In the years prior to taking office, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and many of their administration’s top officials harshly criticized President Donald Trump’s lack of action against Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden is now facing criticism for not following through on campaign promises to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the killing. The administration last Friday released a declassified intelligence report on Khashoggi’s murder that said the crown prince, commonly known as MBS, directly approved the operation that ended with the murder of Khashoggi. He was killed and allegedly dismembered after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, having gone into the building to collect documents for his upcoming wedding.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday announced visa restrictions that affected 76 Saudis believed to be involved in harassing activists and journalists, but he did not announce any measures against the crown prince. And while the Biden administration has taken more steps than the Trump administration to punish Saudi actors for their role in Khashoggi’s death, the actions of key members of the Biden administration differ from the sharp criticism they offered before they took office.
A CNN KFile review of past comments from Biden, Harris and some of their administration’s top officials shows the extent to which they criticized the Trump administration for not punishing MBS or senior Saudi officials directly or seeking accountability from the Saudi government.
The White House referred CNN to remarks made by White House press secretary Jen Psaki at Tuesday’s briefing. Psaki outlined the Biden administration’s actions, including sanctioning the former deputy head of general intelligence and imposing visa restrictions on 76 Saudis believed to be involved with the Khashoggi operation, and said the White House “made clear that we expect additional reforms to be put in place” in their conversations with Saudi Arabia.
“These decisions were made on the basis of decades of experience and consideration by our national security team on what would be most effective in not only deterring actions like this in the future, preventing this from ever happening again — which is, of course, our objective — but also being able to maintain a relationship moving forward,” Psaki said.
“And, of course, we have important work we do with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia from intelligence sharing to deterring the actions of militants in the region. Those are in the national interest of those in the United States.”
The State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris
Speaking on the campaign trail at a CNN town hall in 2019, Biden referred to Khashoggi’s death as “flat-out murder,” saying the Saudi journalist was “butchered,” and called for “consequences.”
Two years after Khashoggi was murdered on October 2, 2018, Biden released a statement through his campaign calling for “accountability,” and saying his administration would “reassess our relationship with the Kingdom.” He also vowed he would punish senior Saudi leaders in a way the Trump administration did not.
“There’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” Biden said in a 2019 Democratic debate. “They have to be held accountable.”
“It’s been 1 year since the horrific, premeditated murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia. And Trump has yet to hold Saudi officials accountable,” she wrote on Twitter in October 2019. “Unacceptable—America must make it clear that violence toward critics and the press won’t be tolerated.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Blinken, who is now Biden’s secretary of state, in 2019 blasted the Trump administration’s handling of Khashoggi’s death and murder, calling it a missed opportunity to influence the Saudi government.
“I think the administration has missed a tremendous opportunity to use a horrific, terrible event, the murder of this journalist Khashoggi to use that as a way to influence Saudi behavior and Saudi policies in a way that better reflect our interests and our values,” Blinken said on CBS News’ Intelligence Matters podcast. “There was a moment to go to Saudi Arabia and say… your new leader or de facto leader, the crown prince acts in impulsive, and sometimes reckless ways. We’re not telling you who should lead your country, but we are telling you he needs to be reigned in in some fashion.”
“There was a moment to do all of that,” he added. “That moment seems to have been squandered. Saudi Arabia seems to have a blank check. This is not about ending the alliance or the partnership with Saudi Arabia. It is making sure that the alliance actually reflects our interests and our values, not just Saudi Arabia’s.”
Speaking on CNN in November 2018, Blinken, who was a CNN global affairs analyst at the time, criticized “the [Trump] administration’s blank check to the Saudis and its refusal apparently to seek any accountability from Mohammad bin Salman for his apparent involvement in the murder.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and White House domestic policy director Susan Rice
Jake Sullivan, who is now Biden’s national security adviser, harshly criticized the Trump administration’s response to Khashoggi’s assassination, saying in June 2020 the administration gave Saudi leadership a “blank check” to wrongly continue “jailing dissidents, curbing speech, punishing women, and murdering a US resident and prominent journalist in a grotesque and almost sort of ostentatious way.”
Sullivan insisted that a Biden administration would put “values, human rights and human dignity on the agenda” in a way “that has been completely taken off the table by Trump.”
