President Donald Trump struck a decidedly nonchalant tone in responding to the disappearance and possible death of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi on Tuesday, telling reporters he “knows nothing” about the situation.
“I don't like hearing about it, and hopefully that will sort itself out,” Trump said Monday, adding that he was “concerned” about the fate of Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who has recently been critical of the kingdom’s leadership.
According to reports in multiple outlets, Turkish intelligence believes Khashoggi was killed by the Saudi government. Yet, despite his access to sensitive intelligence information, Trump told reporters Tuesday he had no special insight into the situation.
"I know nothing. I know what everybody else knows,” he said. Trump said he has not yet been in contact with the Saudis, but “I will … at some point.”
Press advocates were alarmed by the president’s dispassionate response, concerned it will communicate to Saudi Arabia and other countries cracking down on free speech that the United States is not worried about the fate of a contributor to one of its most prominent newspapers, Politico said.
Summer Lopez, the senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, said previous U.S. presidents invariably spoke out forcefully when journalists or dissidents were attacked, but Trump is not following their example.
“That’s a dangerous situation to be in,” she said.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called it “confusing” that Trump has shown less interest in protecting journalists abroad than have others in his administration.
“I hope it’s not confusing at all to the Saudi government,” Simon said. “I hope the Saudi government is in no way confused about what the implications of this are.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday that “we have been engaged in this matter,” though she said the government has no idea what happened to Khashoggi.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a “transparent” and “thorough” investigation into the journalist’s disappearance, and Vice President Mike Pence said in a tweet that “violence against journalists across the globe is a threat to freedom of the press & human rights. The free world deserves answers.”
But Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute, said Saudi leaders — including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Trump has said he has a strong relationship — will be keyed in on the president’s comments, regardless of what anyone else in the administration says or does.
They “will take note only if and when President Trump himself decides to make a stand over the case,” he said. “If the worst that happens is a rap on the knuckles from the State Department, that's probably something the Saudis can live with.”