Why Trump doesn’t care about Jamal Khashoggi

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Late last week, after Saudi Arabia trotted out its farcical explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the response from the American president was something we had come to expect.

Donald Trump had already offered a number of reasons in recent weeks why the medieval murder of a Washington Post columnist living in Virginia was not something that was worthy of his concern. He’d first denied that it happened, after chatting on the phone with the Saudi leadership, then fretted about what the controversy might mean for billions of dollars in (largely phantom) arms sales between the US and Saudi Arabia. Next, he equated Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, accused of assault during his nomination (innocent until proven guilty, Trump said). Finally, on Friday night, Trump settled on the stance that the Saudis had things under control and we should all move on.

It followed a familiar script for how Trump deals with controversy: Deny facts, frame them in financial terms, make it about himself, then finally, and reluctantly, concede the truth without admitting defeat. It is management by cowardice, and an ad hoc way for the president to run the country. But it is Trump’s approach, fine-tuned over two years—and a lifetime—of practice.

The Khashoggi case has brought Trump unusual global blowback, though, for a distinction that the president plainly does not see. We care about the Khashoggi case, at least in part, because Khashoggi was a journalist.

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Yes, his killing was horrific and barbaric and yes, it came at the hands of an American ally, which then lied about it. But the world has also been moved to respond because Khashoggi, as a journalist, represented something bigger than the man himself, something that leaders around the civilized world have come to value. He was a stand-in for a value we wanted to protect.

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Not so with Trump. It has been quite clear in his reaction to Khashoggi’s death that Trump assigned this scandal no merit because the dead man was a journalist—and, in fact, it may even have taken the issue a notch down in Trump’s priority list. (Recall the meeting in the White House when he seemed utterly perplexed by the preoccupation with the story. “Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” Trump said.)

Trump doesn’t care about a dead journalist because he doesn’t care about journalism. The last two years of this presidency have shown that Trump sees a free press through a real estate developer’s smudgy lens: The truth, like an opening bid, is fungible and negotiable; the value of any single bit of information is entirely transactional, tied only to whether it helps or hurts him personally; rules and norms are for losers.

It is a worldview that puts Trump at odds with all of his Oval Office predecessors. Many US presidents have not liked reporters—some, like Richard Nixon, viscerally hated them—but even Nixon understood and embraced their bigger role and purpose.

That Trump places no value in the importance of a free press has been evident for most of these last two long years. He has done everything he can to denigrate both individual reporters and the institutions they represent. He has lied so often that fact checkers now are forced to use spreadsheets to track his claims. He has worked, in his rallies and on his preferred TV network, to seed the idea that there is a truth in the world that only he can speak (an anti-truth if ever there was one).

This is a sobering realization. We journalists, as individuals, are not special people. We have no unique right to support or sympathy. But the point is that we, collectively, represent something that our society has decided is worthy of protection. There is a core value here that is more important than whether you love or hate Jim Acosta.

 

We journalists, as individuals, are not special people. We have no unique right to support or sympathy. But the point is that we, collectively, represent something that our society has decided is worthy of protection.

 

That so many Americans seem to embrace Trump in spite of this—or, worse, because of it—represents a fundamental challenge. It’s not enough for us to simply do our jobs with unusual care and precision; we also must now become brand ambassadors for a free press—something I, for one, never thought would be necessary in a country where freedom of the press was enshrined in our founding national document. Support for what we do is more fragile than we thought. Many Americans, led by an unusually insecure president in the White House, seem convinced that all would be just as well without a free press to challenge their leaders or take up their causes. Our job, through important reporting and fair and insightful analysis, is to show them why they are wrong.

Until the death of Jamal Khashoggi, it was possible to debate whether Trump was an opportunist or a showman or a poser, when it came to his public attacks against the media. They often had the feel of a twisted inside joke: He said one thing for the cameras, but was desperate for the media’s attention and acknowledgement when they were turned off. Despite his constant whining about the media, the man seemed never to leave our TV screens.

But now we know the truth. Trump couldn’t care less about journalism, which means a dead journalist—or the five who died in the Capital Gazette newsroom earlier this year—has no more or less value to him than anyone else. There is no symbolism here, no greater threat. For those of us in this business, the situation is more dire than we thought.

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Kyle Pope is the Editor in Chief and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.