One year ago, two young princes began to forge a friendship at a lunch meeting in the White House’s regal State Dining Room.
A snowstorm had kept away President Trump’s scheduled guest that day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — giving the president and his advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, more time to spend with the visiting son of Saudi King Salman.
Kushner and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, both in their 30s, had met before, but this would be their first formal sit-down since Trump’s inauguration, and a bond developed between the two men, according to people familiar with their relationship who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
As their countries’ chief negotiators on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Kushner and the Saudi prince were both seeking to prove their worth on the international stage. They consulted with one another frequently in private calls over the following months, according to people with knowledge of their communications. Kushner successfully pushed the president to make Saudi Arabia his first foreign visit last spring, against objections from other senior administration officials, and then personally visited Mohammed again last fall in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Kushner is now set to play a major role hosting the crown prince as he arrives in Washington Monday to kick off a tour of United States. In addition to official meetings, he is scheduled to attend several dinners with Mohammed, along with other U.S. and Saudi officials.
In courting the Saudi prince, Kushner has displayed an unorthodox approach to diplomacy that has unsettled national security and intelligence officials — relying on personal relationships instead of standard government channels to tackle complex problems, according to multiple people with knowledge of Kushner’s role.
Some officials fear the president’s son-in-law has been freelancing foreign policy in one of the most volatile regions in the world. There is particular wariness about Kushner’s embrace of Mohammed, now the Saudi crown prince, who has earned praise in the West for his moves toward modernity but also criticism for his government’s arrests of rivals and critics.
Kushner declined to comment.
Allies and aides described his personal outreach to Mohammed as unconventional yet effective, arguing that he built a valuable relationship with an ascendant leader whom he believes will help achieve stability in the Middle East. The two have a shared interest in testing novel approaches, according to people who know them.
While Kushner’s early contacts with foreign officials may have been freewheeling, he now more routinely briefs other top officials on his communications, supporters said.
“The lack of leaks from or about Mr. Kushner’s work — whether as part of the Middle East team, Mexico relations or prison reform — is a testament to the fact that he cares about results and not publicity and that he understands how to keep and share information with those in the Administration who should have it,” Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Kushner’s attorney Abbe Lowell, said in a statement.
“It appears those who feel left out are the ones who become sources for false information,” he added. “Mr. Kushner follows all appropriate internal communications protocols and procedures, and the actions he takes are known by, coordinated with and reported to others who should be involved.”
A senior Saudi official said that the king and crown prince have conferred by phone with both Trump and Kushner as “events require” and that the ambassador stays in close contact with the other U.S. officials in the State Department and national security establishment to continue the “robust partnership” between the two countries.
“President Trump has given Mr. Kushner the important task of overseeing the peace process, and this has been the primary subject of discussion between Mr. Kushner and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince,” the official said in a statement.
Kushner’s unique role was evident a few weeks ago when White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly asked a question in an intelligence briefing about a sensitive policy matter related to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the crown prince’s visit.
In response, intelligence briefers told him that virtually all of the conversations that U.S. officials had with the Saudis on the matter had been between Kushner and Mohammed, according to several people familiar with the episode.
Through a spokesman, Kelly declined to comment.
Kushner and his staff have often arranged private conversations with the Saudi crown prince and other senior leaders in foreign countries that were not always coordinated with national security or diplomatic officials, according to multiple officials familiar with his activities.
The one-on-one communications worry some national security officials, in part because Kushner operated for the last year with an interim top-security security clearance. The Washington Post reported in February that Kushner’s contacts with certain foreign government officials had contributed to his inability so far to obtain a permanent security clearance.
With Kushner’s background investigation still pending, Kelly recently revoked his access to the most highly sensitive government secrets.
Recently ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster expressed early concern that Kushner was freelancing U.S. foreign policy and might make naive mistakes, according to people familiar with their reactions.
At times, senior officials would learn about Kushner’s calls after the fact, rather than being briefed beforehand, the people said. In some cases, McMaster was concerned there were no official records kept of what was said on the calls.
Tillerson was even more aggrieved, they said, once remarking to staff: “Who is secretary of state here?”
