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E.J. Dionne Jr.: Speaking autocrat to autocrat: Trump and his Prince

Critics of President Trump are regularly accused of exaggerating his corruption, his predilection toward autocratic rule, and his affection for dictators.

They are told that their apprehension about the threat he poses to our constitutional democracy is not a form of vigilance but a disease, “Trump Derangement Syndrome. “All they can do is attack the president all day long on the scandal of the day,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who became an aficionado of the term.

This is the same Cruz who, in 2016, called Trump a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen” and “a serial philanderer.” Perhaps the senator suffers from Trump Rearrangement Syndrome, a disorder common among Republicans who disown every criticism they ever offered of Trump so he’ll help them win re-election.

In fact, the president’s offensive personal traits are less important to political freedom than his authoritarian habits. They lead him to regard murder as a matter that should not get between friends who do business together.

The last week has shown that those who feared Trump’s despotic inclinations were neither deluded nor alarmist. His shameful indifference to the killing and dismembering of the Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was an act of cold collaboration with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s coverup.

The Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the murder could not have happened without the prince’s authorization. Trump — hostile as always to facts that run against his own interests — didn’t even bother to offer an alternative theory. In the manner of tyrants, he simply sought to sow confusion and uncertainty. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said of the power-hungry leader known as MBS. On Thanksgiving Day, he dismissed the CIA’s carefully considered conclusions as mere “feelings.”

For Trump, it’s always about money. Breaking with Saudi Arabia, he said, might cost us $110 billion in sales to American military contractors and $340 billion in other investments. In a nice bit of understatement, The New York Times wrote: “Economists and military analysts said those numbers were so exaggerated as to be fanciful.”

The business that Trump did not mention were his own personal dealings with the Saudis. As David Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell wrote in The Washington Post in October, “Saudi royalty has been buying from Trump dating to1995,” Saudi lobbyists spent $270,000 last year to reserve rooms in Trump’s hotel in Washington, and “Trump’s hotels in New York and Chicago reported significant upticks in bookings from Saudi visitors” this year.

Fear of foreign leaders lining the pockets of our public officials is the reason the Founders put the emoluments clause in our Constitution. It declares that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them [the United States] shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign state.”

Remember that Trump has refused to divest from his businesses — and that word “Prince” reminds us of the ongoing relevance of this constitutional prohibition.

On the same day that Trump was standing in solidarity with a regime implicated in assassination, The New York Times reported that the president told White House counsel Don McGahn this spring that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.

McGahn held Trump off, but nothing could be more autocratic than proposing to corrupt the criminal justice system by weaponizing it against political opponents.

Trump’s crude statement backing the Saudis was too much even for many in the GOP. “I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., wrote on Twitter.

But Republicans have said all sorts of things about Trump and then backed off when it mattered. (See: Cruz, above.) They have long tolerated the praise he regularly lavishes on dictators. They have been eager to moonlight themselves as Trump PR firms as long as he delivered tax cuts and judges.

But all the tax cuts and judges in the world won’t compensate for the cost to the United States of abandoning any claim that it prefers democracy to dictatorship and human rights to barbarism. The syndrome we most need to worry about is denial — a blind refusal to face up to how much damage Trump is willing to inflict on our system of self-rule, and on our values.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

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