Highlights from Biden’s Trip to the Middle East

Credit…Doug Mills / The New York Times

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – When President Biden told the story, it seemed rather dramatic.

After meeting with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin SalmanThe de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, on Friday, for the first time since taking office, the president stressed that he had directly blame him for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“He basically said he wasn’t personally responsible for it,” Biden told reporters. “I pointed out that I thought it was him.”


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During a private meeting in Jeddah, the president said he was “frank and direct” with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about the murder of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi.CreditCredit…Doug Mills / The New York Times

Single hitchhiking? That’s not how it happened, according to Saudi officials. Adel al-Jubeir, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, who was present at the meeting, told reporters that he did not hear the president blame the crown prince.

The White House on Saturday did not back down. “The president has been very clear about the conversation and we’re on his side,” said John Kirby, coordinator of strategic communications at the National Security Council.

Asked by reporters after landing back in Washington if the Saudi minister was telling the truth, Mr Biden replied simply: “No.” He seemed exasperated by the second conjecture about his trip. When a reporter asked him if he regretted the fist punch he greeted Crown Prince Mohammed, he complained, “Why don’t you guys talk about something important?”

Both sides wanted to film the closed-door meeting. Biden has been denounced by human rights groups, media organizations and politicians from both parties for meeting the crown prince, the CIA said. ordered the 2018 operation that killed Mr. Khashoggi, a US resident and columnist for The Washington Post. By pushing his level of toughness behind closed doors, the president is clearly hoping to assuage some criticism for reneging on his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia the one “Pariah.”

For its part, Saudi Arabia eagerly presents the meeting as a return to business as usual between the leaders of two longtime allies, and has every hope of minimizing the protracted Khashoggi affair. Mr. Jubeir confirmed to reporters that Mr. Biden had raised the issue but described it in less confrontational terms. The last thing the Saudis want is a picture of a president giving a presentation about their young leader.

Indeed, both sides were very pleased with the choreography of the encounter. American news photographers traveling in the White House motorcade did not get a chance to capture the president greeting the crown prince when he arrived at the palace here, an image Biden aides had to scared. For their part, the Saudi government has ensured its official photographers are everywhere and snap countless photos of the two together, instantly posted online.

Biden is essentially a storyteller with a penchant for embellishment. He often tells the story of meeting Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as vice president in 2011 and telling him, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” The others present at the time have no recollection of that particular exchange.

Mr. Biden similarly described a no-nonsense confrontation in 1993 with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian nationalist leader who had ushered in an ethnic war in the Balkans. “I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried like one,” Mr. Biden, then a senator, related to having told Mr. Milosevic, according to a 2007 memoir, “Promises to keep.” Several other people in the room later said they did not recall the line.

Mr. Biden likes to present himself as someone who stands up to dictators and crooked figures. Another favorite story stems from a meeting with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in 2008, when the Afghan leader denied that his government was steeped in corruption. Mr. Biden said he was so irritated that he threw down his napkin, declaring: “This dinner is over,” and stormed out.

Credit…Ahmad Masood / Reuters

Normally, others in the room for such sessions say that some version of what Mr. Biden described took place, but not with the stage on which cameras were available. During his presidential campaign, for example, he told a moving story about honoring a war hero that fact-checkers at The Post later concluded. combines elements of three real events into a version that did not happen.

In offering their softer version of what went on between Mr. Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed on Friday, Saudi Arabia did not seek to appeal to the president for misrepresenting the facts. In fact, they seem anxious to avoid any perception of difference or stress. Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters that when it came to the Khashoggi case, the conversation was “very frank.”

The question is, how frankly?

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