Jared Kushner left in an awkward spot by journalist’s disappearance

America Letter: Trump’s son-in-law and adviser has cultivated links with Saudi regime

Jared Kushner stands among Saudi officials as President Donald Trump talks with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in March. Photograph: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Jared Kushner stands among Saudi officials as President Donald Trump talks with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in March. Photograph: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

 

It started as a good week for Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

On Tuesday outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley took time during her resignation press conference to name-check Kushner and his wife, Ivanka.

Kushner, a 37-year-old property developer and former newspaper proprietor, was a “hidden genius”, she said. He and Ivanka “do a lot of things behind the scenes that I wish more people knew about – we’re a better country because they’re in this administration”.

Kushner and Ivanka Trump have succeeded in keeping a relatively low profile since moving to Washington in January last year to take up positions in the Trump administration. Both have offices in the West Wing and make the daily 20-minute journey to the White House from their 8,000sq ft rented house in northwest DC, just around the corner from Barack and Michelle Obama.

Amid the turmoil of the Trump presidency they stay below the radar, save for the odd sighting in restaurants in the capital. Last weekend they ran the army 10-miler, a popular annual race in Washington organised by the US military.

But despite Haley’s gushing praise, which prompted speculation that Ivanka or her husband could be in line to succeed her at the UN, by midweek Kushner was in the spotlight for very different reasons.

The disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has turned the focus on to Kushner’s close relationship with the Saudi royal family.

Khashoggi (59), a Washington Post contributor and critic of the Saudi royal family, had been living in self-imposed exile in Virginia after leaving his native country last year.

He has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week, when he went to finalise paperwork for his wedding to his Turkish fiancee.

A pro-government newspaper in Turkey published the names and photographs of 15 Saudi men who they claim arrived in Istanbul last week to kill Khashoggi. Riyadh has denied any knowledge of his disappearance.

Diplomatic tensions

Khashoggi’s suspected murder has sparked diplomatic tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia. But it has also raised questions about Kushner’s outreach to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Since his appointment to the administration last year, Kushner has cultivated a relationship with the 33-year-old Saudi de-facto leader, even before he assumed power last June. A detailed New Yorker report earlier this year revealed how Kushner flew to Riyadh three times last year, staying up until dawn talking to MBS, as the crown prince is known.

It highlights the moral costs of the Trump administration’s willingness to engage with repressive regimes

In contrast to the Obama administration, which kept Saudi Arabia at arm’s length over human rights and other concerns, the kingdom was the first country Donald Trump visited on his first overseas trip as president.

Bringing Saudi Arabia on board is also a key part of Kushner’s strategy on the Middle East, both in terms of securing support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and bolstering Arab support against Iran – though the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem has jeopardised Saudi co-operation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Difficult position

The growing chorus of approbation over the disappearance of Khashoggi – including from Republicans in Congress – now leaves Kushner in a difficult position. Both Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton spoke to MBS by phone this week as the controversy deepened.

The outrage over the fate of the US resident has once again highlighted the moral costs of the Trump administration’s willingness to engage with autocratic and repressive regimes at the same time as the US is turning its back on some of its closest allies. Despite promising to “get to the bottom” of what happened, on Thursday Donald Trump downplayed suggestions he would halt the US’s $110 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia – a deal promoted by Kushner.

In the long term, however, the controversy is unlikely to curb Kushner’s standing at the heart of US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.

Amid the churn of personnel leaving the White House, Jared and Ivanka remain a constant presence. Just how much Donald Trump needs his family was underlined in a rare interview given by Melania Trump to ABC News during her trip to Africa and aired this week.

Asked if there were people in the administration that her husband could not trust, she did not hesitate: “Yes – you always need to watch your back.” It looks like in Riyadh as in Washington, the system of family dynasties is safe for now.

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