The Biden administration never considered sanctions as a viable option against the powerful Saudi crown prince named as responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even though the new President promised to punish senior Saudi leaders during the election.
Administration officials tell CNN there was little debate or tension inside the White House last week in the leadup to the release of a long-awaited intelligence report into the brutal 2018 murder of Khashoggi— and that the notion of sanctioning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, was never really on the table.
The White House has been hammered over what many critics say was its weak response to the report’s findings, especially given the administration’s tough talk about recalibrating the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and Joe Biden’s campaign promises of making the Saudis pay a price for their role in Khashoggi’s murder.
As CNN’s KFile reported, in the years before taking office, many of the administration’s top officials harshly criticized President Donald Trump’s lack of action against Saudi Arabia and bin Salman.
In response to last week’s report, the State Department put 76 Saudi nationals on a no-travel list, and the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Saudi officials involved in the killing of Khashoggi. But bin Salman was not among them.
Sanctioning the crown prince, known as MBS, would have been “too complicated,” according to two administration officials, and could have jeopardized US military interests in the kingdom. As a result, the administration did not even request the State Department to work up options for how to target MBS, one State Department official said. Another current administration official said sanctioning the crown prince was never a “viable option” given that it could upend important initiatives in the region.
One central reason: MBS has near complete control over all the country’s levers of power. He is not only the crown prince, he is the deputy prime minister, defense minister, chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs and the head of Aramco, the state-owned oil and natural gas company.
MBS’ father, King Salman, who is rumored to be unwell, upended decades-long Saudi governance after he came to power in 2015. Instead of different princes controlling different branches of government, Salman created a system in which a single individual holds all the power. That individual is now MBS.
In the words of one former administration official, US intelligence never found a “smoking gun” directly linking MBS to the murder of Khashoggi.
“It’s not enough to sanction someone that senior just on the basis that they make all major decisions,” this official said, adding that the intel report had too few redactions to suggest that any specific evidence was discovered directly linking MBS to the decision.
In refraining from imposing sanctions directly against MBS, administration sources say they are making a pragmatic bet to preserve diplomatic relations with the Saudis, a move they hope will buy them some influence over the Middle Eastern ally.
‘Recalibrate’ not ‘rupture’
The White House has stood its ground over the last few days, defending its decision to spare MBS, though struggling at times to explain its rationale.
On Sunday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki incorrectly told CNN’s Dana Bash that even in recent history, the US has not sanctioned “leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations – and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations.” Psaki made a narrower and more accurate claim during a press conference on Monday, saying the US has “typically” not imposed direct sanctions on leaders of countries with which it has diplomatic relations.
Also on Monday, Psaki said the administration reserves the right to do more on Saudi, but that was after weathering a weekend of sharp of criticism. During Monday’s press conference, asked how the President is reacting to attacks that he went too easy on the Saudis, Psaki responded, “I don’t think anyone runs for president or is elected if they have a thin skin. And, certainly, any action you take on an issue like global diplomacy or an issue where there’s a complicated relationship — I think he fully expected there might be some criticism.”
Psaki added that as President, Biden’s role “is to act in the national interest of the United States. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Over at the State Department on Monday, spokesman Ned Price suggested the Biden administration is seeking to “recalibrate,” not “rupture” the US-Saudi relationship.
“We are working to put the US Saudi relationship on the right footing,” Price told reporters on Monday.
On Tuesday, Psaki reiterated the Biden administration’s intention to treat the relationship with Saudi Arabia differently than Trump and noted actions taken before the release of the report, including ending US support for the Saudis’ war in Yemen, and calling the kingdom out on human rights abuses.
That’s all done little to appease angry lawmakers, including many Democrats, who have lashed out at the Biden team’s decision not to sanction MBS. Despite the Biden administration’s tough talk, the full recalibration that they promised “did not happen,” said a Democratic aide on Capitol Hill.
Biden's First 100 Days
The Biden administration also failed to keep Congress informed in the run-up to the actions they planned to take, two congressional aides said. This left many on Capitol Hill scrambling on Friday morning to try and figure out what was coming.
The sanctions that did come – against a senior Saudi intelligence official and the crown prince’s protective force – were “necessary but not sufficient,” a Democratic aide told CNN.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers immediately announced last week that more needed to be done to hold MBS accountable, and some are working up legislation.
While Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden praised the administration for its actions, in a statement he made clear that “there should be personal consequences for MBS – he should suffer sanctions, including financial, travel and legal – and the Saudi government should suffer grave consequences as long as he remains in the government.”
In a statement to CNN, New York Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he is “currently reviewing potential further steps to hold all those involved accountable, including those at the top. The forced repatriation, intimidation, or killing of dissidents by the Saudi government, or any other government, must not go unchecked.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee member Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, also notified advocates via her office of her intention to introduce sanctions legislation.
“I don’t think he does go far enough, although you have to give him credit because he’s actually increased sanctions and he’s increased the travel bans on those individuals who were directly responsible,” Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman told host George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I don’t think anybody thinks that the crown prince was not responsible, in other words, that he knew about it and that he approved of it,” Portman added. “So, I do think there ought to be something additional that focuses on him.”
Wise on holding off
Not everyone thinks the Biden administration took the wrong approach. Varsha Koduvayur, a senior policy analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish policy institute in Washington, said that the administration was “wise on holding off” with sanctions on the crown prince.
“There’s obviously a difficult balance that the Biden administration is trying to strike here,” she added. “The administration is doing a really good balancing act where Biden is saying they are not going to condone the transactional approach or Whatsapp diplomacy.”
The use of Saudi Arabian military bases for regional operations remains a top priority for the US, which an administration official told CNN was among the factors driving last week’s decision not to include MBS on the sanctions list.
Brett McGurk, who currently heads the Middle East directorate at the National Security Council, has previously turned to Saudi Arabia for funding in support of stabilizing Syria and other regional interests in his roles under the previous two administrations.
“There’s no question he and other top advisors view Saudi Arabia as far too important to justify” MBS sanctions, the former administration official said.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.