The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the Biden team’s deliberations over punishing the Saudi crown prince

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden on the South Lawn of the White House.
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden on the South Lawn of the White House. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Even before President Biden took office, his top advisers began examining how to make good on his campaign promise to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi without destroying America’s long-standing relationship with the oil-rich monarchy.

The results of those deliberations came Friday with the release of a report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 assassination and a clarification that the United States would sanction lower-level Saudi officials but not Mohammed himself.

The reaction in Washington was swift and condemnatory.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress called the response insufficient and urged the Biden administration to directly punish the crown prince. Human rights groups pushed for a broader freeze on weapons to Saudi Arabia until the crown prince faces justice. A torrent of criticisms came in from prominent columnists and editorial boards, including The Washington Post, for which Khashoggi wrote columns, which said Biden granted “what amounts to a pass to a ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East.”

Lawmakers reacted in the wake of a newly-released intelligence report on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's approving the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked Monday about Biden’s reaction to criticisms that he had “choked” at imposing sanctions on Mohammed, the country’s de facto leader.

“I don’t think anyone runs for president or is elected if they have a thin skin,” she said. “I think he fully expected there might be some criticism.”

But Biden’s role, she noted, “is to act in the national interest of the United States. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

The situation, she said, was “complicated.”

Saudi crown prince approved operation that led to death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, U.S. intelligence report concludes

For senior Biden administration officials, criticism over the administration’s actions was perhaps inevitable but hasn’t always taken into account how rapidly the U.S. posture with the monarchy has changed since Biden’s inauguration, said several U.S. officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Khashoggi, a self-exiled resident of Virginia who wrote critically of the Saudi monarchy, was lured to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, where he was drugged and dismembered by Saudi agents. His remains have never been found.

The CIA quickly assessed that the crown prince ordered the killing, a finding that incensed a congressional majority that already thought the U.S.-Saudi relationship needed to be overhauled and Mohammed’s authoritarian instincts reined in. But that classified conclusion was never made public, until Friday’s release of an unclassified summary, compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Even before his election, Biden had promised a wholesale change — including publication of the ODNI document Trump refused for two years to release. Once he was inaugurated, his national security team began to fashion a new policy, designed to differentiate their boss from President Donald Trump, who treated Saudi Arabia and its ambitious heir apparent with kid gloves and circumvented congressional efforts to punish the kingdom for its ruthless war in Yemen and treatment of perceived enemies at home and abroad.

Defining the Saudis as bad actors was one of the few issues on which there was bipartisan agreement among a majority of U.S. lawmakers.

A team formed under the new administration weeks ago, including senior representatives of the National Security Council and the departments of State, Treasury and Defense, to look at what action to take.

The first part, an announced “recalibration” of relations with the Saudis, was relatively easy. As they filled in the blanks of what that would mean over the first few weeks, they communicated their intentions to the kingdom.

Trump-approved offensive weapons sales to prosecute the years-long Saudi war against Houthi rebels in Yemen were canceled, and all other Saudi arms purchases in the pipeline were placed under review. A special administration envoy — Tim Lenderking, whose previous assignment had been as the senior State Department official managing the relationship with the Saudis — was named to help bring the Yemen war to an end. The Saudis were warned that they were expected to cooperate.

Statements were made criticizing the country’s imprisonment of dissidents — especially women — and Saudi American citizens. Most shocking to the monarchy, it was made clear that Biden would take his time accepting a congratulatory call from King Salman and would not speak with Mohammed. The call eventually was accepted last week, the day before release of the ODNI report.

The Saudis, long unable to find a way out of the unwinnable war in Yemen, agreed to try harder, particularly in cooperating with Lenderking and United Nations efforts, and to lift blockades that were preventing humanitarian assistance from reaching starving Yemenis. In return, negotiators pressed the Houthis to stop attacks, with what are believed to be Iranian-provided missiles and drones, against Saudi territory.

Administration officials were pleased, for the most part, with the Saudi response to private communications conveying its early decisions. Two Saudi Americans were released from detention, as was Loujain Hathloul, a prominent female dissident held since 2018.

More changes were announced Friday with the Khashoggi report’s release. The former deputy head of Saudi intelligence, Ahmed al-Assiri, would be designated for sanctions and asset freezes by Treasury, along with members of a special intelligence unit, the Rapid Intervention Force, answerable directly to Mohammed. They were deemed directly involved not only in Khashoggi’s murder, but for tracking, and in some cases attacking, dissidents at home and abroad.

A list of 76 Saudis believed involved in the Khashoggi operation was compiled. They were to be the first subject to a new “Khashoggi ban” on anyone in any country deemed responsible for attacking or otherwise abusing dissidents and journalists. Although officials said it was prohibited by U.S. law from making the names public, all of them, and their families, would be banned from receiving a visa to enter the United States.

But the problem of what sanctions could be placed on Mohammed remained. Psaki drew criticism for telling reporters that the United States does not sanction the heads of government with whom it has diplomatic relations.

Officials maintained they thought about it long and hard. Sanctioning the leader of another country was rarely done, and never with the leader of a national security partner. Although the crown prince does not have a U.S. visa, and U.S. officials indicated he would not be getting one any time soon, any such decision would be infinitely more problematic once he became king, which he is virtually certain to be with the passing of his 85-year-old father.

And the crown prince was unique. Banning the grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia would mean declaring what a senior administration official called a “hostile” relationship with the kingdom, the titular protector of the holiest sites in the Muslim world.

Even if that were tolerable, in a dangerous region where the United States seeks Saudi leadership and cooperation, untangling Mohammed’s assets for freezing from those of the kingdom was seen as virtually impossible.

“Having looked at this extremely closely, over the last five weeks or so, really, the unanimous conclusion [was] that there’s just more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward,” said a senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain the behind-the-scenes reasoning.

“The aim is a recalibration, not a rupture,” the official said.

“We’ve been very clear with the Saudis that this is an historic partnership; it’s lasted for 75 years. But the reality here in the United States and in Washington, is that the Saudis have lost both political parties . . . so that’s why we want to reset the foundation of this partnership.”

But once the intelligence report was released, and new bans and sanctions were announced, even former Obama administration officials, such as former CIA director John Brennan, suggested the Biden administration’s moves did not go far enough.

“Saying that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was responsible for the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi is not holding him accountable,” Brennan tweeted on Sunday. “The Biden administration needs to do much more. No meetings with senior U.S. officials and no visits to the U.S. would be a good start.”

One U.S. official said Brennan’s recommendation was under active consideration internally, and noted that the United States may bar Saudi Arabia from participation in international summits it is organizing in the coming months to underscore Washington’s frustration.

As Biden took criticism for not punishing Mohammed over the weekend, Saudi commentators issued their own broadsides, accusing the United States of trying to “bully” the kingdom. Saudi Arabia, wrote Abdullah al-Otaibi in the Saudi-owned, London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, was “not a banana republic to be shaken by threats.”

The official response of the Saudi Foreign Ministry, while citing what it called inaccuracies and lies in the report, was tempered with affirmation of a close U.S.-Saudi partnership. The administration itself has gone out of its way to stress that the relationship remains important.

“We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday.

But as the administration weathered the storm of criticism, officials tried to present a comprehensive picture of “recalibration” as something far afield from business as usual.

The steps that have been taken, Psaki said Monday, are “the right steps to prevent” something like Khashoggi’s murder “from ever happening again.”

“That is our objective,” she said. “Even prior to release of this report . . . we have made clear that it is going to be a shift from how it was approached over the last four years.”