‘I’m not going to meet with MBS’: Biden serves a rare presidential double fault in Saudi Arabia

By the time team Biden opened up about interactions with MBS, Air Force One was over the Atlantic

President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrive for a family photo during the GCC+3 summit in Jeddah on July 16. (Mandel Ngan/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrive for a family photo during the GCC+3 summit in Jeddah on July 16. (Mandel Ngan/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted July 22, 2022 at 11:59am

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden returned from Saudi Arabia with few tangible products — except two broken campaign promises. Lawmakers in both parties have taken note.

As a senator, Biden had a well-earned reputation for being too open and honest. Candidate Biden promised, after four years of Trumpism, to never mislead the country. Yet, he and his administration were anything but in the weeks leading up to his trip, misleading the American public about just how much one-on-one contact he would have with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

That’s broken pledge No. 1.

“Pariah.” That’s what candidate Biden vowed to treat the Saudi Arabian government as.

The White House could have used the run-up to the visit to explain that geopolitical factors that developed since the 2020 campaign had made blacklisting the Saudis no longer an option. Instead, team Biden shrugged off the mini-summit with the kingdom’s leaders as a courtesy ahead of a broader meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders. Last Friday’s hourslong sessions featured chummy chitchat, laughs and plenty of smiles.

That’s broken pledge No. 2.

Several Republican senators did not dispute the notion, when asked this week, that the crown prince played Biden — and Democrats did not push back when asked if the trip was less than a success.

“Typically, when the president goes, it’s for the closing of a deal. There didn’t seem to be the closing of anything. That was a little odd,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Tuesday. “It reminds me a lot of the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was talking to the Saudis to get them to go produce more, and the Saudis were basically saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ … It was a little surreal.”

One Democratic Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services member said the White House was warned about returning with optics that raised questions about whether MBS played Biden.

“I was honest with them before the trip that it was a bad idea and they shouldn’t have done any of it,” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine told CQ Roll Call.

GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, reportedly eying a 2024 run for his party’s presidential nomination, said Biden’s double-pledge break was unsurprising because “this administration, near as I can tell, has no guiding principle.”

“If that means they’ll go and grovel to dictators, they’re happy to do that,” he added. “I think they’ve misled the American people on a lot of things.”

It typically takes presidents a number of months to go back on a pledge from the trail. The reversal usually involves much maneuvering, with a chief executive doing everything possible to keep it mostly — or somewhat — intact. Meetings, phone calls, speeches, even tweets. Anything to keep the pledge alive.

Biden’s vow reversals followed that very path. The scene that unfolded at the Saudi royal palace was predictable. How else would meetings with Saudi leaders go, especially with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in declining health and his son, MBS, reportedly doing many of the government’s head-of-state tasks.

“You deal with the leadership that is,” Lankford said.

Breaking the campaign pledges was avoidable.

Senior White House officials, including Biden, previously told reporters he would not meet the crown prince after the intelligence community concluded he was responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident.

“I’m not going to meet with, I’m not going to meet with MBS,” Biden told reporters on June 17 on the White House’s South Lawn. “I’m going to an international meeting. And he’s going to be a part of it.”

‘Rehabilitated the murderous Prince’

After he and top aides insisted he was not going there to interact directly with MBS, the controversial Saudi crown prince was practically Biden’s escort all day — beginning with the fist bump heard ’round the world.

The crown prince was at Biden’s side into the evening — and even led one bilateral session with the American commander in chief.

“The Biden/MBS summit was the predictable geopolitical equivalent of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. The fist bump between the two men was an absurdity wrapped in a calamity that rehabilitated the murderous Prince in an instant,” tweeted Steve Schmidt, a former GOP political strategist whose list of clients has included former President George W. Bush and the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Officials were more open about having no plans to restrict Biden-MBS interactions, but not until they briefed reporters on Air Force One — in the middle of the night back home.

Biden returned from his first Middle East trip as president without any concrete assurances the Saudis or OPEC will ramp up oil production to help curb prices at the gas pump.

The White House did tout a list of “deliverables,” a number of agreements with the Saudi royal family that could help American companies — but not even members of the president’s own party are celebrating his haul.

“We’ll see how successful the trip is and what actions the Saudis take, for example, to increase production of oil and how the agreements on the expansion of relations with Israel work,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday. “We still have to see what the actual results are.”

Asked if he is skeptical the Saudis will deliver on a single promise, Kaine replied simply: “Yeah,” adding he still wants to hear from administration officials about what happened in those closed-door Saudi sessions.

Kaine is not alone.

“That’s probably still a work in progress,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation and Armed Services committees. “We’ll have to wait and see what comes of it.”

Members of both parties expressed skepticism about trusting the royal family. “It’s hard to know what the Saudis will do,” Peters said. “It’s hard to speculate.”

‘Not leave a vacuum’

Such reviews reflect a problem that has proved tough for any U.S. president to manage: Saudis leaders often say one thing, but do the opposite.

“Every single year, the Saudis and the Emiratis, in particular, make these big public pledges as to how much they are going to support food assistance and humanitarian aid in Yemen. And then, every single year, it is like pulling teeth to get both of these supposed allies to deliver on those pledges," Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said during a Wednesday Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

“So, the Saudis have pledged $300 million for food aid and humanitarian relief inside Yemen so far this year, but so far, they have delivered about $85 million,” the Connecticut Democrat added.

Since his meetings, Biden has attempted to slap a rose-colored coating on his Riyadh “deliverables,” Washington-speak for implementable agreements. As the Saudi session wrapped on July 15, the president flashed the kind of openness and geopolitical realism that could have avoided pledge-breaking, and looked more like the pragmatic, on-the-fly strategic maneuvering of a former Foreign Relations chairman.

After all, that’s just what Biden promised on the campaign trail.

“I came here to meet with the GCC and nine nations to deal with the security … and the needs of the free world, and particularly the United States, and not leave a vacuum here, which was happening as it has in other parts of the world,” Biden told reporters on July 15.

It didn’t last.

He was asked moments later about his fist bump with the crown prince. Here is how a White House-issued transcript recalls Biden’s reply: “THE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.)”

Asked again about the greeting as he returned to the White House early Sunday morning, Biden grew defensive: “Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters? I’m happy to answer a question that matters.”

What this president and his team are missing is that the root of the question is not about an open or closed fist. It is about why they attempted to whitewash a summit no U.S. president likely could have avoided with gas prices at a 40-year high.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.