As we learn more about the apparent extra-judicial killing of Saudi exile Jamal Khashoggi, many of the articles we learn from have hints and details about what I believe is a key and perhaps the key part of this story: the relationship between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Jared Kushner and, more broadly, the corrupt financial ties between the Saudi leadership and the Trump family.
Yesterday the White House announced that John Bolton and Jared Kushner had spoken to MBS the day before, Tuesday. Later we learned the backstory to that call.
As suspicions that the Saudis had killed Khashoggi mounted, the top U.S. diplomat in Riyadh met with MBS and requested an explanation. MBS responded by demanding a call directly with the White House. That’s the Bolton/Kushner call. As a former Trump White House official told Politico, his insistence on talking directly to the White House “indicate[d MBS was] hoping to leverage his close ties with Kushner and others in Trump’s inner circle to avoid repercussions.”
When I heard this I wondered whether MBS really demanded a call with both men or really just wanted to talk to Kushner. Another report CNN published today provides another clue.
While bin Salman reached out specifically to Kushner, his established White House interlocutor, to deny the accusations, national security adviser John Bolton also joined the call, and later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had his own conversation with the crown prince.
Clearly the Crown Prince wanted to talk directly to Kushner and apparently only to Kushner. The writing here is ambiguous. But the details suggest Bolton was on the call as something like a minder. That may be too adverse a read. Maybe Kushner realized how delicate a situation it was and wanted Bolton on the call too. Regardless, MBS wanted to go right to Jared, a man who has strongly advocated for him and with whom he has apparently had numerous back-channel conversations out of earshot of the U.S. government.
The Trump Family, inclusive of Kushner, has deep and multiple financial ties to Saudi Arabia. President Trump said as much, bragged about it really at that August 2015 Mobile, Alabama rally where he got Jeff Sessions’ critical endorsement.
Trump, August 2015: I make $40 million, $50 million from Saudi Arabia. I like them a lot. pic.twitter.com/UaeKtBwmfL
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) October 12, 2018
Trump’s comments today made it very clear that he does not want to take any action that would seriously offend or harm the Saudis. He also made clear that he doesn’t think the killing of Khashoggi has much to do with U.S..
Trump: This thing happened in Turkey and Khashoggi isn't even a US citizen. pic.twitter.com/3poTLR22jN
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) October 11, 2018
The U.S.-Saudi alliance has been a foundational part of U.S. foreign policy for decades, especially after 1979. Every U.S. President takes great care with the relationship. But there are lots of reasons to believe that President Trump’s solicitousness of the Saudis is driven by money and business interests at least as much as policy. And that relationship, certainly since Trump entered the White House, runs through Jared Kushner.
He may say there’s no way the U.S. can risk the financial loss of $110 billion in arms sales. But that number is puffed up anyway. And it is just not a credible explanation of his refusal to address Khashoggi’s disappearance or even consider serious consequences in response to it.