For President Donald Trump, who has made Saudi Arabia the fulcrum of his Middle East policy, the possible murder of a Saudi journalist in Turkey is a looming diplomatic crisis. For Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, it is a personal reckoning.
More than anyone in the Trump administration, Kushner has cultivated Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — whose family may have played a role in the disappearance of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi — elevating the prince into a key ally in the Arab world and the White House’s primary interlocutor to the kingdom.
Kushner championed Mohammed bin Salman, 33, when the prince was jockeying to be his father’s heir; had dinner with him in Washington and Riyadh, the Saudi capital; promoted a $110 billion weapons sale to his military; and once even hoped that the future king would put a Saudi stamp of approval on his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
While the fate of Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia and a columnist for The Washington Post, remains unclear, allegations that he was killed on the orders of the royal court have thrown Kushner’s grand bet on the crown prince into doubt.
He may be less the risk-taking reformer the Trump family eagerly embraced than a reckless, untested ruler, who critics say has been emboldened by his ties to the Trumps to take heavy-handed actions at home and abroad.
U.S. intelligence agencies have collected communications intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia from his home in Virginia and then detain him, according to a former senior U.S. official.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence reports, said it was inconceivable that such a plan could be carried out without the approval of the crown prince. The U.S. intercepts were first reported by The Washington Post.
While it is possible that such a plan involved assassinating Khashoggi, the official said, it is also possible that a plan to trick Khashoggi into returning to Saudi Arabia, or to temporarily incapacitate and kidnap him, went horribly awry and resulted in his death.
Saudi leaders, including the crown prince, insist Khashoggi left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on his own, and they do not know what happened to him after that.
But if it becomes clear that the prince ordered the assassination of Khashoggi or was connected to it in some way, it will provoke an outcry on Capitol Hill; embarrass U.S. executives, dozens of whom are flocking to Riyadh for a conference next week where the crown prince is scheduled to speak; and put Kushner, who was once himself a newspaper publisher, in an extremely awkward position.
After a week of lying low, there is evidence the White House is turning up the pressure on the Saudis. On Tuesday, the White House said, Kushner and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, spoke to Mohammed bin Salman by phone about Khashoggi’s disappearance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also called him.
“In both calls, they asked for more details and for the Saudi government to be transparent in the investigation process,” said the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Turkey is also raising the pressure. On Wednesday, Turkish officials and a newspaper close to the Turkish government identified 15 Saudis who they said were operatives who flew to Istanbul last week in pursuit of Khashoggi.
One of the men on the list published by the newspaper, Sabah, is an autopsy expert at Saudi Arabia’s internal security agency, according to the two Turkish officials. Another appears to be a lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force. The officials, citing confidential intelligence, said all worked for the Saudi government.
Kushner declined to discuss the state of his relationship with Mohammed bin Salman. Behind the scenes, a person familiar with the matter said, he conveyed a letter from the publisher of The Post, Fred Ryan, to the crown prince, expressing concern for Khashoggi and asking for his help. Kushner has also taken other unspecified steps, this person said.
Trump administration officials said there were still too many unanswered questions to draw any conclusions about what happened in Istanbul.
Trump signaled late Wednesday that he thought it was likely that the Saudis did kill Khashoggi and said that he would be upset if it were confirmed. “I would not be happy at all,” he said in an interview with Fox News. “I guess you would have to say so far it’s looking a little like that.”
But the president expressed reluctance to punish Saudi Arabia by cutting off arms sales, as some in Washington were proposing. “I think that would be hurting us,” he said. “We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country.”
Even before the murky events in Istanbul, Kushner’s partnership with Mohammed bin Salman was running into headwinds. Saudi Arabia rebuffed Trump’s pleas to settle a bitter dispute with Qatar, its neighbor. Its arms purchases have fallen far short of the $110 billion trumpeted by Kushner, in part because of resistance in Congress and in part because that price tag was always somewhat exaggerated.
The prince’s father, King Salman, ruled out public support for Kushner’s peace plan after Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a move that alienated the Palestinians.
Most important, from the perspective of lawmakers, Saudi Arabia has continued to kill civilians in Yemen with errant airstrikes, in a much-criticised intervention masterminded by Mohammed bin Salman in that country’s civil war.
Reports of Khashoggi’s potentially grim fate have only fed the criticism from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have long been wary of Saudi religious extremism and ties to terrorism.