A State Department spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, McMaster said he values Kushner’s contribution.
“Jared Kushner and I share a close working relationship and carefully coordinate outreach to foreign leaders,” McMaster said. “Jared’s relationships have proven invaluable to advancing the President’s agenda in many of the world’s vital regions.”
Steven Hall, a former senior CIA official, said most administrations have sought to bring the experience of the national security establishment and intelligence operations to bear on interactions with foreign leaders. Kushner’s style fits a Trump administration pattern of “generally taking a new approach to past, proven practice,” he said.
“There is a danger if you do indeed stovepipe and don’t share information across the government. Bad things could happen,” Hall said.
One of Kushner’s biggest impacts has been to persuade Trump to make Saudi Arabia his first destination for a foreign state trip as president. Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis opposed the move, according to multiple officials. Kushner was wary of letting others in the agencies know what he was doing for fear opponents would make his plans public, the people said.
Mattis urged delaying the trip a year, saying a Riyadh visit would send the wrong signal to America’s more democratic allies around the world. Mattis was also skeptical of Saudi promises to help counter Iranian influence and destroy ISIS, U.S. officials said.
Trump settled the dispute, telling Kushner they would go if the Saudis promised to make U.S. weapons purchases and increase counterterrorism efforts.
Trump ultimately deemed the visit a major success and basked in the VIP treatment he received. The Saudis hosted the Trumps and Kushners at the family’s royal palace, ferried them around in golf carts and celebrated Trump with a multimillion-dollar gala in his honor, complete with a thronelike seat for the president.
Trump boasted that the summit led Saudis to purchase $110 billion in American arms sales and other investments, creating hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs. But many of the weapon purchases and investment pledges had been on the books for more than a year and most of the deals have not progressed since Trump’s visit, U.S. officials acknowledged.
Some intelligence and national security officials worry that the Saudi crown prince’s argument about how to resolve conflict in the Middle East — that his country is the chief hope for peace and Iran is the root of all strife — is too simplistic. They fear his appeal has gained traction with White House officials who have little experience with the region’s politics.
In June, intelligence fears about the situation in Saudi Arabia rose when Mohammed unseated his cousin and the heir apparent, Mohammed bin Nayef, a longtime U.S. ally against terrorism. Bin Nayef had become a target of terrorism as a result of helping America: In 2009, bin Nayef was injured when an al-Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up near the prince.
Bin Nayef “was the closest thing Saudi Arabia had to a genuine hero in this century”, said Bruce Riedel, who served more than 30 years in the CIA. He said Mohammed’s elevation had removed from power “one of the preeminent counterterrorists today.”
In late October, some intelligence officials were caught off guard when Kushner flew on a secretive trip to Riyadh for private meetings with the crown prince. Most people in the White House were kept out of the loop about the trip and its purpose, according to two senior officials.
A senior administration official said the trip was coordinated through the White House’s National Security Council.
After the trip, the administration said the purpose of Kushner’s trip was to discuss a Middle East peace plan, but declined to say with whom he met.
Kushner has since told aides he and the prince met alone to “brainstorm” strategies, according to people familiar with the discussions. But intelligence officials were troubled by a lack of information about the topics discussed, the people said.
Days after Kushner’s visit, Mohammed stunned the region by putting many of his rivals and Saudi business executives under house arrest. The crown prince described the crackdown as part of an anti-corruption effort, but the move was criticized by human rights groups and Middle East experts as the prince’s effort to consolidate his power over the country.
One of those arrested was a longtime U.S. ally in the country, billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The prince had publicly attacked Trump as a “disgrace” to America during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump followed the crackdown with a public tweet in support of Mohammed’s moves.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing . . . ,” Trump wrote. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”
As Mohammed kicks off his U.S. tour, Kushner is continuing his efforts to work with the crown prince and others to develop an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, associates said.
In the end, the president’s son-in-law emphasized to aides last week, he hopes to be judged not on the process, but on the results.
Robert Costa, Karen DeYoung, Ellen Nakashima, Ashley Parker and Julie Tate contributed to this report.