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Biden questioned over accomplishments of Saudi visit

‘I just don’t believe that we should be maintaining a warm relationship with a dictatorship like that,’ Sen. Bernie Sanders said

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Biden upon his arrival at Al-Salam palace in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AP)
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An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed quotes from a “Fox News Sunday” interview to Jared Bernstein, a member of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. They were from Mo Elleithee, a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Sunday criticized President Biden for traveling to Saudi Arabia last week to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the administration continues to face questions about what the trip accomplished.

“I don’t think that that type of government should be rewarded with a visit by the president of the United States,” Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week,” citing the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime who had been a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Five Saudi nationals were given death sentences, later commuted to 20 years, in his murder. A U.S. intelligence report released last year concluded that the crown prince had “approved” the operation.

Biden says he confronted Saudi leader on Khashoggi

Biden had previously vowed to isolate the country as a “pariah,” but in recent months as the price of gas has skyrocketed, he has been under pressure to reengage with Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer. The meeting between the two leaders in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia — which began with a fist bump — was widely criticized as a reversal of Biden’s pledge to make Saudi Arabia accountable for its abuses.

Sanders noted that the administration could have taken other steps to continue to ease oil prices without doing business with Saudi Arabia. He suggested what he called a “windfall profits tax” on oil companies that he said are “ripping off the American people.”

“Look, you got a family that is worth a hundred billion dollars, which questions democracy, which treats women as third-class citizens, which murders and imprisons its opponents,” Sanders said. “I just don’t believe that we should be maintaining a warm relationship with a dictatorship like that.”

Human Rights Watch said it appeared to signal that the crown prince was now “accepted” by the United States. And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), speaking on CNN on Sunday, took Biden to task for “flying to the Middle East and fist-bumping with murderers and despots.”

Biden says he confronted Saudis directly on Khashoggi

Biden said during the trip that he directly confronted the crown prince about the murder and “indicated that I thought he was” personally responsible for it.

In a brief exchange with reporters late Saturday night upon his return, Biden deflected when asked whether he regretted the fist bump, which has drawn political blowback for the image. “Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters?” he said. “I’m happy to answer a question that matters.”

Jared Bernstein, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, speaking Sunday on CNN, defended the visit. Asked if the visit achieved anything, Bernstein said: “We saw Saudi Arabia say that it would increase its capacity for oil production, and I refer you to them for more information there.”

On “Fox News Sunday,” Mo Elleithee, a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said he thought the trip “wasn’t a great thing” but was “a necessity.”

“No, I don’t think anyone wanted to see the president of the United States going off and giving a bear hug to an autocrat who is responsible for the murder of a journalist who lived in the United States,” Elleithee said.

Elleithee added that Saudi Arabia is important for the United States’ strategic positioning in the Middle East, as well as a counterweight to Russia’s aggressions and the rise of China.

“I’d rather see a fist bump from the president of United States than a bear hug from Vladimir Putin or from Xi in China, because that’s the alternative,” Elleithee said.

Amy B Wang contributed to this report.