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19 October 2018

Kushner says the Khashoggi “scandal will pass”. Worse still, he might be right

A recurring pattern during the Trump administration has been that while public outrage can be effective in the short-term, it rarely brings about long-term policy changes.

By Sophie McBain

“The scandal will pass,” President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is alleged to have said of the gruesome murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Under mounting pressure, Donald Trump is finally taking a harder line against Saudi Arabia On Thursday, he conceded that US intelligence suggests that high-level Saudi officials were involved in the murder, and he promised that the consequences for the Kingdom would be “severe” should the intelligence be confirmed, but he stopped short of implicating the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

According to the New York Times, Kushner is urging Trump to stand by bin Salman, who is often known by his initials MBS. Kushner and MBS are reported to have built a rapport. They are both in their thirties, Kushner’s foreign policy ignorance makes him an easy target for MBS’s propaganda and perhaps the pair share a mutual understanding, as two young dynasts who put family advancement above everything else.

In an earlier version of its article, the New York Times put a more damning slant on Kushner’s argument, quoting two anonymous sources as saying Kushner argued that “the outrage over Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible kidnapping will pass, just as it did after other Saudi errors like the kidnapping of the prime minister in Lebanon and the killing of a busload of children in Yemen by a Saudi airstrike.”

The newspaper has not issued a correction, so it’s not clear why it changed the text though it seems that while the two quotes differ in tone, in what is made explicit and what is left unsaid, they don’t differ much in meaning. For what else could Kushner mean when he insists “the scandal will pass” other than his understanding that even when public outrage burns hot it rarely lasts a few news cycles.

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What’s sickening is that Kushner might be right.

After all, a recurring pattern during the Trump administration is that while public outrage can be effective in the short-term, and may bring about policy concessions, it is rarely sustained long enough to force a meaningful change in direction.

Consider, for instance, the justified horror and outrage over family separations. While the horrifying, gut-wrenching stories of toddlers being torn away from their parents still made the front page, the Trump administration announced it would end its so-called zero-tolerance policy.

But now, our attention is diverted elsewhere and our outrage has worn thin. Four months after a judge ordered all separated families to be reunited, at least 245 children still remain in government custody away from their parents. Family separations are continuing, just more quietly, and the Trump administration is considering implementing a modified version of its disastrously cruel policy.

The Trump administration continues to block some citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, despite the outrage sparked by the first Muslim ban. It continues to shrink the number of refugees admitted in the country, although we know that as a result, tens of thousands of the most vulnerable child and adult refugees are now left in limbo, languishing in hostile host countries and dangerous refugee camps. It continues to roll back environmental protections, though the scientific consensus is that we have just 12 years to avert environmental catastrophe. It continues to attack democratic norms and institutions, not to mention the norms of human decency, knowing that in this frenetic news cycle nothing sticks for too long.

It is a lesson MBS might have drawn from recent experience as well – after all, the crown prince appeared to have won over much of the American establishment, despite his alleged war crimes in Yemen and rampant human rights abuses at home.

All of this is outrageous, but perhaps the important lesson liberals need to draw is that outrage on its own isn’t politically powerful. Consider, too, how many international events once felt like a turning point but in fact changed nothing – the image, broadcast around the globe, of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on a Greek beach, or of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, bloodied and covered in dust in the back of an Aleppo ambulance, or the horrific photographs of the chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Without meaningful action, or a plan for change, outrage is useless. Maybe the Trump administration will avoid ever holding the Saudi government to account for Khashoggi’s murder. And Kushner will prove correct that with time the story will drop from the front page, public outrage will dissipate or be directed elsewhere, Khashoggi’s family and loved ones will continue to mourn in private and MBS will plan his diplomatic re-entry.

So beyond feeling outraged, what can anyone do? Journalists can pledge to keep on pushing for justice for their colleague, to keep on questioning Trump, to ensure that MBS’s public image is not rehabilitated. Members of the public can donate to organisations that press for journalistic freedoms and human rights: Reporters Without Borders, PEN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and many others.

And on 6 November, Americans can demonstrate that not all scandals will pass by voting out the cynical, spineless and cowardly politicians that have enabled inhumane and un-American policies, from family separations to refugee bans, and voting for the candidates who are moving beyond outrage, who have a vision for how to rebuild American politics and create a fairer, more equal society.

As much as I fear Kushner may be right, it would feel so good to prove otherwise.