As further details emerge about how Russian officials attempted to form connections with those in Donald Trump’s orbit for political influence, a new report indicates that Saudi Arabian leaders were making concerted efforts of their own, cultivating valuable connections with a key figure in Trump world: Jared Kushner.
Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and one of his senior advisers, has formed a close bond with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — one that “did not happen on [its] own,” according to a New York Times report published Saturday.
The detailed report, written by David D. Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard, Mark Landler, and Mark Mazzetti, tracks the story of how the two men in their 30s came to have such a close friendship that Kushner regularly chats privately on the phone with the crown prince, even calling him by his first name, much to the chagrin of senior American officials. The Times reports that Saudi Arabia saw Kushner as a viable, impressionable target, and began what the reporters describe as “the courtship of Mr. Kushner”:
Prince Mohammed and his advisers, eager to enlist American support for his hawkish policies in the region and for his own consolidation of power, cultivated the relationship with Mr. 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 Mr. Trump was elected, the documents show, and brought back a report identifying Mr. 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 mind-set and an intense focus on reaching a deal with the Palestinians that met Israel’s demands, the delegation noted.
This delegation was followed up by a series of meetings and personal recommendations that Kushner reach out, including from MBS ally Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi. Though initially suspicious of Saudi Arabia’s motivations, Kushner soon put his concerns aside, drawn in by proposals and initiatives that aligned with his Israel-Palestine priorities and the administration’s anti-violent extremism ones.
Senior government officials reportedly hold major concerns over the relationship, and if the report is accurate, they are probably right to. Three former officials told the Times that they felt Kushner was “susceptible to Saudi manipulation,” given his “political inexperience”:
Senior officials in the State Department and the Pentagon began to worry about the one-on-one communications between Prince Mohammed — who is known to favor the online messaging service WhatsApp — and Mr. Kushner. “There was a risk the Saudis were playing him,” one former White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Efforts to impose rules and procedures ensuring National Security Council staff members take part in all calls with foreign leaders supposedly failed to make a difference, with the two men still chatting informally over call and text.
Kushner’s close relationship with MBS has been helpful at times, but the connection is also believed to have fundamentally shaped US policy toward both Riyadh and the region. Council on Foreign Relations fellow and former Middle East envoy Martin Indyk told the Times that their “bromance” has shaped US policy toward the kingdom, including over its feud with Qatar and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
The fresh scrutiny of the Kushner-bin Salman relationship comes in the wake of the October murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA has since concluded was committed on MBS’s orders.
Trump has refused to condemn the crown prince, while Kushner and the prince continue to chat informally, according to sources on both sides. According to the Saudi source, Kushner has even advised MBS on “how to weather the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments.”