Since his presidential campaign began, the media has obsessed over Donald Trump’s penchant for lying. Journalists have meticulously documented and cataloged every mistruth, as if one day he’ll wake up, realize he got it all wrong, and apologize.
Of course, those lies do have have horrifying impacts on real people, and should be pointed out again and again, as loudly as possible. But all politicians lie, and lie often. Trump may be more unique as a politician not in his tendency to obfuscate, but in his occasional honesty. When he accidentally tells the truth, as he did yesterday afternoon in the Oval Office when asked by members of the press about the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it can be quite revealing.
“They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups, very simple,” Trump told reporters, according to Politico. “They had the worst cover-up ever. Where it should have stopped is at the deal standpoint, when they thought about it. Because whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble.”
Referring to the planned torture and assassination of a political dissident as a “very bad original concept” is perhaps the most Trumpian thing ever. But the heart of this quote is when Trump criticizes Saudi Arabia for performing the “worst cover-up ever.” It’s true—using 15 guys in your embassy to kill one journalist, hacking him to pieces, and subsequently sending a guy dressed in his clothes back out onto the street isn’t exactly sly. But it’s not usually the kind of thing you’d hear our president say about the actions of a close ally.
Khashoggi’s death has created a huge headache for the American political establishment. For decades, American politicians looked the other way as the Saudis committed human rights atrocities—even as their citizens carried out the September 11th attacks. Up until this week, we were happy to keep helping them fund and arm themselves in their disastrous war with Yemen, despite the horrific civilian casualties that war continues to produce.
But it seems that for many in politics and media, the blatant killing of someone like Khashoggi was just one step too far. Or, at least, it was an act that requires some kind of symbolic action to reassure the public that we don’t just hand bags of money to dictatorships that kill journalists, no strings attached. (Even if that’s exactly what we, in fact, do.)
Trump nodded to the need for some kind of response in his remarks. “Congress has some very strong ideas, both ways,” he said. “I’ve been told by certain senators, we want that investment to keep coming. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to do something. There has to be some kind of retribution. There has to be, no matter what you do.”
It’s truly incredible, in these quotes, how obvious it is that Trump—like the rest of Washington—is more upset about the Saudis’ shitty cover-up than he is about the actual crime that was committed. Nobody actually cares if one of our allies murdered and dismembered a journalist, but almost everyone at least pretends to care. Trump does no such thing—he’s just mad that now he has to deal with the fallout.
This flouting of “norms” is the crux of why many Washington insiders, think tank employees, and highly paid conservative pundits hate Trump. Had this happened in 2014, Barack Obama would have performed serious, measured outrage at the Saudi regime. And then we’d have kept selling them arms, and buying their oil.
This isn’t to make an equivalence between Obama and Trump. Trump is a sociopathic, narcissistic monster, whereas Obama, at worst, was a well-meaning cog in an imperialist machine that’s been running longer than he’s been alive. But if we’re going to live in a world where we’re friends with regimes like Saudi Arabia, we could at least stop pretending that our friendship is reliant on their good behavior. Trump’s untrained, boorish words show this relationship for what it is—an alliance based on greed and nothing more.