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."
Others have noted that Trump has even more to gain from his wheeling and dealing with despots—namely a number of global business interests.
From a new $150 million, 57-story Trump luxury residential tower in Manila, Philippines to "a residential and commercial retail center in Istanbul," Politico reported Tuesday on how some of the president's business dealings have conspicuous overlaps with his foreign policy decisions.
"This is the big stuff," Richard Painter, a former George W. Bush White House ethics lawyer and vice chair at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told reporters Darren Samuelsohn and Nahal Toosi. "This is where his conflicts really matter."
Samuelsohn and Toosi report:
Ethical concerns also shadowed Trump’s two attempts to ban travelers from several majority-Muslim countries. In both attempts, which were blocked by the courts, Trump left out Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, three countries where he was involved in business deals, financial disclosures showed. Former Obama White House ethics lawyer Norm Eisen pointed out that, like those that fell under the ban, populations in the three countries “have a demonstrated history of supporting terrorism."
Then there's China. Trump embraced the 'One China Policy' in January in a phone call with President Xi Jinping, despite earlier friendliness toward Taiwan. China soon ended more than a decade of waiting and approved Trump's application to trademark his name in the country. Sen. Dianne Feinstein responded by charging that Trump may have violated the Constitution's emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officials from accepting payments from foreign governments. The California Democrat also questioned the timing of the policy moves, which she said gave "the obvious impression of a quid pro quo."
"Giving diplomatic freebies to dictators and authoritarian strongmen," cautioned Rob Berschinski, vice president of policy at Human Rights First, "is a fool's bet that undermines American security and our global leadership role."
"Inviting these men to the White House in effect places the United States' seal of approval on their heinous actions," he added. "None of this is lost on the people that men like these hold under their thumb, which always comes back to bite us."