Despite promising to punish senior Saudi leaders while on the campaign trail, President Biden declined to punish the one the US intelligence community determined is responsible for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The choice not to punish Prince Mohammed directly puts into sharp relief the type of decision-making that becomes more complicated for a president versus a candidate, and demonstrates the difficulty in breaking with a troublesome ally in a volatile region.
On Friday: Biden's administration released an unclassified intelligence report on the Khashoggi's death, an action his predecessor refused to take as he downplayed US intelligence.
The report from the director of national intelligence says the crown prince, known as MBS, directly approved the killing of Khashoggi. But while a sanctions list from the Treasury Department listed a former deputy intelligence chief and the Saudi Royal Guard’s rapid intervention force, the crown prince wasn't listed.
Two administration officials said there was a concern that sanctioning MBS was never really an option, operating under the belief it would have been “too complicated” and could have jeopardized US military interests in Saudi Arabia. As a result, the administration did not even request the State Department to work up options for how to target MBS with sanctions, one State Department official said.
State Department officials said that the Biden administration made a point not to upend any working-level discussions between the two countries because the security relationship is so important.
More context: In November 2019, Biden promised to punish senior Saudi leaders in a way former President Trump wouldn't.
"Yes," he said when directly asked if he would, "And I said it at the time. Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. And 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 the pariah that they are."