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Biden Says He Confronted Saudi Prince Over Khashoggi. How True Is That?


JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — As President Biden told the story, it sounded pretty dramatic.

After meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, on Friday for the primary time since taking office, the president insisted that he had pointedly blamed him for the murder of the columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“He mainly said that he was not personally chargeable for it,” Mr. Biden recounted to reporters. “I indicated that I believed he was.”

The White House on Saturday didn’t back down. “The president was very clear concerning the conversation, and we stand by his account,” said John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications on the National Security Council.

The U.S. president traveled to Israel and Saudi Arabia, after branding the latter country a “pariah” state following the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist.

Each side had an interest in spinning the closed-door meeting. Mr. Biden has been denounced by rights groups, media organizations and politicians in each parties for meeting with the crown prince, who the C.I.A. says ordered the 2018 operation that killed Mr. Khashoggi, a United States resident and columnist for The Washington Post. By promoting how tough he was behind closed doors, the president clearly hoped to defuse among the criticism for abandoning his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.”

For his or her part, the Saudis were desperate to present the meeting as a return to business as usual between the leaders of two longtime allies, and had every hope of minimizing the lasting import of the Khashoggi case. Mr. Jubeir confirmed to reporters that Mr. Biden had raised the matter but characterised it in less confrontational terms. The very last thing the Saudis wanted was the image of a president lecturing their young leader.

Indeed, each side were acutely attuned to the choreography of the encounter. American news photographers traveling within the White House motorcade got no opportunity to get in place to capture the image of the president greeting the crown prince upon his arrival at a palace here, an image Mr. Biden’s aides had dreaded. The Saudi government, for its part, made sure its official photographers were all over the place and snapped myriad shots of the 2 together, which were promptly posted online.

Mr. Biden has similarly described an unvarnished confrontation in 1993 with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian nationalist leader who unleashed an ethnic war within the Balkans. “I believe you’re a rattling war criminal and you ought to be tried as one,” Mr. Biden, then a senator, related having told Mr. Milosevic, in response to a 2007 memoir, “Guarantees to Keep.” Another people within the room later said they didn’t recall that line.

Mr. Biden likes presenting himself as standing as much as dictators and crooked figures. One other favorite story stemmed from a gathering with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in 2008, when the Afghan leader denied that his government was awash in corruption. Mr. Biden said he grew so irritated that he threw down his napkin, declared, “This dinner is over,” and stormed out.

Often, others within the room for such sessions say that some version of what Mr. Biden has described did happen, only not with quite as much camera-ready theatricality. During his presidential campaign, as an illustration, he told a moving story about honoring a war hero that fact checkers at The Post later concluded conflated elements of three actual events right into a version that didn’t occur.

In offering their softer version of what transpired between Mr. Biden and Prince Mohammed on Friday, the Saudis weren’t searching for to call out the president for misrepresenting it. In reality, they seemed anxious to avoid any perception of differences or tension. Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the USA, told reporters that when it got here to the Khashoggi case, the conversation “was candid.”

The query was, how candid?

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