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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Biden’s Saudi trip isn’t the outlier. His ‘pariah’ comment was.

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

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The big idea

Biden’s Saudi trip isn’t the outlier. His ‘pariah’ comment was.

President Biden served notice shortly after taking office that Candidate Biden’s rhetoric toward Saudi Arabia was too severe, and the two countries’ shared interests too important, for him to go ahead and fulfill a campaign promise to make that country an international “pariah.”

In a blow to relations, Biden released U.S. intelligence findings that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the 2018 murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a regime critic who wrote a column for The Washington Post. (The Saudi government rejects the charge.)

But in a taste of compromises to come, the administration did not impose sanctions on the official almost universally known as MBS even as it announced a “Khashoggi ban” — visa restrictions on scores of Saudis thought to have played a role in that killing or other attacks on dissidents around the world.

“The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the time.

A slow, steady thaw toward Saudi Arabia

In his year and a half in office, Biden has regularly attempted this sort of balancing act in relations with the kingdom, even as he has taken a much harder line than President Trump.

Biden didn’t speak to Saudi King Salman until more than a month after inauguration — and the White House made clear it did not want MBS on the call and would not be dealing with him in any other capacity than his formal defense minister role.

But the Saudi ambassador and other top officials have been welcomed at the White House (just put “AlSaud” in the White House visitor log search bar). And senior U.S. officials, like senior Middle East adviser Brett McGurk and special energy affairs envoy Amos Hochstein, have visited Saudi Arabia.

In early 2021, Biden also froze sales of “offensive” weapons to Riyadh. But, over critics’ objections, he did not end arms flow entirely.

Under pressure from relatives of Americans killed on 9/11, he ordered the declassification of documents from the FBI’s investigation into allegations of Saudi government involvement. My colleague Devlin Barrett reported: “it yielded no tangible proof of official involvement.”

And Biden took Yemen’s Houthi rebels — whom Saudi fought for years until a truce took hold a few months ago — off the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, where Trump had placed the group on his way out the door. 

When the White House announced Biden would visit Saudi Arabia next month, it left MBS off the official statement. Later, it confirmed but played down the meeting.

“Look, you know, the president is going to see over a dozen leaders on this trip,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who also declined to say whether Biden would bring up Khashoggi’s murder.

  • “Human rights conversation is something that the President brings up with many leaders and plans to do so,” she said. But “we are not looking to rupture relationships.”

Last week, Jean-Pierre had defended Biden’s engagement with autocratic regimes. “If he determines that it’s in the interest of the United States to engage with a foreign leader and that such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so.”

My colleagues Matt Viser and John Hudson observed: “The whirlwind trip reflects Biden’s attempt to address some of the thorniest challenges in the region: pressure to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a need for more oil that could help lower soaring gas prices, efforts to revive peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and a push to end the war in Yemen.”

Campaign rhetoric, governing reality

Still, all of this is tough to square with the decidedly uncompromising position Biden took in the 2020 presidential campaign.

His most notable remarks came in a late-2019 Democratic debate, when he was asked whether he would punish senior Saudi leaders for Khashoggi’s murder. Yes, Biden said without hesitation, underlining that he would end military sales to Riyadh.

“I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” he continued. “There's very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

  • That “pariah” has extensive access to the White House, new U.S. arms sales, and now a presidential visit — including a face-to-face with MBS, who wasn’t even welcome on the phone a year ago. This, over fierce opposition from Saudi human rights activists, who see the crown prince as the architect of repression at home.

But while the “pariah” comment — not the collaboration — now seems like the outlier, Jean-Pierre insisted Tuesday: “We're not overlooking any conduct that happened before the president took office.”

What’s happening now

GOP spends millions on election volunteers to search for fraud

“The Republican National Committee is spending millions this year in 16 critical states on an unprecedented push to recruit thousands of poll workers and watchers, adding firepower to a growing effort on the right to find election irregularities that could be used to challenge results,” Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey report.

  • “The RNC was until recently barred from bringing its substantial resources to bear on field operations at polling sites because of a decades-old court order. Now, the party apparatus is mobilizing volunteers to scrutinize voting locations for suspected fraud.”

Suspect in Buffalo grocery massacre charged with federal hate crimes

“The Justice Department on Wednesday charged Payton Gendron, 18, with 26 hate-crime counts and a firearm offense in the mass shooting that killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store last month. The charges could make Gendron eligible for the death penalty,” David Nakamura reports.

The war in Ukraine

Surrender deadline passes in Severodonetsk

“In the besieged city of Severodonetsk, increasingly beleaguered Ukrainian forces ignored a Russian deadline to surrender as the British Defense Ministry said ‘Russian forces now control the majority’ of the city. The defense agency said Moscow’s troops are likely to focus their efforts on a small number of civilians and soldiers holed up in a chemical plant there — a situation reminiscent of the months-long siege of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel factory,” Amy Cheng, Rachel Pannett, Annabelle Timsit and David Walker report.

Follow our live coverage of the war here

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Mass killings since 2015: Could proposed laws have made a difference?

