The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

America gets a good test of its rhetorical consistency

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner stands among Saudi officials as then-President Donald Trump talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump and his allies spent a large chunk of the 2016 election expressing outrage at how his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had used a private email server to conduct government business as secretary of state. Then Trump became president … and there were multiple reports of members of his administration using private email servers to conduct government business. Oops.

In the 2020 election, Trump’s line of attack was different. For the last few weeks of the campaign — and in fact, into the last few weeks of his presidency and beyond — Trump and his allies alleged malfeasance by Joe Biden less directly. Picking up a thread that began in 2019 as Trump tried to pressure Ukraine to announce a probe of his likely Democratic challenger, Republicans focused on business deals involving Biden’s son Hunter, elevating reports from conservative writer Peter Schweizer and others. Trump repeatedly suggested that Hunter Biden had leveraged his father’s position to enrich himself by making deals with foreign nationals.

Enter the New York Times. A few months after leaving the White House, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, reportedly landed a $2 billion investment from a Saudi Arabian fund controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Oops.

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Two things are important to establish upfront.

First, that both the email and foreign investment issues involve questionable decisions by the involved parties. Conducting government business over nongovernmental email systems both increases the likelihood that proper records won’t be maintained and introduces a new point for illicit access. Making money on political access is certainly a well-established practice in Washington but often exists near hazy legal and moral territory.

Second, that the articulation of each issue above elides a lot of detail and context. The basic comparisons — using private email, making deals with international investors — unwind differently in each case and are equivalent only in the broad strokes.

But since the condemnations of Hunter Biden by Trump and others were often broad (and inaccurate), the new Times report offers a fair point of comparison.

Consider what Trump said during his speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, 2021 — well after the election had been decided.

“How come Hunter gets $3.5 million from the mayor of Moscow, his wife, and gets hundreds of thousands of dollars to sit on an energy board even though he admits he has no knowledge of energy?” Trump said. “And millions of dollars upfront. And how come they go into China and they leave with billions of dollars to manage. ‘Have you managed money before?’ ‘No, I haven’t.’ ‘Oh, that’s good. Here’s about 3 billion.’ ”

There are three claims here. The first is that Hunter Biden got $3.5 million from the wife of a former mayor of Moscow. This is not true. The second is that he sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, earning money despite not having a track record on energy issues. This is true, and at least one government official expressed reservations about the agreement when Joe Biden served as vice president. The third is that his company was given billions of dollars to manage by Chinese investors, which is not known to be true. Hunter Biden was party to significant deals with Chinese energy interests and was involved in a deal to secure a cobalt mine.

Trump’s point wasn’t really about the specifics of the claims, obviously. It was generally to allege that the Biden family was engaged in sketchy activity and, at times, that Joe Biden himself was party to these business deals. (Proving this has been a particular source of fervor over the past 18 months, with various allegations about the current president having met with his son’s business partners receiving generally justified scrutiny.) It’s a very Trumpian effort to expand widespread skepticism about the extent to which Hunter Biden offered access to his father in exchange for personal wealth into something broader.

Bringing us to the Times report.

“Six months after leaving the White House, Jared Kushner secured a $2 billion investment from a fund led by the Saudi crown prince, a close ally during the Trump administration, despite objections from the fund’s advisers about the merits of the deal,” the newspaper’s David D. Kirkpatrick and Kate Kelly report. “A panel that screens investments for the main Saudi sovereign wealth fund cited concerns about the proposed deal with Mr. Kushner’s newly formed private equity firm, Affinity Partners, previously undisclosed documents show. … 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.”

Got that? Billions of dollars given to Donald Trump’s son-in-law, despite concerns about the fund’s “inexperience” — one of the objections raised by that screening board. It’s essentially what Trump alleged about Hunter Biden on Jan. 6, with two important differences. The first is that there’s ample evidence that the billions in investment actually came through. The second is that Kushner is both one step removed from Trump (as Hunter Biden is removed from his father) and was an administration official in his own right.

It is the case that the breadth of Hunter Biden’s international financial activity appears to have been broader than Kushner’s, but this is not the only entanglement between Kushner and foreign investors. During Trump’s presidency and while Kushner worked in the West Wing, a Qatari-linked company bailed out a Kushner investment in Manhattan.

We arrive back where we began. In each case, qualifiers and howevers can be applied to rationalize specific deals and investments. But in each case there lingers a question of what dividends those international partners might have hoped to get for their investments beyond financial ones.

We should not expect Trump to acknowledge how his past rhetoric might now apply to his son-in-law. When his daughter Ivanka (Jared’s wife) was revealed to have used a private email account while she served in his administration, Trump declined to engage on the apparent hypocrisy, instead reportedly choosing to try to distract the press from the story.

According to former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump released a statement praising Mohammed bin Salman — then under fire for his role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — with the hopes of “tak[ing] over the Ivanka thing,” as Bolton wrote.

And now Mohammed is reportedly in business with Ivanka Trump’s husband.

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