IF DENIZENS of political Washington recall the commotion, way back on February 24th, when President Donald Trump’s press team excluded CNN, the New York Times and others from a White House briefing, most probably shrug at the memory. Editors lodged formal complaints at the time, not least because the snub came hours after Mr Trump told cheering conservative activists that the “fake news media” are “the enemy of the people”. But there have been many commotions since, and worse snubs.
Yet there are places where that kerfuffle in a White House corridor left a mark. Take Cambodia, the south-east Asian country whose autocratic government charged two ex-reporters in November with “espionage”, citing their previous work for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news outlet funded by the American government. There is a direct connection between the detention of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who face up to 15 years in prison, and that moment of early Trumpian bombast. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, pounced on the humbling of reporters by the White House, declaring with approval on February 27th that Mr Trump, like him, sees the press causing “anarchy”. The gloating did not stop there. Denouncing a CNN report on sex trafficking in Cambodia in August, Mr Hun Sen grumbled that “President Trump is right: US media is very tricky.” Cambodian officials expelled the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based outfit that promotes free and fair elections with funding from the American and other Western governments, and ordered radio stations to stop carrying broadcasts by RFA and the Voice of America.
Escalating the fight, the government accused the main opposition party of being involved in an American-backed plot to overthrow Mr Hun Sen, offering as evidence images of opposition activists meeting diplomats and Senator John McCain of Arizona. Livid at being rebuked by the American embassy in Cambodia, Mr Hun Sen took his complaints to the top. Using a summit of Asian leaders in Manila on November 13th to praise Mr Trump face-to-face, Mr Hun Sen called him “a great person” wisely uninterested in human rights. “I don’t know if you are like me, or I am like you,” he swooned. He had just one gripe. Mr Trump should “admonish” diplomats at the American embassy who were working against his “great principle” of non-interference in the politics of foreign lands. A summit photograph of Mr Hun Sen with Mr Trump, thumbs-up, beaming, was hailed by Cambodia’s former foreign minister as proof that it is better to “meet with the boss” than talk to “slaves”.
It was a remarkable moment, and a misjudgment. Mr Hun Sen, along with other despots and autocrats, saw a soulmate in an American president who campaigned by attacking the free press and the judiciary, who threatened to lock up his opponent once elected, who kept secret his tax returns, who suggested that the presidential election might be rigged, and who scorned the idea that his country is a democratic model, growling: “The world sees how bad the United States is.” That led the Cambodian leader to a gamble which, from outside the country, seems highly confusing: to try to recruit Mr Trump as an ally in a purge built around an anti-American conspiracy theory. It failed. On November 16th the White House issued a statement expressing “grave concern” after Cambodia’s highest court dissolved the main opposition party, declaring that next year’s elections, on current course, “will not be legitimate, free or fair” and warning of “concrete steps” in response.
Cambodia’s story is instructive. Mr Trump has flouted norms upheld—at least in theory—by all modern holders of his office. He has scorned the very idea of American exceptionalism, telling Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh in May: “America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture, we are not here to tell other people how to live.” A forthcoming national-security strategy is set to mark a step back from global leadership, towards a narrower, more zero-sum view of American interests. Nonetheless, some foreign rulers who felt emboldened to repress domestic enemies with impunity have been startled to find that no Trump doctrine reliably protects them.
The Trump White House is far too chaotic, riven by infighting and buffeted by the impulses of the president, to have clear doctrines about democracy promotion, or many other weighty questions of geopolitics, says a senior administration official. A position may earn signs of support from Mr Trump, but “you can take that to the bank for as long as you are talking to him”, says the official—before a presidential tweet says the opposite minutes later. Mr Hun Sen’s blunder, the official says, was to project his own absolutism onto America. “He seems to think that now we have this rich old guy in charge of the United States, [Mr Trump] can snap his fingers and everything will change.” American government is messier than that. With a small country like Cambodia, policy remains broadly set by career foreign service officers (among them the American ambassador), by staff in the National Security Council and by members of Congress sincerely aggrieved by Mr Hun Sen’s assaults on democracy and news outlets. That group includes Mr McCain and his Republican colleagues Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Congressman Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
A second telling case may be found in Hungary, a European ally and NATO member state whose increasingly autocratic government greeted Mr Trump’s election with glee, only to overreach in its turn. Relations between President Barack Obama and the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban were icy, chilled by the passage of laws curbing the independence of the press, the civil service and the courts. They were made worse by official attempts to rehabilitate anti-Semitic Hungarian leaders from the second world war, and by Mr Orban’s admiration for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At one point in 2014, the State Department banned six Hungarian officials from entering America on suspicion of corruption—a dramatic step against a NATO ally. One of them tried to sue America’s top diplomat in Budapest for defamation.
