August 10, 2022

President Biden has no plans to hold a press conference when he travels to Saudi Arabia and meets with killer Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman later this week, the White House said Wednesday — days after Biden insisted in an op-ed that “fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad.”

“We don’t have a press conference for Saudi,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed to reporters on board Air Force One en route to Israel for the first leg of the president’s trip.

“But what we are trying to do is trying to make sure that you guys hear from the president in Saudi, on the bilats [bilateral meetings], on the trip, and make sure that you guys hear directly from him,” Jean-Pierre added. 

When asked how the lack of a presidential news conference during a closely-watched overseas visit would square with the administration’s stated commitment to openness and media access, Jean-Pierre reiterated that “we are going to make sure that you guys hear from him.”

“That is press access,” she added, declining to provide any additional specifics. 

President Biden is set to travel to Saudi Arabia later this week to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
AFP via Getty Images

Biden has held far fewer news conferences and sat for fewer one-on-one interviews than his immediate predecessors in the White House. On his previous foreign trip, to last month’s NATO summit in Madrid, the president frustrated reporters by rushing through a 27-minute presser — at which he called on just five journalists to ask questions.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan also stated that there would not be a formal press conference before confirming that Biden would meet with members of the Saudi royal family — including King Salman and the crown prince, known widely as MBS, on Friday. 

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The meeting was hotly debated within the administration after Biden promised during his presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. US intelligence has concluded that the Mohammed bin Salman ordered the operation that led to Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi special forces salute in front of a screen displaying images Saudi King Salman, right, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Although the president’s impending visit is under much scrutiny, the White House says no press conference will follow Biden’s meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
AP

Khashoggi’s fiancée called on Biden to cancel the meeting last month, accusing him of “dishonoring yourself” and “putting oil over principles” by agreeing to the sit-down.

In an op-ed published by the Washington Post over the weekend, Biden defended the Saudi visit, writing: “As president, it is my job to keep our country strong and secure.

“We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world.” the president went on. “To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes. Saudi Arabia is one of them”.

Joe Biden
On Biden’s last trip abroad, he also faltered on communication by calling on only 5 journalists during a press conference in Madrid.
Getty Images

While Biden is moving forward with the meeting, the White House appears to be making every effort possible to not look chummy with MBS – even avoiding a handshake. 

When the president arrived in Tel Aviv Wednesday, he eschewed handshakes with Israeli leaders in favor of fist bumps due to an increase in COVID cases in both the US and the Jewish state.

Jean-Pierre declined to confirm if that practice would be used in Saudi Arabia as well. 

Workers set the red carpet during the final rehearsal for the ceremony welcoming U.S. President Joe Biden a head of his visit to Israel on July 12, 2022 in Lod, Israel
Workers in Israel set the ceremonial red carpet ahead of Biden’s visit to the Middle East country on July 12, 2022.
Getty Images

“What we’re saying is we are taking precautions,” she told reporters.

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“Is one of those precautions not shaking hands?” one reporter asked. 

“What I’m saying is we’re going to try to minimize…contact as much as possible where we can and so that is what the focus is going to be on this trip,” the press secretary said. 

When the press corps pointed out that the president took part in “very lengthy handshaking and selfie sessions” at the White House in recent days, Jean-Pierre continued to insist “extra precautions” would be taken overseas.

“While COVID is not gone, it’s still very much around,” she said, adding that additional measures to protect Biden are “up to his doctor.”