Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., sided with the Biden administration’s argument that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was protected by sovereign immunity from lawsuits filed against him in the death of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“What the administration decided this week in granting sovereign immunity to Mohammed bin Salman’ is in keeping with the practice and custom of lawsuits involving foreign heads of state,” Cotton said during an appearance on Fox News Sunday.
Cotton’s comments come after the State Department on Thursday said the administration’s determination the Saudi leader had sovereign immunity from U.S. courts in Khashoggi’s killing is a “purely a legal determination” with long-standing legal precedent.
The Arkansas senator agreed, saying it “would have been a major break from those customs to not grant that kind of immunity.”
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“What I would say is Saudi Arabia is far from the world’s worst abuser of human rights,” Cotton said. “You look at what’s been happening in Iran for the last three months, for instance, and the way they’ve massacred protesters in the streets or what China does to harvest organs or to commit genocide against religious and ethnic minorities.”
Cotton pointed out that Saudi Arabia has been one of the U.S.’s most critical security partners even though they don’t always share American values, arguing the U.S. wouldn’t have many partners if countries were expected to 100% align with America’s democratic system.
“What matters most about governments around the world is less whether they’re democratic or not democratic and more whether they’re pro-American or anti-American,” Cotton said. “The simple fact is Saudi Arabia has been an American partner going back 80 years.”
Cotton noted that his stance does not “mean that we overlook or excuse countries that are pro-American,” arguing they can be nurtured into democratic countries over time.
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The Biden administration’s position on the issue has proved controversial, with Washington Post CEO Fred Bryan saying the decision fails “to uphold America’s most cherished values.”
“He’s granting license to kill to one of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers,” Bryan said of President Biden.
Biden has seemingly struggled to balance the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia in recent months, most notably after the country went against the president’s wishes to ramp up the supply of oil in response to surging prices.
The 2018 killing of Khashoggi has become another focal point in the often tense relationship between Biden and Saudi Arabia, with Biden previously vowing on the campaign trail to make a “pariah” out of Saudi rulers over the issue.
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“I think it was a flat-out murder,” Biden said during a 2019 CNN town hall. “And I think we should have nailed it as that. I publicly said at the time we should treat it that way and there should be consequences relating to how we deal with those – that power.”
But Cotton believes Biden has at least moved in the right direction when it comes to handling the case.
“They didn’t have to weigh in, but again, it would have been a major breach with customary practice,” Cotton said.