Wooed by Saudis, Kushner became influential friend
Senior U.S. officials were worried. Since the early months of the
Trump administration, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, had been having private, informal conversations with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the favorite son of Saudi Arabia’s king.
Given Kushner’s political inexperience, the private exchanges could make him susceptible to Saudi manipulation, said three former senior U.S. officials. In an effort to tighten practices at the White House, a new chief of staff tried to reimpose long-standing procedures stipulating that National Security Council staff members should participate in all calls with foreign leaders.
But even with the restrictions in place, Kushner, 37, and Crown Prince Mohammed, 33, kept chatting, said three former White House officials and two others briefed by the Saudi royal court. In fact, they said, the two men were on a first-name basis, calling each other Jared and Mohammed in text messages and phone calls.
The exchanges continued even after the Oct. 2 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents, said two former senior U.S. officials and the two people briefed by the Saudis.
As the killing set off a firestorm around the world and U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that it was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed, Kushner became the prince’s most important defender inside the White House, people familiar with its internal deliberations say.
Kushner’s support for the prince in the moment of crisis is a striking demonstration of a singular bond that has helped draw President Donald Trump into an embrace of Saudi Arabia as one of his most important international allies.
But the ties between Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed did not happen on their own. The prince and his advisers, eager to enlist U.S. support for his hawkish policies in the region and for his own consolidation of power, cultivated the relationship with Kushner for more than two years, according to documents, emails and text messages reviewed by The New York Times.
A delegation of Saudis close to the prince visited the United States as early as the month Trump was elected, the documents show, and brought back a report identifying Kushner as a crucial focal point in the courtship of the new administration. He brought to the job scant knowledge about the region, a transactional mindset and an intense focus on reaching a deal with the Palestinians that met Israel’s demands, the delegation noted.
Even then, before the inauguration, the Saudis were trying to position themselves as essential allies who could help the Trump administration fulfill its campaign pledges. In addition to offering to help resolve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the Saudis offered hundreds of billions of dollars in deals to buy U.S. weapons and invest in U.S. infrastructure. Trump later announced versions of some of these items with great fanfare when he made his first foreign trip: to an Arab-islamic summit in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The Saudis had extended that invitation during the delegation’s November 2016 visit.
“The inner circle is predominantly deal-makers who lack familiarity with political customs and deep institutions, and they support Jared Kushner,” the Saudi delegation wrote of the incoming administration in a slide presentation obtained by the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, which provided it to The Times. Several Americans who spoke with the delegation confirmed the slide presentation’s accounts of the discussions.
“The relationship between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman constitutes the foundation of the Trump policy not just toward Saudi Arabia but toward the region,” said Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Middle East envoy. The administration’s reliance on the Saudis in the peace process, its support for the kingdom’s feud with Qatar, a U.S. ally, and its backing of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, he said, all grew out of “that bromance.”
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, arrive at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May 2017. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his advisers cultivated a relationship with Kushner over more than two years.