Wooed by Saudis, Kush­ner be­came in­flu­en­tial friend

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY DAVID D. KIRK­PATRICK, BEN HUB­BARD, MARK LANDLER AND MARK MAZZETTI New York Times

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.”

STEPHEN CROW­LEY NYT file

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.

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