White House defends decision not to punish Saudi crown prince, says U.S. does not sanction foreign leaders

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA – DECEMBER 10: (—-EDITORIAL USE ONLY MANDATORY CREDIT – “BANDAR ALGALOUD / SAUDI KINGDOM COUNCIL / HANDOUT” – NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS—-) Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman attends the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) annual summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 10, 2019. (Photo by Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Anadolu Agency

WASHINGTON – The White House on Sunday defended its decision to not target Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a U.S. intelligence report linked the royal to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Historically and even in recent history, Democratic and Republican administrations, there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

“We believe there are more effective ways to make sure that this doesn’t happen again and also to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement,” Psaki said.

“That is what diplomacy looks like. That is what a complicated global engagement looks like and we’ve made no secret and have been clear that we are going to hold them accountable on the global stage,” Psaki said, adding that the administration took steps through the Treasury and State Department.

When he was running for president, Joe Biden said he would hold senior Saudi leaders accountable for Khashoggi’s death, calling the kingdom’s leadership a “pariah” that had “very little social redeeming value.”

On Friday, Treasury slapped sanctions on the crown prince’s security detail, known as the Rapid Intervention Force. It also sanctioned the former deputy head of the kingdom’s intelligence service, Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al-Asiri, who is accused of being a ringleader in the plot.

Meanwhile, the State Department imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”

Khashoggi, a 59-year-old U.S. resident and a widely known critic of the Saudi royal family, went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. He never emerged following the scheduled appointment. He was killed inside the Saudi government building and later dismembered. His remains were never recovered.

A man holds a poster of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest organized by members of the Turkish-Arabic Media Association at the entrance to Saudi Arabia’s consulate on October 8, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Chris McGrath | Getty Images News | Getty Images

When asked if the Biden administration would take further action, Psaki said that the United States would recalibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Trump administration.

Earlier this month, Biden announced the end of U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen . Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have carried out attacks in Yemen against the Houthis. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen had previously enjoyed the backing of former President Donald Trump’s administration. And last month, Biden halted sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in order to assess potential human rights abuses.

On the campaign trail, then-Vice President Biden criticized then-President Donald Trump’s refusal to address the kingdom’s human rights abuses and eagerness to sell the royals more American-made weapons.

“I would make it very clear that we are not going to in fact sell more weapons to them, we were going to in fact make them pay the price,” Biden said during a Democratic presidential debate. “They have to be held accountable” he added.

Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich monarchy is one of America’s most strategic partners and a significant patron of U.S. defense companies. The Saudis are the top buyer of U.S.-made arms , a title that has safeguarded the kingdom from retaliatory sanctions over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Despite reports that Saudi Arabia was behind the attack, Trump said in a lengthy statement that the United States would stand with Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Donald Trump looks over at Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud as they line up for the family photo during the opening day of Argentina G20 Leaders’ Summit 2018 at Costa Salguero on November 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Daniel Jayo | Getty Images

Throughout his presidency, Trump often cited the importance of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, repeatedly pushing back on approving significant economic or political consequences for Riyadh’s human rights abuses.

Trump has also previously said that the U.S. defense industry would be negatively impacted if his administration were to sanction the Saudis over the Khashoggi killing.

“I tell you what I don’t want to do,” Trump said to CBS’ “60 Minutes,” when he was asked about possibly blocking arms sales to Riyadh. “Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these [companies]. I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that. There are other ways of punishing, to use a word that’s a pretty harsh word, but it’s true,” he said one month after Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The Biden administration has previously said it is reviewing U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and unlike the previous administration, the 35-year-old royal is not viewed as the president’s counterpart . Instead, Biden and will conduct relations through the crown prince’s aging father, King Salman, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will conduct relations through the foreign minister.

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