Trump’s Remarks About the Media Aren’t Harmless

Last week, prior to the release of details on Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent torture and murder, Ben Rhodes wrote a piece in The Atlantic linking President Trump’s foreign policy to the Saudi Arabian journalist’s abduction. Rhodes, a former deputy national-security adviser to President Obama, essentially argued that Trump mishandled a changing of the guard within the Saudi government, and in effect loosened restraints and lifted pressure in regard to how the regime approaches human rights.

But it was this statement from Rhodes that particularly got under the skin of some on the political right:

“Sadly, we know where this is likely to lead: a further consolidation of power under MbS in Saudi Arabia, and a decisive victory for the counterrevolution that has carried the day since the early days of the Arab Spring; more danger for journalists around the world, who can no longer count on the support of the world’s most powerful nation from a president of the United States who has branded journalists the ‘enemy of the state’…”

Some commentators believed that Rhodes was implying that Trump’s harsh critiques of the American media have demonstrated a kinship or somewhat of a parallel between how our president and authoritarian regimes regard the role and value of journalists. I’m not convinced that’s what he meant. I suspect he was trying to make the point that Trump’s perceived vilification of the press in our country sends a dangerous message to authoritarian regimes that the U.S. government may not be all that interested in addressing (in any meaningful way) the violent targeting of journalists abroad.

If that was indeed Rhodes’ point (and perhaps I’m being too charitable in my assessment), I don’t think it’s a point we should reflexively dismiss. Regardless of how you feel about Rhodes (who spends a lot hours on social media these days hurling breathtakingly hypocritical insults at Trump), there’s something to be said about how other countries interpret our president’s rhetoric.

Over the past couple of years, Trump’s loyal supporters have pushed the notion that people shouldn’t take what Trump says literally, but rather assess his presidency exclusively by his actions (his policies and the results of those policies). It isn’t any secret why they’ve been saying this: they understandably get tired of trying to rationalize every stupid thing that comes out of Trump’s mouth.

Aside from the obvious double-standard of this “deeds not words” philosophy (no other U.S. politician, let alone a president, has ever been afforded the luxury of having no accountability tied to what he or she says), the premise is a fallacy. Of course a president’s words matter. They always have and they always will. The leader of the free world is one of the most influential people on the planet. Pretending that what he says isn’t of any consequence is ridiculous.

When a U.S. president calls the media “the enemy of the American people,” or when he makes excuses for Vladimir Putin’s murdering of journalists, or when he lauds a politician from his party for physically assaulting a reporter (as he did last Thursday in Montana), the world hears that. And no amount of partisan rationalizing on cable news is going to keep bad actors in other countries from drawing their own conclusions as to what it means.

It’s one thing to call out the media for its biases. That’s healthy for democracy, and the critiques are tied to specific behavior. It’s a very different thing to present the press as an enemy, or journalists as people not worthy of being protected.

Trump said on Thursday that if the Saudi Arabian government was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder (pretty much a certainty at this point), they will face “very severe” consequences. If he holds true to that threat, there should be less room moving forward for global interpretation of his views on free speech and human rights.

And that would be a good thing.