Mr Orban is proud of being the first European leader to endorse Mr Trump, says the Hungarian ambassador to Washington, Laszlo Szabo. It is “very obvious” that the two leaders share similar views on defending their countries from illegal immigrants, a term which the ambassador uses to cover the vast majority of those who reached Europe during the refugee crisis of 2015. They also agree on the public’s yearning for strong, sovereign governments that stand up for their national interests with what Mr Szabo calls a “healthy self-consciousness”. In April the Hungarian parliament amended a higher-education law in a way that threatened to close down the Central European University (CEU), a graduate institute founded by the Hungarian-American billionaire, George Soros, a bogeyman to conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. In June Hungary passed a law restricting foreign funding for civil-society groups, again singling out Mr Soros, and triggering legal action by the European Commission in Brussels, which believes the measure may breach EU fundamental rights. If Mr Orban expected to be thanked by the Trump administration or Republicans in Congress for this assault on Mr Soros, he was disappointed.
A bipartisan group of senators, led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut, told Mr Orban that the law against CEU threatens academic freedoms. Hungary forgot that Congress has no desire to encourage despotic attacks on the many American universities with branches overseas. The Trump-era State Department called the law on civil-society groups “another step away” from Hungarian commitments to the values of the EU and of NATO. In October the American chargé d’affaires, or acting ambassador to Hungary, David Kostelancik, delivered a blistering speech on press freedoms, decrying the growing dominance of “pro-government figures” over the media, who quash articles critical of the government. Treading a delicate path, Mr Kostelancik conceded that “My president is not shy about criticising the media when he believes reporters get it wrong or show bias,” but noted that “in the finest traditions of our free press”, the targets of Mr Trump’s wrath often point out that “not every criticism of the government is ‘fake news’.” Most pointedly, Mr Kostelancik deplored the “dangerous” decision of media outlets closely linked to the Hungarian government to publish the names of individual journalists deemed “threats” to the country.
A former Republican congressman who now works as a lobbyist for the Hungarian government, Connie Mack, supported a handful of members of the House of Representatives as they complained about the chargé d’affaires to Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state. Still, Mr Trump has neither sided with Mr Orban nor yet welcomed him to the Oval Office. Frustrated amid the chandeliered splendour of the Hungarian embassy in Washington, Mr Szabo calls his State Department critics “old Obama administration technocrats” who do not speak for Mr Trump. Hungary’s problems do not reach the president, he says. “Decisions about Hungary are not happening at the levels we would like.”
A third and final case study involves Egypt, a large, important and problematic ally whose strongman leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has not found the new administration as easy to handle as he seemed to expect. Few modern presidents have pressed Egypt hard on human rights, placing greater emphasis on the stability of the most populous Arab country, and on co-operation with the Egyptian military, intelligence and counter-terrorist services. Relations have been sweetened with tens of billions of dollars in American aid since 1948, much of it to buy weapons.
Early expectations for Trump administration policy were not high. Mr Trump praised Mr al-Sisi as a “fantastic guy” doing a “fantastic job” under trying circumstances, even as a formal memorandum from the State Department to Congress accused Egyptian authorities of arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances and reported extrajudicial killings. But in an unprecedented move the State Department froze nearly $100m in military and economic aid to Egypt, citing human-rights concerns, a move that a senior figure in the Obama administration applauds and calls “a significant piece of pain to impose”. Senators of both parties applied pressure to the State Department, freezing some aid for Egypt on their own initiative.
Mr Trump also secured the release of Aya Hijazi, an American dual national jailed on charges for which authorities offered no serious evidence, after founding a charity to help street children. Her story caught Mr Trump’s attention—this is crazy, he told aides—and he proudly invited her to the White House after her release. The president, who is often highly interested in whether he, personally, will be given credit for an action, has said nothing in public about the other 60,000 political prisoners thought to languish in Egyptian cells.
A White House official says Mr Trump’s Egypt policy is proof that the president does work to promote human rights, despite his unconventional rhetoric. The approach of President George W. Bush was “to very publicly endorse this idea of pushing democracy and freedom. You saw the Obama administration very publicly embarrass leaders and say you must address these human rights issues,” says the official. But thanks to behind-the-scenes pressure, based on strong personal relations, Mr Trump “gets the results”. This aide casts the president as a Reagan-like realist, treating radical Islam as something akin to the communism of the age and working with imperfect allies, when necessary, to advance major reforms, notably in Saudi Arabia. “Look at the speeches that Bush and Obama gave, and nothing changed.”
Hardline nationalists in the president’s inner circle, notably his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, and colleagues in the Domestic Policy Council, enjoy unusual clout during debates about refugees or UN reform, leaving them locked in what one former official calls “open warfare” with NSC staff. Despite this, democracy-promotion schemes continue on autopilot in many countries, shielded by multi-year budgets.
How America projects its values has real-world effects, says Steve Pomper, who worked on human rights in the Obama-era NSC and is now at the International Crisis Group. “It’s a choice: giving people reason to hope if they are languishing in prison, or giving their jailers hope that they can act with impunity.” Mr Trump’s instincts are causing “grievous damage,” concludes a senior administration official. But foreign autocrats are also learning that America’s president does not rule alone. “The president may scorn checks and balances,” says the official, “but we still have them.”