The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Trump’s contentious courtship of the Saudis, $2B for Jared Kushner

President Donald Trump displays a poster as he talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in March 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In a political career rife with flip-flops, few rank as high as Donald Trump’s 180 on Saudi Arabia.

For more than a decade, Trump had held up the kingdom as a prime example of U.S. foreign policy cozying up to nefarious allies of convenience. Almost immediately upon being sworn in, though, Trump shifted in a more Saudi-friendly direction. He held fast to that posture even after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was implicated in the gruesome murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. He proceeded to override Congress’s objections to U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and pressed forward with arms deals it had rejected.

All along, the motivation was apparent — Trump made clear that his overriding motivation was money — but the benefits weren’t. Trump’s solicitousness of the Saudis appeared to help them more than it helped us, and it ran decidedly counter to his “America First” foreign policy. At the tail end of his presidency, a Washington Post headline summarized the situation this way: “Trump threw Saudi Arabia a lifeline after Khashoggi’s death. Two years later, he has gotten little in return.”

Trump now appears to have gotten something in return — for his family.

The New York Times reported Sunday that Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner secured a $2 billion investment for his Affinity Partners private equity firm from a fund led by the Saudi crown prince. This despite the fund’s advisers heavily criticizing the proposed deal.

Among the reasons cited by the advisers:

Those objections included: “the inexperience of the Affinity Fund management”; the possibility that the kingdom would be responsible for “the bulk of the investment and risk”; due diligence on the fledgling firm’s operations that found them “unsatisfactory in all aspects”; a proposed asset management fee that “seems excessive”; and “public relations risks” from Mr. Kushner’s prior role as a senior adviser to his father-in-law, former President Donald J. Trump, according to minutes of the panel’s meeting last June 30.
But days later the full board of the $620 billion Public Investment Fund — led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and a beneficiary of Mr. Kushner’s support when he worked as a White House adviser — overruled the panel.

Especially as the GOP pushes to raise questions about Hunter Biden allegedly profiting off his father’s name and power, it’s not difficult to grasp how sketchy this is. The Times noted that ethics experts said the investment could appear as payback for Kushner’s help in the White House, or as currying favor should Trump be elected president in 2024. The serious reservations raised by the fund’s advisers heighten questions about why the deal would go through.

You say a president’s relative is part of iffy international deals?

It’s also a remarkable development amid Trump’s long-running, concerted and highly contentious (even among Republicans) attempts to curry favor with, and apologize for, the Saudis.

Here’s a timeline of his comments on and relationship with the Saudis:

  • 1987: Trump pays nearly $100,000 for ads in major newspapers, including The Washington Post, criticizing Saudi Arabia, among other countries, for taking advantage of American patronage.
  • 1999: Trump appears on Fox News and accuses the Saudis of being bad partners. “I mean, the money they make, and then when we wanted to go over and fly our planes and land our planes in Saudi Arabia, in the war, to protect them, they didn’t want us on their land,” he said. “I mean, you explain that one to me.”
  • 2004: Trump tells Playboy that “the Saudi government would be overthrown in about 15 seconds if we weren’t protecting Saudi Arabia.”
  • 2008: Trump tells Howard Stern about George W. Bush: “We have a president that goes to Saudi Arabia and wraps his arms around these people and says, you know, ‘We love you, we love you, we love you.’ The next day they announce they’re not going to do anything for us.” He suggests the Saudis provided a haven for Osama bin Laden.
  • 2012: Trump joins with Republicans in bashing Barack Obama for appearing to bow to the Saudi royals. “Do we still want a President who bows to the Saudis and lets OPEC rip us off?” he muses in a tweet.
  • 2013: He accuses the Saudis of turning down a seat on the U.N. Security Council because “they don’t want responsibility. Just have us do their heavy lifting.”
  • 2016: On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly complains about Saudi Arabia taking advantage of the United States, repeating his line about the Saudi government crumbling without U.S. assistance.

When Trump took office, though, things shifted:

  • March 2017: After less than two months in office, Trump sets about forging the kind of cozy relationship he once criticized. As Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote, “After publicly bashing the kingdom for years, Trump completely reversed course Tuesday and rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi royals. He gave them a huge publicity boost and a highly sought-after U.S. commitment to improve and elevate bilateral relations. And what did Trump get in return? Not much at all.” The Saudis call it a “historical turning point” in U.S.-Saudi relations.
  • October 2018: Khashoggi is murdered by a team of Saudi agents. Trump quickly telegraphs a soft line on the Saudi government’s culpability, repeatedly noting that Khashoggi was a U.S. resident, not a citizen.
  • November 2018: Trump issues a highly unusual statement smearing Khashoggi and effectively giving the Saudi government a pass by citing the strategic and economic importance of the alliance. “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump says. “That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”
  • December 2018: Trump’s envoys to the United Nations block a Security Council resolution seeking accountability for alleged war crimes in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
  • April 2019: Trump vetoes a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
  • May 2019: The Trump administration signals it will bypass Congress in pursuing $8 billion in arms deals that would benefit Saudi Arabia, among others, and that Congress had blocked.
  • July 2019: Congress votes, on a bipartisan basis, to block the Saudi arms deals, but Trump vetoes the resolution.
  • December 2019: Within hours of a Saudi national killing three people at a naval base in Florida, Trump leaps to defend the royal family. “They are devastated in Saudi Arabia,” he says, citing the crown prince and King Salman. “They are devastated by what took place in Pensacola.”
  • December 2020: The Trump administration signals it will sell nearly $500 million in bombs to Saudi Arabia in the waning days of Trump’s lame-duck period. The Biden administration later pauses the deal.

Shortly before Trump pursued that last deal, The Post’s John Hudson summarized Trump’s relationship with the Saudis. Hudson particularly noted how Trump had helped prevent the crown prince from becoming a pariah but had “struggled to win Saudi cooperation on a number of pressing issues between the two countries.”

“I saved his ass,” Trump told The Post’s Bob Woodward, according to Woodward’s 2020 book. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”

And yet again, he described the lack of accountability for Khashoggi’s murder in brass-tacks, financial terms.

“He says very strongly that he didn’t do it,” Trump said, before invoking the inflated figures he often cited: “Bob, they spent $400 billion over a fairly short period of time.”

And now, it seems they spent $2 billion more in a way that more directly benefits Trump’s family.

A special U.N. investigator said June 19 there was "credible evidence" the Saudi crown prince was involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Reuters)