WASHINGTON —US President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner continued to have private conversations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and advised him on how to deal with the aftermath of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives, a US media report said.
Kushner offered the crown prince advice "about how to weather the storm" following the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the New York Times reported, citing a Saudi source familiar with the conversations.
Since the early months of the Trump administration, Kushner, the president's Middle East adviser, was in private and informal contact with Prince Mohammed, which was a cause of worry for senior American officials, the report said.
Given Kushner's political inexperience, the private exchanges could make him susceptible to Saudi manipulation, said three former senior US officials.
In an effort to tighten practices at the White House, a new chief of staff tried to reimpose longstanding procedures stipulating that National Security Council staff members should participate in all calls with foreign leaders.
But even with the restrictions in place, Kushner, 37, and Prince Mohammed, 33, kept chatting, according to three former White House officials and two others briefed by the Saudi royal court. In fact, they said, the two men were on first-name terms, calling each other Jared and Mohammed in text messages and phone calls.
The exchanges continued even after the October 2 killing of Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents, according to two former senior American officials and the two people briefed by the Saudis.
As the killing set off a firestorm around the world and American intelligence agencies concluded that it was ordered by Prince Mohammed, Kushner became the prince's most important defender inside the White House, people familiar with its internal deliberations say.
Kushner's support for Prince Mohammed in the moment of crisis is a striking demonstration of a singular bond that has helped draw President Trump into an embrace of Saudi Arabia as one of his most important international allies.
But the ties between Kushner and Prince Mohammed did not happen on their own. The prince and his advisers, eager to enlist American support for his hawkish policies in the region and for his own consolidation of power, cultivated the relationship with Kushner for more than two years, according to documents, emails and text messages reviewed by NYT.
A delegation of Saudis close to the prince visited the US as early as the month Trump was elected, the documents show, and brought back a report identifying Kushner as a crucial focal point in the courtship of the new administration.
He brought to the job scant knowledge about the region, a transactional mind-set and an intense focus on reaching a deal with the Palestinians that met Israel's demands, the delegation noted.
Even then, before the inauguration, the Saudis were trying to position themselves as essential allies who could help the Trump administration fulfil its campaign pledges.
In addition to offering to help resolve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the Saudis offered hundreds of billions of dollars in deals to buy American weapons and invest in American infrastructure.
Trump later announced versions of some of these items with great fanfare when he made his first foreign trip: to an Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The Saudis had extended that invitation during the delegation's November 2016 visit.
"The inner circle is predominantly deal makers who lack familiarity with political customs and deep institutions, and they support Jared Kushner," the Saudi delegation wrote of the incoming administration in a slide presentation obtained by the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, which provided it to NYT.
Several Americans who spoke with the delegation confirmed the slide presentation's accounts of the discussions.
The courtship of Kushner appears to have worked.
Only a few months after Trump moved into the White House, Kushner was inquiring about the Saudi royal succession process and whether the US could influence it, raising fears among senior officials that he sought to help Prince Mohammed, who was not yet the crown prince, vault ahead in the line for the throne, two former senior White House officials said.
American diplomats and intelligence officials feared that the Trump administration might be seen as playing favourites in the delicate internal politics of the Saudi royal family, the officials said.
By March, Kushner helped usher Prince Mohammed into a formal lunch with Trump in a state dining room at the White House, capitalising on a last minute cancellation by German Chancellor Angela Merkel because of a snowstorm.
Bending protocol, Kushner arranged for the prince, often referred to by his initials as MBS, to receive the kind of treatment usually reserved for heads of state, with photographs and news media coverage, according to a person involved in the arrangements.
It appears to have been the first face-to-face meeting between Kushner and the prince, but Kushner raised eyebrows by telling others in the White House that he and Prince Mohammed had already spoken several times before, two people at the event recalled.
White House officials declined to comment on Kushner's one-on-one communications with the prince since the killing of Khashoggi.
Their connection, though, has been pivotal since the start of the Trump administration.
"The relationship between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman constitutes the foundation of the Trump policy not just toward Saudi Arabia but toward the region," said Martin Indyk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Middle East envoy.
The administration's reliance on the Saudis in the peace process, its support for the kingdom's feud with Qatar, an American ally, and its backing of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, he said, all grew out of "that bromance".