Warnings Abound as Trump Wheels and Deals with Despots
Human rights experts are up in arms over President Donald Trump’s embrace of some of the world’s most reviled dictators, but as observers are pointing out, the U.S. president’s warm words may have as much to do with his business interests as their authoritarian style.
On Monday, Trump said he would be “honored to meet” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who he described days earlier as being a “smart cookie” for his ability to maintain the authoritarian power he inherited from his father.
The president also drew criticism this weekend for extending a White House invitation to known strongman Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Trump also rolled out the red carpet last month for Egyptian President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who he praised as being “a fantastic guy” with whom he shares “good chemistry”—despite the autocrat’s egregious and documented record of human rights abuses.
Trump was also the first Western leader to call and congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after last month’s controversial referendum win, which many said was an undemocratic power grab. Not to mention the U.S. president’s stated admiration of and ambiguous relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as his “love affair” with arch-conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to whom Trump has pledged support for an apartheid state.
“Does the president have a thing with these totalitarian leaders?” New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday. “Does he admire something about the way these guys conduct themselves?”
After speaking with a number of White House officials, Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker summed up the dynamic. “Inside the Trump White House,” Rucker wrote, “the thinking goes that if mending bridges with a country like the Philippines—historically a treaty ally whose relationship with the United States deteriorated as Duterte gravitated toward China—means covering up or even ignoring concerns like human rights, then so be it.”
But human rights experts are concerned because Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders seems to be a reflection of his domestic and foreign policy agendas.
“The whole idea of ‘America First’ is that we’re not trying to make the world better,” said Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy under former President Barack Obama. “We’re trying to protect the homeland and the domestic economy, and the rest is all cutting deals with whoever is willing to cut deals with us. There’s not much room in that equation for standing up for the rights, freedoms and well-being of other people.”
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