This is all fair enough. But Psaki also made another claim – a claim that Biden’s decision to avoid direct sanctions against bin Salman followed a precedent set by previous presidents.
Facts first: It is not true that there have “been no sanctions in place” against the leaders of foreign governments, even in the recent past. In fact, Biden’s three predecessors who took office in the 21st century imposed direct sanctions on foreign rulers. Psaki made a narrower and more specific statement on Monday, saying the United States has “generally” not imposed direct sanctions on leaders of countries with which it has diplomatic relations.
The list of leaders against the United States who have been hit with direct sanctions include:
- Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Venezuelan President Nicolas maduro, which were sanctioned by President Donald Trump;
- North Korean dictator Kim jong un, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Libyan dictator of the time Moamer Kadhafi, which were sanctioned by President Barack Obama;
- Myanmar’s leader at the time Than Shwe, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Zimbabwean president Robert mugabe, which were sanctioned by President George W. Bush.
There is some complexity as to who qualifies as the head of a foreign government. The official head of the Iranian government is the President, but the ultimate authority is, as the title suggests, the Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is still officially ruled by King Salman, but the Crown Prince, his son, is the de facto ruler.
The specifics of the sanctions imposed on these leaders varied. They included travel restrictions, asset freezes, and bans on Americans having financial relations with them.
A closer claim on Monday
Psaki narrowed the claim during his daily White House press briefing on Monday. She said this time: “Historically, the United States, through the Democratic and Republican presidents, has generally not sanctioned heads of government in countries where we have diplomatic relations.”
The “not typically” and the “countries where we have diplomatic relations” make Psaki’s claim on Monday more accurate than the claim she made on CNN on Sunday. (Psaki did not respond to an email request for comment on his Sunday complaint.)
The United States had varying levels of diplomatic relations with countries whose leaders it sanctioned under Trump, Obama, and Bush.
A complex subject
Lopez said that, “on the whole”, the practice of the United States has been to “sanction all those directly under the charge” rather than directly sanctioning the leader. Traditionally, he said, the attitude of the United States has been that “you don’t make politics personal at this level.”
Given this general US approach, Lopez argued that Psaki’s Sunday claim was “sufficiently specific” even though there were exceptions to the rule. Due to the number of exceptions, we respectfully disagree – although it’s good that Psaki got more specific the next day.