Only about one-third of these mass killings might have been prevented by any major proposals. But some ideas — such as not allowing people under age 21 to buy assault rifles and banning ammunition storage and feeding devices known as magazines that hold more than 10 bullets — might have minimized the bloodshed. Improvements to the country’s background check system could make a difference as well, though it’s not clear how many lives would have been saved by the relatively modest changes that are part of the tentative Senate agreement, which would require a mandatory search of juvenile justice and mental health records of buyers younger than 21 and seek to clarify who needs to obtain a federal firearm license,” Glenn Kessler writes.

… and beyond

Will the Jan. 6 hearings change anyone’s mind?

“Many commentators have argued that given the current fractured political and media culture, Nixon would not have left office had the crimes of 1972 and 1973 taken place today; he could have been confident that 34 senators of his own party would stand by him, regardless of the evidence,” Stephen Engelberg writes for ProPublica.

“I’m not so sure. It’s certainly true that the major television networks broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage on what amounted to nearly all channels available in that pre-cable period of our nation’s history … But the view that the America of 2022 is divided as never before ignores the staggering level of popular support Nixon enjoyed. His reelection in 1972 was one of the biggest landslides in American history, nothing like the knife-edge presidential races we’ve experienced over the past two decades.”

In 2020, 1 in 5 pregnancies ended in abortion — the first increase in 30 years

“The U.S. abortion rate increased in 2020 for the first time in 30 years, according to a triennial survey conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, the premier think tank tracking reproductive health and policy,” the 19th's Shefali Luthra reports.

Major water cutbacks loom as shrinking Colorado River nears ‘moment of reckoning’

“As the West endures another year of unrelenting drought worsened by climate change, the Colorado River’s reservoirs have declined so low that major water cuts will be necessary next year to reduce risks of supplies reaching perilously low levels, a top federal water official said Tuesday,” the LA Times's Ian James reports.

The Biden agenda

Biden warns Big Oil over gas output

“President Biden will warn CEOs of the nation’s largest oil companies on Wednesday that he’s considering invoking emergency powers to boost U.S. refinery output, according to a letter obtained by Axios,” Ben Geman and Andrew Freedman report.

“Biden’s direct engagement with the oil giants is part of an ongoing White House effort to tame fuel prices despite limited options — and cast oil companies as responsible for consumers’ higher bills.”

Biden strains for a message on deteriorating economy

“The White House has started to change up its messaging on inflation, even though President Joe Biden has limited tools at his disposal to battle the crisis. The president stepped up efforts to draw contrasts with Republicans, unleashing a series of new attack lines Tuesday in a speech delivered amid a flurry of sobering headlines on rising costs and interest rates,” Politico's Jonathan Lemire and Ben White report.

“But with the midterms rapidly approaching, voters’ patience appears likely to run out — and the president and party in power stand poised to pay the political price.”

Biden weighs tariff rollback to ease inflation, even a little bit

“Biden is weighing whether to roll back some of the tariffs that former President Donald J. Trump imposed on Chinese goods, in hopes of mitigating the most rapid price gains in 40 years, according to senior administration officials,” the New York Times's Jim Tankersley, Ana Swanson and Alan Rappeport report.

Business groups and some outside economists have been pressuring the administration to relax at least a portion of the taxes on imports, saying it would be a significant step that the president could take to immediately cut costs for consumers.”

Keisha Lance Bottoms to join White House as senior Biden adviser

“Former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is joining the Biden administration, taking over for Cedric L. Richmond as the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, according to a White House official with knowledge of the move, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to confirm it,” Amy B Wang and Tyler Pager report.

How Trump-endorsed candidates are doing, visualized

“The races present a real-time test of whether Trump’s influence on Republican voters is waning nearly two years after he lost the presidency. The Post is tracking his endorsements — through news releases and declarations at rallies or other venues — in statewide and federal primary elections this year,” Youjin Shin, Courtney Beesch and Anu Narayanswamy report.

Hot on the left

Why is Sen. Gillibrand working on a crypto bill?

“[Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-N.Y.)] embrace of crypto comes at a particularly surprising moment, given the current political climate. Gillibrand has long been vocal about her position as the most avowedly feminist senator; her 2020 presidential run sported a ‘fiercely feminist message’ according to The New York Times, and featured policies attacking the gender pay gap, fighting abortion bans, and more. But in the final days before Roe v. Wade is expected to be struck down by the Supreme Court, snapping a number of statewide abortion bans into place, Gillibrand has trained her political capital on burnishing what many have decried as a financial deregulation bill, and courting the industry’s political support,” the American Prospect's Alexander Sammon writes.

Hot on the right

As Herschel Walker’s GOP profile rises, the falsehoods mount

“During the course of Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign, the Republican nominee in Georgia has won the hearts of former president Donald Trump and GOP voters hoping he can defeat freshman Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) in November,” Timothy Bella reports.

But the football legend’s campaign has also faced blowback from critics and Democrats for false claims he made before and during his candidacy that have surfaced in recent months — from his college education and business background to his questioning of evolution and promoting a ‘mist’ he said would ‘kill any covid on your body.’”

Today in Washington

Biden will have lunch with Vice President Harris at 12:15 p.m.

At 4 p.m., Biden and first lady Jill Biden will host a reception for Pride Month. Harris, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will also attend.

In closing

An homage to our Katherine Graham

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.