The murder of Jamal Khashoggi shows the danger of Trump’s anti-press rhetoric

The president has consistently referred to press as “the enemy of the people”. With horrifying inevitability, people are taking him at his word.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

On Friday, the Washington Post made the powerful gesture of running an empty op-ed column, titled “A missing voice”, in the space which would have been filled by Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the paper who had been a vocal critic of the Saudi regime.

Khashoggi had disappeared a few days before, on 2 October, after being detained inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

What happened next is still shrouded in mystery, but according to news reports, sources inside a probe into his disappearance by the Turkish government say that they believe Khashoggi was tortured and then killed by a 15-man “murder team” sent by the Saudi government. Saudi authorities strenuously deny the claims.

This horrifying development comes at a febrile time for Saudi Arabia. Power has recently been consolidated by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially known as “MBS”. He has been lauded in the West, including by president Trump, as a reformer; his government’s decision to reverse a long-standing ban on women drivers was widely lauded.

But this veneer of West-facing reform appears to be a smokescreen covering a much more sinister consolidation of power. In 2017, under the cover of an anti-corruption campaign, bin Salman purged the Saudi government of scores of his political opponents, placing many of them under house arrest. That was followed in 2018 by the arrest of a large number women’s rights activists.

Bin Salman has also leveraged his image as a Western-friendly reformer to cover for an intervention in the civil war Yemen. Saudi actions in the war-torn gulf state have been reported to have caused massive civilian casualties, both as a result of the blockade, which caused a famine, and as a result of a massive bombing campaign that has led to accusations of war crimes.

Because of bin Salman’s friendliness with Western governments, much of the devastation in Yemen has been perpetrated with weapons built by British and American arms companies. Despite warnings from organisations like Amnesty International about the carnage in Yemen as early as 2015, Saudi Arabia was the location for President Trump’s first overseas visit, and led to the signing of a deal for the US to sell $100bn in arms to the country.

This cosy relationship with Trump has allowed bin Salman to operate largely with impunity, and he has not been reluctant to throw his weight around on the international stage. Alongside the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been increasingly putting pressure on its neighbour Qatar in a trade boycott. Even more bizarrely, it was recently reported that the Saudi government was making plans to dig a moat around the entire country’s border, effectively turning the Qatar peninsula into an island.

The murder of Khashoggi, if the reports turn out to be true, represents a new high-water mark of the impunity with which bin Salman believes he can operate. And so far, there is no sign from the US government that they will do anything about the fact that an American resident appears to have been lured into a consulate and murdered by a supposed ally.

This may be no coincidence. Trump, remember, is a leader who consistently refers to the press as the “enemy of the people” and even defended Russian murders of journalists. It is easy to assume that bin Salman has taken the cue from statements like that to understand that the US no longer cares about press freedom or the safety of journalists.

He would not be the only one to take this message to heart: in August a California man was arrested for threatening to kill employees of the Boston Globe, directly echoing Trump’s comments by referring to them as the “enemies of the people.” Words matter, and Trump is making everyone’s lives more dangerous by normalising such rhetoric.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.