On a recent visit to Washington, members of an official Chinese delegation told their congressional hosts that Jared Kushner, with his murky mix of business and political interests, reminded them of a wealthy young communist “princeling” in their own country.
When Capitol Hill aides warned officials from another repressive foreign government that they could pay a political price for human rights abuses, their visitors scoffed: President Donald Trump had just called their leader, they said, and told him he was doing a great job.
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In addition to those interactions, recounted by people who were present, in the days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, one diplomat from an undemocratic nation told POLITICO he was taking a guilty pleasure in the spectacle. “Now you guys can’t lecture everyone else anymore,” he said.
Trump has delighted in trampling political norms — from attacks on the judiciary and the media to groundless accusations about his political opponents — in ways that critics say resemble the behavior of foreign autocrats whom the United States has long condemned.
Now congressional officials, human rights activists and U.S. diplomats say they worry Trump may be setting a dangerous example overseas.
“There’s a credibility issue when it comes to the rule of law, particularly with the firing of Comey,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The concerns will take on special resonance today when Trump sits down with Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader recently presided over a sweeping political crackdown—jailing opponents, shuttering media outlets and eroding the independence of Turkey’s judiciary.
At the same time, top Trump officials have downgraded the role of democratic values in U.S. foreign policy. In a recent speech, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said human rights concerns are often “an obstacle” to other U.S. interests. Trump has also taken forgiving stances toward other authoritarian rulers, including Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who visited the White House last month.
But Trump’s governing style at home also causes concern for critics who fear foreign governments will cite his actions as justification for their own repressive behavior.
In addition to firing Comey, a top law enforcement official who was overseeing an investigation into Trump’s associates, the examples cited by critics include: Trump’s scathing criticisms of federal judges who have ruled against his policies; his family’s entanglement of business and political interests; his baseless charges of massive voter fraud; his accusation that President Barack Obama wiretapped him; and his routine branding of negative media stories as “fake news.”
Democracy and human rights activists at home and abroad say the combined effect risks making a nation they have long held up as a model, however flawed, look no better than any other. Last week, for instance, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) met with a demoralized group of human rights activists from a repressive country.
“They were petrified that they couldn’t argue for the rule of law in their country if they didn’t know the rule of law was being held up in the United States,” Murphy said.
Several foreign nations have already picked up on that phrase. In February, Russia’s foreign ministry set up a web page to debunk what it called fake news stories—which it has used to criticize U.S. reports about Russian bad behavior without giving any evidence of their inaccuracy.
Last month, a spokesman for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte dismissed detailed New York Times reporting on his infamously brutal anti-drug campaign as fake.
And after Cambodia threatened to expel reporters from the U.S.-funded outlets Radio Free Asia and Voice of America in late March, a Cambodian government spokesman said that Trump’s criticism of the media “sends a clear message” that “news published by those media institutions does not reflect the real situation.”
Sources say Chinese officials take particular pleasure from criticism of Trump’s leadership. U.S. officials have complained for years about corruption in China, where relatives of party officials often use their political connections to acquire vast wealth.
News outlets in Russia—perhaps the world’s most oligarchic nation—have taken aim at the Trump family’s business interests, too. “For Confluence of Money and Power in the US, Look No Farther Than Ivanka Trump,” declared an April headline in the Kremlin-backed news outlet Sputnik.
In Africa, where many countries are plagued by dictatorship and corruption, political elites are “openly question[ing]” the value of western democracy,” according to Reuben Brigety, U.S. ambassador to the African Union from 2013 to 2015. “[T]he failure to adhere to our democratic values at home comes at tangible cost to our ability to advance our interests abroad,” Brigety wrote for Foreign Policy on May 11.
The U.S. has long struggled to live up to its own ideals. During the Iraq War, foreign governments cited the CIA’s secret detentions and torture practices as damning proof that America has no special moral virtue. Even the recent wave of global ransomware attacks—based on computer code stolen from the National Security Agency—is a reminder that the United States practices aggressive cyber espionage.
And when it comes to Turkey, Trump himself has said the United States has little standing to preach about political rights given its failings at home. After Turkey’s military staged an aborted coup against Erdogan in July 2016, Trump praised Erdogan for his severe crackdown in response.
“I don’t know that we have a right to lecture. Just look about what’s happening with our country. How are we going to lecture … you see the riots and the horror going on in our own country?” Trump said. “When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.”
Turkish and Russian media outlets prominently covered the remarks.
Trump officials have noted that Turkey is a NATO ally which assists the fight against the Islamic State.
Still, asked whether Obama would have hosted Erdogan amid the many concerns about his political crackdown at home, Colin Kahl, a former Obama White House national security aide who worked extensively on Turkey replied: “No chance.”
Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.