“Trump has looked the other way when it comes to the Saudis, taking a US-based journalist and literally hacking him to pieces. Trump gave them a complete free pass. Joe Biden would not, he would hold those responsible to account,” he said in a September 2020 podcast.
Sullivan’s colleague Susan Rice, the former national security adviser to President Barack Obama and Biden’s current White House domestic policy adviser, wrote a few weeks after Khashoggi’s death that the US should launch an “impartial international investigation” into the matter. She also asserted Khashoggi’s death could not have occurred without direction from MBS and that the crown prince must be held personally responsible.
“We should start by leading the push for an impartial international investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. We must be consistent and public in our judgment that the United States believes the killing could not have occurred without Prince Mohammed’s blessing or, more likely, his order,” Rice wrote in an October 2018 op-ed.
“Prince Mohammed is not and can no longer be viewed as a reliable or rational partner of the United States and our allies,” she wrote, adding that “if we fail to punish him directly and target only those around him, the crown prince will be further emboldened to take extreme actions.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki and State Department spokesperson Ned Price
Psaki and Ned Price, who are now the White House press secretary and State Department spokesperson, respectively, were both critical of the Trump administration’s handling of Khashoggi’s death.
Speaking on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” in October 2018, Psaki said there needed to “international action,” in response to his death. Psaki was a CNN contributor at the time.
“They’re really giving them a free pass at this point,” she said.
Speaking on CNN’s “The Lead” a month later, Psaki criticized the Trump administration’s actions, saying MBS wouldn’t necessarily survive without US support.
“Look, I think the question — the real issue at hand here is President Trump in and the administration going to stand by MBS… when the increasing evidence seems very clear what happened here,” she said. “Obviously, we’re going to continue to have a relationship with Saudi Arabia. They’re an important relationship for the United States but his survival is interesting here, and I’m not sure survival would be as certain without the US support which he has at this point.”
“Trump today cowardly signaled that, as a matter of administration policy, it doesn’t matter whether MbS ordered the murder,” wrote Price. “Now he’ll have to certify, as a matter of law and intelligence, what the experts think. Either way, he’ll disregard them to protect the Crown Prince.”
Top State Department nominees Wendy Sherman and Victoria Nuland and Deputy UN Ambassador Jeffrey Prescott
Some of Biden’s top state department nominees and deputies were also fiercely critical of the Trump administration’s handling of Khashoggi’s death.
Wendy R. Sherman, Biden’s nominee to become the deputy secretary of state, said that despite America’s close allyship with Saudi Arabia, action must be taken.
“We don’t have to destroy our relationship with Saudi Arabia. We’ve all done business with Saudi Arabia. We’ve all been impressed with some ways in which they’ve helped us in intelligence and strategic thinking about the Middle East, but this is a crime of untold proportion to take a resident, US citizen and murder them in the Saudi consulate. And there have to be consequences,” Sherman said on MSNBC in October 2018.
In a separate interview with the Harvard Gazette two months later, Sherman said the US “cannot stand for what has occurred” and accused world leaders in November 2018 of giving the Saudis a “pass” for their role in Khashoggi’s murder.
“I think that the Trump administration, quite frankly a lot of leaders around the world, have decided to give the crown prince of Saudi Arabia a pass,” she said on MSNBC in November 2018. “But if you’re going to give him a pass, which in this case I would not do, but if you are, end the Yemen war. Stop offensive weapons being sold to Saudi Arabia.”
The Biden administration ended offensive military aid for the Saudi-led war in Yemen last month.
Victoria Nuland, Biden’s nominee to become the third highest ranking official at the State Department, said there will have to be “consequences for this kind of extraterritorial illegal act.”
“[The Khashoggi murder] has really captured the concern of the American people — not just members of Congress, but all across the country, people are watching this case, and Americans don’t want to be on the side of grisly killers. They want their country to stand for rule of law, and the president’s having to grapple with that now,” said Nuland on NPR in October 2018.
Deputy UN Ambassador Jeffrey Prescott in 2019 said Trump refused to hold Saudi leadership to account for Khashoggi’s murder.
Prescott tweeted, “[Trump] refused to hold the Saudi leadership to account for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and journalist: ‘He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally,’ Trump said in an interview in the Oval Office.”