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Saudi investment raises questions on post-White House ethics – PBS NewsHour

by Arifa Rana

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A $2 billion investment to Jared Kushner from a fund led by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia has raised questions about the ethics of post-White House business. Kushner’s private equity firm secured the investment after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman overruled a host of objections from the sovereign wealth funds’ advisers. Geoff Bennett reports.
Judy Woodruff:
A $2 billion investment that President Trump — former President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner secured last summer from a fund led by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia has raised questions about the ethics of post-White House business dealings.
Kushner’s private equity firm secured the investment after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman overruled a host of objections from the sovereign wealth fund’s advisers. The New York Times reported some of the group’s concerns. The private equity firm was found to be — quote — “unsatisfactory in all aspects.” The kingdom would be taking on the bulk of the investment and the risk.
There was a seemingly excessive asset management fee and public relations risks due to Kushner’s involvement.
Geoff Bennett explores the close relationship between Kushner, the Trump administration and the crown prince that helped shape the deal.
Geoff Bennett:
As president, Donald Trump built ties with Saudi royals. One person was usually in the room, his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
Like Trump, Kushner arrived at the White House as a businessman with no foreign policy experience. But he quickly became a critical surrogate for Trump abroad and the architect of much of the administration’s Middle East strategy.
Jared Kushner, Former Senior Presidential Adviser:
We hope that this will start an even more historic journey for the Middle East and beyond.
Geoff Bennett:
On the campaign trail, candidate Trump took a harsh line on the kingdom.
Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: We protect Saudi Arabia. Why aren’t they paying?
Geoff Bennett:
He attacked Hillary Clinton for her ties to a country he called a criminal enterprise.
Donald Trump:
These are people that kill women and treat women horribly, and yet you take their money.
Geoff Bennett:
But, as president, he charted a different course with the country and its leaders. King Salman and his son, Crown Prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman.
Donald Trump:
We really have a great friendship, a great relationship.
Geoff Bennett:
Just two months into office, Trump welcomed Mohammed bin Salman, then the deputy crown prince, to the White House for an Oval Office meeting and formal lunch. It’s believed to be the first time Kushner and the Saudi royal, often referred to by his initials, MBS, met in person.
But they wouldn’t be apart for long. Eight weeks later, then-President Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, the first stop on his first foreign trip.
Donald Trump:
My meetings with King Salman, the crown prince and the deputy crown prince have been filled with great warmth, goodwill, and tremendous cooperation.
Geoff Bennett:
In the coming months, MBS rose from deputy crown prince to crown prince, the second highest leader of the country.
Donald Trump:
Crown prince, thank you very much. Thank you for being here.
Geoff Bennett:
Now the heir apparent, he returned to Washington in March 2018, where he dined with Kushner and met with Trump, who boasted about a $12.5 billion arms sale between the two countries.
Donald Trump:
The relationship now is probably as good as it’s really ever been.
Geoff Bennett:
That relationship was tested seven months later, when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was kidnapped, murdered and dismembered by a group of Saudi agents suspected to have been following orders from the crown prince.
Trump was reluctant to lay blame on MBS for the killing.
Donald Trump:
I want to see the facts first. Look, Saudi Arabia has been a really great ally. They have been one of the biggest investors, maybe the biggest investor, in our country.
Geoff Bennett:
At that point, Kushner, then 37 years old, and the crown prince, who was 33, spoke regularly.
The New York Times reported they were on a first-name basis, calling each other Jared and Mohammed in text messages and phone calls. In a rare interview, Kushner told CNN that, in those conversations, he offered advice.
Jared Kushner:
Just to be transparent, to be fully transparent. The world is watching this.
Geoff Bennett:
After intelligence officials concluded MBS had given the order, the Senate condemned him.
Fmr. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN):
Unanimously, the United States Senate has said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Geoff Bennett:
But Kushner wouldn’t go that far.
I don’t know what the administration is waiting for in terms of accountability.
Jared Kushner:
Yes, I believe that there’s a report that they’re working on. They have been doing an investigation. And when they have the facts of the investigation, then it’ll be up to the president to make a determination on what he wants to do.
Geoff Bennett:
The administration never punished Saudi leaders for Khashoggi’s killing or for their military actions in Yemen.
Trump went as far as vetoing two bipartisan measures that would have banned Saudi weapons sales as a result of their bombing campaign there. All of this colors the $2 billion investment that Kushner received from MBS last year, says Kathleen Clark, an ethics professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.
Kathleen Clark, Washington University in St. Louis: Kushner being able to exploit his access to the president, his power within the Trump administration, and translate that directly into personal financial — extraordinary personal financial benefit for himself.
I mean, Trump talked about draining the swamp. And we have a swamp monster in this story.
Donald Trump:
Is there anybody here who would like to see me run again?
Geoff Bennett:
With Donald Trump floating a potential run in 2020, the scrutiny of Kushner’s dealings only intensifies, Clark argues.
Kathleen Clark:
There is some law on the books that should prevent Kushner from participating. However, what we know is that President Trump is perfectly happy and seems to embrace disregard for ethical standards, as we saw repeatedly,.
Geoff Bennett:
A big-dollar deal with big ethical questions.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Geoff Bennett.
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Geoff Bennett is the chief Washington correspondent for PBS NewsHour. He is also a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC.

Tess Conciatori is a politics production assistant at PBS NewsHour.
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