump’s critics accused the president of creating a violent climate that inevitably emboldens men such as Ramos to attack critics for their criticism and reporters for their reporting. “Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their jobs,” Trump said at a White House event to celebrate tax cuts a day after the Annapolis massacre. His words rung hollow, and the president’s rare comfort was cold; he spared none of the great passion that he otherwise reserves for his own hostile encounters with journalists at his press conferences.

The Trump administration isn’t jailing or slaughtering journalists. It’s not the House of Saud. Trump routinely threatens to ruin his critics and rivals, but he typically issues these warrants—Lock her up!—as dramatic contrivance to enrage and inflame his conservative base. Khashoggi’s disappearance underscores the global stakes for the Trump administration’s contempt for press freedoms, among other civil liberties.

Tuesday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley resigned from the Trump administration, citing the president’s first years in office as a proud and resounding restatement of U.S. dominance in world affairs. “Now,” Haley said as she sat next to Trump in the Oval Office, “the United States is respected.” Haley’s pride is unwarranted, unrealistic, and absurd. Two weeks ago, the U.N. general assembly answered Trump’s keynote address, including threats against Iran and brags about himself, with unrestrained laughter. Now, the Saudis taunt Trump’s dysfunctional State Department, and the free press, with impunity.