Trump Sees Khashoggi’s Disappearance Mostly as a PR Problem

The administration is approaching the journalist’s apparent death as a stage for spin more than as a diplomatic incident or a human-rights outrage.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Donald Trump is slowly coming around to the probable reality of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi Arabia. But he isn’t happy about it.

Not the assassination itself, although he does seem at least displeased about that (he calls it “bad, bad stuff”), and has promised “severe” repercussions if the allegations prove true. The president’s biggest beef seems to be that it’s been a public-relations nightmare.

“Unless the miracle of all miracles happens, I would acknowledge that he’s dead,” Trump told The New York Times on Thursday. Later that afternoon, when reporters asked him whether the Saudi journalist, who lived in Virginia and wrote for The Washington Post, was dead, he said, “Certainly looks that way to me.”

These are not the angry reactions of someone who’s morally outraged that a journalist would be lured into a consulate and dismembered alive, as Turkish sources have alleged. It’s the grudging reaction of someone who is annoyed he has to deal with it. The president explained to the Times reporters that he was frustrated “because it’s taken on a bigger life than it would normally take on.”

“This one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately,” he said. “It’s not a positive. Not a positive.”

It’s easier to make the opposite case. If an innocent man was killed for voicing (fairly tempered) critiques of the Saudi government, far better that the murder should get extensive attention and condemnation from around the world than that it should happen quietly and without consequences.

For the Trump administration, which is anxious to preserve its relationship with Saudi Arabia, however, this is a complication. Faced with a moral outrage and a human-rights challenge, it sees a public-relations nightmare.

It’s not new for Trump to interpret matters largely from a marketing perspective. After all, his genius in business was not really dealmaking or building construction, but selling himself as the ultimate in dealmaking and building construction. Similarly, as a politician, he’s been far more interested in campaigning than in policy. What is unusual is that Trump has previously tended to subscribe to the belief that all publicity is good publicity.

On matters that endanger the close Saudi-American relationship, he has apparently decided that’s not the case. This explains much of the way the White House has handled the matter of Khashoggi’s disappearance. Early on, the president tried to distance himself from the matter, pointing out that Khashoggi was not an American citizen. Still, the backlash wouldn’t go away, so he sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a trip to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It quickly became clear that Pompeo’s visit was for show rather than substance.

Pressed by reporters on what he’d learned, Pompeo said, “ I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They didn’t want to either.” (It’s hardly a surprise that no one in the Saudi government wanted to discuss the facts.) Pompeo left Riyadh with only a vow from the Saudis to complete a thorough investigation.

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that he would not attend an investment conference in Saudi Arabia next month. But Mnuchin didn’t offer any rationale, like, for example, stating concern about Khashoggi’s death or the lack of answers from Riyadh. The implication was straightforward: He was canceling the trip because it looked bad, not because of any moral or policy qualms.

At the same time, The Washington Post reports that a group of conservative House Republicans and media allies have been waging a quiet whisper campaign to slur Khashoggi as an Islamist, with the goal of taking heat off Trump.

The American focus on a thorough investigation and Trump’s mantra of innocent until proven guilty make sense mostly as stalling mechanisms—which they almost certainly are. The Times reports that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has argued internally that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom he has forged a close partnership, can weather this crisis, just as he did other ones, including the kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister and alleged war crimes in Yemen. This argument may well appeal to Trump, who has endured his fair share of crises, though nothing nearly as macabre as what Saudi Arabia is accused of.

Trump has also shown how a crisis is forgotten: The trick is to create a new crisis, as he has done repeatedly. The president seemed to make a bid for that Tuesday as questions over Khashoggi’s disappearance continued to grow, by attacking Stormy Daniels on Twitter. According to The Daily Beast, Trump workshopped the particular slur he used before sending it. But it didn’t work. The tweet won Trump the usual condemnations, but the press didn’t lose interest in the Khashoggi story, as it has in other, previous ones. (Khashoggi’s status as a fellow journalist has made the story particularly outrageous to many in the media.) That attempt at distraction defeated, Trump had to admit on Thursday that, “unfortunately,” Khashoggi’s fate had captured the world’s attention.

In part, the president’s comment to the Times fits with his pattern of “saying the quiet part loud”—stating the subtext of a situation plainly. On this matter, he’s not wrong that this is a messaging nightmare: Saudi Arabia is an important regional ally, and one whose abuses the United States has overlooked for decades. And while the Trump administration has chosen to make those ties even closer, there’s no good way to deal with Khashoggi’s apparent abduction and murder. (My colleague Krishnadev Calamur reported on how previous administrations might have handled it better.)

The fracas is a public-relations disaster and always would have been, but it’s also a human-rights disaster and a free-press disaster. Ironically, by focusing on the first at the expense of the other two, the Trump administration has deepened the problem. Too much emphasis on PR sometimes makes for bad PR.