In defending the US decision not to take action against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki falsely claimed that the US does not sanction foreign heads of state.
Psaki made the claim in an interview with CNN on Sunday when explaining why MbS was left out of a list of Saudis sanctioned for the Khashoggi killing. The sanctions were implemented after a newly released US intelligence report said the crown prince ordered the murder.
“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,” she said.
A CNN fact-check on Psaki’s comments found that the previous three US administrations had sanctioned eight world leaders. President Trump slapped sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The administration of Barack Obama sanctioned North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. President George W. Bush imposed sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and former Myanmar leader Than Shwe.
Psaki slightly walked back the false claim at a press briefing on Monday. She said the US “has not typically sanctioned government leaders of countries where we have diplomatic relations.” Including the caveat “not typically” makes the statement not an outright lie, but it is still misleading.
As far as not sanctioning countries the US has “diplomatic relations” with, of the eight leaders listed above, the US only had no diplomatic relations with Iran and North Korea when sanctions were imposed. The US cut diplomatic ties with Libya as it implemented the sanctions on Gadhafi.
Besides the false claim, Psaki’s comments don’t line up with the logic she used in earlier remarks. While MbS is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, his father, King Salman, is still technically the head of state. At a press briefing on February 16th, Psaki recognized that fact.
Psaki said reporters had asked her whether or not Biden would speak with MbS, but she insisted that King Salman was the appropriate contact for the president. “The President’s counterpart is King Salman, and I expect that, in appropriate time, he would have a conversation with him,” she said. President Biden ultimately spoke with King Salman on February 25th.