Two of U.S. President Donald Trump’s top Cabinet members, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have expressed grave concern over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who went missing a week ago after entering the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul.
The president, however, has struck a different tone.
“I don’t like hearing about it, and hopefully that will sort itself out,” Trump said Monday, adding that he was “concerned” about the fate of Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who has recently been critical of the kingdom’s leadership.
According to reports in multiple outlets, Turkish intelligence believes Khashoggi was killed by the Saudi government. Yet, despite his access to sensitive intelligence information, Trump told reporters Tuesday he had no special insight into the situation.
“I know nothing. I know what everybody else knows,” he said. Trump said he has not yet been in contact with the Saudis, but “I will … at some point.”
The U.S. leader’s almost blasé tenor has concerned press advocates, who worry that Saudi Arabia and other countries that have cracked down on free expression will conclude that the U.S. is uninterested in the disappearance of a writer for one of its most famous newspapers — a form of apathy that could put other journalists working overseas at risk.
Summer Lopez, the senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, said previous U.S. presidents invariably spoke out forcefully when journalists or dissidents were attacked, but Trump is not following their example.
“That’s a dangerous situation to be in,” she said.
Khashoggi’s disappearance comes as press-freedom advocates around the world have expressed concern that Trump’s rhetoric about “fake news” encourages foreign leaders to clamp down on media. And journalists in many parts of the world are operating in increasingly risky environments.
Last week, Bulgarian journalist Victoria Marinova was murdered, the third such killing of a European Union journalist in the past year. According to Reporters Without Borders, 57 journalists have been killed so far in 2018, two more than in all of 2017. And while Trump administration figures like Pence, Pompeo and departing U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley have criticized Myanmar for imprisoning two Reuters journalists as they were reporting on the killing of villagers by security forces, Trump himself has not addressed the issue as forcefully.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called it “confusing” that Trump has shown less interest in protecting journalists abroad than have others in his administration.
“I hope it’s not confusing at all to the Saudi government,” Simon said. “I hope the Saudi government is in no way confused about what the implications of this are.”
Kristine Coratti Kelly, the Washington Post’s vice president for communication and events, said Tuesday that the paper has been in touch with the U.S., Saudi and Turkish governments about Khashoggi.
“As long as there is a chance Jamal is alive, we are pressing anyone who could help provide answers, push for accountability and, most important of all, if he’s alive, help save his life,” Kelly said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Though Trump’s statements certainly send signals across the globe, it is not clear what the government is doing behind the scenes. In a State Department briefing on Tuesday, spokesperson Heather Nauert said that while the U.S. government doesn’t know what happened to the columnist, “we have been engaged in this matter.”
Pompeo on Monday called for a “transparent” and “thorough” investigation. Pence declared in a tweet that “violence against journalists across the globe is a threat to freedom of the press & human rights. The free world deserves answers.”
Several members of Congress, including Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Bob Corker and Democratic Sens. Chris Coons and Chris Murphy, weighed in even earlier to express concern over Khashoggi’s fate.
But Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said Saudi leaders — including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Trump has said he has a strong relationship — will be keyed in on the president’s comments, regardless of what anyone else in the administration says or does.
They “will take note only if and when President Trump himself decides to make a stand over the case,” he said. “If the worst that happens is a rap on the knuckles from the State Department, that’s probably something the Saudis can live with.”
Neil Quilliam, a senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the Chatham House think tank, said the Saudis were sure to notice when Trump said he knew “nothing” about Khashoggi’s case.
“For them, that’s a great signal,” he said. “He’s not particularly bothered by this. He’s not going to rake [them] over the coals for this; it’s not a major issue that deserves or requires his attention. He’s almost nonchalant.”
Margaux Ewen, executive director of Reporters Without Borders North America, said she was encouraged that Trump expressed concern but wished his statements had been stronger. As shocking as Khashoggi’s case is, she said, her overriding concern is that Trump, with his frequent attacks on “the fake news media” in America, “sets the overall tone that the U.S. doesn’t really value press freedom.”
“We’re not leading by example, and so whenever we make condemnations of other countries’ anti-press behavior, it may seem like hollow words,” Ewen said.
Ulrichsen expressed a similar fear.
“My concern,” he said, “is that if the U.S. is not robust enough in making it clear that there are real costs for such actions, authoritarian governments might feel further emboldened to strike again.”
Jesus Rodriguez contributed to this report.