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White House criticized for not directly sanctioning Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman for role in Khashoggi murder

  • March 01, 2021

declassification of an intelligence report which clearly implicated the prince for the brutal murder of a Washington Post journalist.

Detractors have equated the White House’s response as effectively the same as that of the Trump administration, with then-President Donald Trump seeming to defend bin Salman, known by his initials: MBS.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national and columnist for The Washington Post living in the United States, was entrapped and killed in a Saudi consulate in Instanbul in 2018.

The State Department has issued 76 visa restrictions on Saudi nationals who Secretary of State Antony Blinken said are “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”

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A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on Dec. 24, 2020 shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending by videoconference a meeting with Bahrain's Crown Prince of the Saudi-Bahraini Coordinating Council.

In a broader realignment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Biden also halted operational support for the Saudi war in Yemen, where American military aid has helped fuel the conflict which has destabilized the country and triggered a humanitarian crisis.

Hearings on Khashoggi’s murder in 2018 found bipartisan support for greater scrutiny of U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia and support for sanctions on Prince Mohammed himself. He is next in line to the throne of the kingdom, and already oversees much of the nation’s security forces and intelligence services.

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In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the United States “must re-evaluate and recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia” in the wake of the attack, specifically referencing the intelligence reports implicating of the crown prince.

“I think we should make clear that we understand what happened,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters on Friday. “And that is not acceptable, in the United States or other civilized nations, to go in and basically assassinate and dismember your political opponents or members of the press.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said there “ought to be a personal consequence” for Bin Salman over Khashoggi’s death, arguing “it won’t be enough to simply sanction the state or call for the sanctions of other individuals.”

Schiff, who sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives that would expand protections for journalists from violent actors, is among many lawmakers in Washington who’ve been critical of the Saudi government in the aftermath of the report’s release.

The White House has so far resisted calls to enact punishments directly on bin Salman, arguing the geopolitics of the situation require a more delicate approach.

“We believe there are more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement – where there is a national interest for the United States,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“The United States has not historically sanctioned the leaders of countries where we have diplomatic relations – or even some countries where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” Psaki noted.

Vigil for Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 25, 2018, in Istanbul.

“We understand that’s a bar some are holding us to, but our objective here from the government, from the Biden administration, is preventing this from ever happening again,” she emphasized.

Close Biden ally Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., also told the news program that “we are not yet done with recalibrating the relationship between the United State and the Saudi Kingdom,” but also noted that “the reality is that the crown prince is  largely in control of the Saudi kingdom and may well be so for decades.”

“While the United States remains invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has made clear that partnership must reflect U.S. values. To that end, we have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States,” Blinken said in a statement while announcing the sanctions.

The Saudi government has wholeheartedly rejected any condemnation coming from beyond the kingdom, issuing a statement blasting the intelligence report as a “negative, false and unacceptable assessment.”

The pressures on the administration to respond more forcefully to the Saudi government’s actions come as Biden has ordered a broader reassessment of the United State’s strategic footprint around the globe.

Biden, who has emphasized that his foreign policy doctrine will center human rights globally and American values abroad, told Univision Friday that during a Thursday phone call with Saudi Arabian King Salman, the president “made it clear to him that the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday.”

Biden again signaled new motions on the issue Sunday, telling a group of reporters in Wilmington that “there will be an announcement on Monday.”

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