Giving Up the High Ground

America’s Retreat on Human Rights

Roughed up: police detaining a demonstrator during a protest in Ankara, February 2017. Umit Bektas / Reuters

No U.S. president has spoken about human rights the way Donald Trump has. During the campaign, he praised Saddam Hussein for his approach to counterterrorism in Iraq: “He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were a terrorist. It was over.” He promised to loosen the restrictions on interrogating terrorism suspects: “I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” He went out of his way to compliment Russian President Vladimir Putin’s abusive rule: “In terms of leadership, he is getting an A.” And in a television interview shortly after his inauguration, when asked why he respected Putin—“a killer,” in the interviewer’s words—Trump responded, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”

As president, he has kept at it. Last April, he chose to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for winning a disputed referendum that expanded his authoritarian rule. In a call that same month, he spoke to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloody campaign under the guise of a “war on drugs” has taken the lives of over 12,000 Filipinos. Trump praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” When they met in Manila in November, Trump laughed heartily after Duterte cut off questions from reporters and called them “spies”—this in a country where journalists and activists sometimes end up dead. Before heading to China, Trump congratulated President Xi Jinping, who had just further cemented his repressive rule at a Communist Party congress, for his “great political victory.”

All U.S. presidents have, to varying degrees, downplayed or even overlooked concerns about human rights in order to get things done with unsavory foreign partners. But none has seemed so eager as Trump to align with autocrats as a matter of course. The harm goes beyond mere words. In country after country, the Trump administration is gutting U.S.

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