By Fred Ryan is publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post. He served as assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
A clear and dangerous message has been sent to tyrants around the world: Flash enough money in front of the president of the United States, and you can literally get away with murder.
In a bizarre, inaccurate and rambling statement — one offering a good reminder why Twitter has character limits — President Trump whitewashed the Saudi government’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In the process, the president maligned a good and innocent man, tarring Khashoggi as an “enemy of the state” — a label the Saudis themselves have not used publicly — while proclaiming to the world that Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old crown prince was too important to risk over the murder of a journalist. Whatever objections people may have to our turning a blind eye to Khashoggi’s assassination, the president argued, they do not outweigh the (grossly inflated) revenue we can expect from U.S.-Saudi arms deals.
For many at The Post, Khashoggi’s murder is personal. He was a well-respected colleague, and his loss is deeply felt. But we are also mindful of our mission of public service. When officials here in Washington abandon the principles that the people elected them to uphold, it is our duty to call attention to it. For our part, we will continue to do everything possible to expose the truth — asking tough questions and relentlessly chasing down facts to bring crucial evidence to light.
Throughout this crisis, the president has maintained that he’s looking after our “national interests.” But Trump’s response doesn’t advance the United States’ interests — it betrays them. It places the dollar values of commercial deals above the long-cherished American values of respecting liberty and human rights. And it places personal relationships above the United States’ strategic relationships. For more than 60 years, the U.S.-Saudi partnership has been an important one based on trust and respect; Trump has determined that the United States no longer requires honesty and shared values from its global partners.
Security, as Trump noted in his statement, is an important U.S. interest. But we do not make the world safer by setting a double standard for diplomacy under which the United States abandons our values for anyone who offers to buy enough of our weapons.
We do not make the world safer by abandoning our commitment to basic freedoms and human rights. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has committed atrocities that, if perpetrated by other countries, would draw a strong rebuke from the United States. Its intervention in Yemen has created a humanitarian disaster. Female activists have been imprisoned and brutalized simply for demanding the right to drive. Inconvenient Saudi business leaders were tortured inside a Ritz-Carlton hotel. Lebanon’s prime minister was kidnapped. The crown prince, in the role for barely 17 months, has led a reign of terror and has already established a dark legacy of opposing press freedom.
Failing to demand accountability for these crimes does not make the United States more secure. Stable, peaceful societies, governed by leaders who respect the rights of their people, need journalists who can expose wrongdoing and hold the powerful to account. It is no mere coincidence that many of the worst abusers of press freedom are also some of the world’s most dangerous actors.
The CIA has thoroughly investigated Khashoggi’s murder and concluded with high confidence that it was directed by the crown prince. If there is reason to ignore the CIA’s findings, the president should immediately make that evidence public.
In the absence of such evidence, and given this failure of leadership from Trump, it now falls to Congress to truly put America first by standing up for America’s sacred values and lasting interests. As we’ve seen from the strong support of both Republicans and Democrats, this is not a partisan or political interest; it is an American interest. Congress should demand more than scapegoating and slaps on the wrist. Instead, it should use its investigative and subpoena powers to press for an independent, thorough inquiry — no matter where it leads. It should use its power of the purse and authority to regulate foreign commerce to impose effective penalties on Khashoggi’s murderers and suspend the sale of U.S.-made weapons to the Saudis.
Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — and many before and after — took courageous stands for human rights and press freedom when much more than weapons sales were at risk. Through these acts of presidential leadership, the world has come to know that America’s power is derived from America’s principles.
On Thanksgiving Day, Americans can be grateful that we live under a Constitution that ensures the rule of law rather than the rule of one capricious man, and that it enables one branch of government to correct the failure of another. We are eternally thankful for the brave men and women whose military service has long preserved those rights, and for the courage of first responders who are there to protect us when disasters strike at home.
We can also be thankful that we have a vibrant press, protected by the First Amendment, that relentlessly seeks to hold the powerful to account. We can trust that they will fulfill this mission in the case of Jamal Khashoggi. This pursuit of truth and justice is what an innocent man, brutally slain, deserves — and what America’s real values demand.