Dana Milbank: Trump’s friend just tried to blame America first

Video: Tom Barrack, CEO of Colony Capital, told the Republican National Convention on June 21, 2016, that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump is “good enough, tough enough, smart enough and well-versed enough.” (The Washington Post)

Washington • Billionaire Tom Barrack, Donald Trump’s friend, informal adviser and chairman of the president’s inaugural committee, sounded like a man without a soul.

With a bone-chilling bloodlessness, Barrack on Tuesday defended the Saudi government's murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Asked at a Milken Institute gathering in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, about the murder, Barrack replied that "whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal or worse to the atrocities in Saudi Arabia." He added: "For us to dictate what we think is the moral code there … I think is a mistake."

Incredibly, that wasn't all. "The problem with what's happened with the Khashoggi incident is the same problems of the West misunderstanding the East" for a century, Barrack said. "The West is confused at the rule of the law, doesn't understand what the rule of law is in the kingdom."

"Confused"? Here's what's confused: A U.S. resident critical of the Saudi regime was ambushed, killed and dismembered with a bone saw by Saudi agents in October, apparently at the direction of the crown prince, and Trump's pal thinks it's a "mistake" to make a fuss.

The United States’ atrocities are equal to or worse than the Saudis'? Saudi Arabia is responsible for the deaths of countless thousands in Yemen, using foreign mercenaries, including children, in a war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Many of the 11 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are subject to forced labor and sexual abuse, as well as having their passports confiscated and wages withheld.

Children and activists are sentenced to death, nonviolent offenders beheaded, thousands held without charges and tortured and Saudi women controlled by male "guardians." And now come reports that Saudi diplomats are helping Saudi nationals escape the United States before they can be prosecuted for alleged crimes committed here.

A CNN journalist provided me with an audio recording of Barrack's remarks, which were reported Tuesday by the Gulf News.

After I inquired, Barrack issued a written statement Wednesday saying the Khashoggi killing "was atrocious and is inexcusable," and he apologized "for not making this clear." But he added that the "acts of a few should not be interpreted as the failure of an entire sovereign kingdom," and he repeated his claim that the West is confused.

Worse than his failure to criticize the murder in front of the Saudis — and worse than dismissing as the “acts of a few” a murder that U.S. intelligence believes was blessed by the crown prince — was the claim Barrack didn’t apologize for: that the United States’ atrocities “are equal or worse” than those of Saudi Arabia.

I don't know what would make Barrack take such a dim view of American values, though The New York Times reported last year that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided 24 percent of the $7 billion that Barrack's business raised in the 17 months after Trump's inauguration.

Of greater concern is that Barrack advises a president who seems to think similarly. Trump, when reminded that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer, replied by saying "You think our country is so innocent?" and "I think that our country does plenty of killing, too."

At a prayer breakfast last week, Trump spoke about the "bondage of human trafficking" and said, "I directed the State Department to cut off development aid to nations that do not demonstrate a commitment to ending human trafficking." Actually, such a cutoff was already required by law, but the Trump administration has been giving special treatment to its Saudi friends.

Under the U.S. government's annual Trafficking in Persons report, Saudi Arabia, on a "Tier 2 Watch List," was due for an automatic downgrade in 2017 to Tier 3, the worst category, but the Trump administration instead protected the country with waivers in both 2017 and 2018. Now the waivers are expiring, and the administration has to decide whether to put Saudi Arabia back in Tier 3, which would cut aid, or claim, implausibly, that the kingdom is "making significant efforts."

A State Department report last year acknowledged "the [Saudi] government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period."

Will the Trump administration punish Saudi Arabia? Or will it follow the blame-America-first logic expressed by Trump's pal?

Asked about the Khashoggi killing, Barrack joked about the time the crown prince detained his rivals in a luxury hotel before telling the audience that "the corrupt hand of the West has been the primary instigator in the kingdom."

No. What's "corrupt" is coddling Khashoggi's killers.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.