A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
Why the Hell Isn’t Jared Kushner’s $2 Billion Saudi Payment a Big Scandal?
By David Corn April 19, 2022
As a White House senior adviser, Jared Kushner watches a ceremony at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2017. Evan Vucci/AP
In July 1980, President Jimmy Carter got some bad news. The Justice Department had filed a complaint against his younger brother, Billy, for failing to register as a lobbyist for Libya. Billy had taken two all-expenses-paid trips to Tripoli pursuing business deals there, and he had accepted $220,000 from the Libyans to develop what he called a “propaganda campaign” to promote the foreign policy objectives of dictator Moammar Qaddafi. In response to the Justice Department action, Billy belatedly registered as a foreign agent.
But the scandal persisted, and Carter handled the controversy well. Everyone knew he had little control over the irrepressible Billy, who had long struggled with alcoholism and only that summer sobered up. The president released a statement saying, “I do not believe it is appropriate for a close relative of the president to undertake any assignment on behalf of a foreign government.” The Senate Judiciary Committee, controlled by Democrats, initiated an investigation into what became known as Billygate, and Carter announced the White House would cooperate fully and waive any claims to executive privilege. Carter held a press conference and spent an hour taking questions about the matter, and he went further. He issued an executive order prohibiting relatives of the president from lobbying or interacting with US government officials, and he released a 92-page report that criticized Billy but refuted allegations of wrongdoing. The report even included excerpts of the president’s diary. His reaction was widely regarded as transparent and honest.
Billygate is a good point of reference when assessing what could be called Jaredgate. On April 10, the New York Times revealed that Jared Kushner, son-in-law and adviser of the 45th president, secured a $2 billion investment for his new private equity firm, Affinity Partners, from a fund controlled by the Saudi crown prince—even after advisers to the Saudi fund raised serious objections to the investment. The screening panel for the Saudi fund had cited “the inexperience of the Affinity Fund management”; an “unsatisfactory in all aspects” due diligence report; a proposed asset management fee that seemed “excessive”; and “public relations risks.” Yet the panel was overruled by the fund’s board, which is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s autocratic de facto leader, who, according to US intelligence, green-lit the operation that resulted in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
It's damn hard to not see the $2 billion investment as either a payoff for past services rendered or a preemptive bribe should Trump manage to regain the White House. And it could be both. It’s a wonder that the disclosure of this deal hasn’t created more of a fuss and prompted congressional investigations. (Imagine what Republicans and Fox News would be doing if Hunter Biden received $2 billion from a Ukrainian government leader who was responsible for the gruesome murder of an American resident.) A 10-figure payment to a relative of a former president who is essentially the current (though undeclared) GOP frontrunner in the 2024 contest and possibly the next inhabitant of the White House is a major scandal.
Or it should be.
Mohammed bin Salman—often referred to as MBS—does owe Kushner a big thank-you. As the Times notes, “Kushner played a leading role inside the Trump administration defending Crown Prince Mohammed after US intelligence agencies concluded that he had approved the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.” And this investment seems unduly immense—not just because of the concerns raised by the screeners. The amount is twice as much and the terms of this deal are more generous than the investment the same Saudi fund made with the more experienced former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Moreover, the MBS-approved investment comprises the bulk of the money Kushner has collected for Affinity Partners. He had been looking to round up $7 billion, but apparently few moneybags out there share the Saudis’ confidence in Ivanka Trump’s husband. Affinity Partners’ most recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows that it has raised only $500 million beyond the cash from MBS’s $620 billion fund, which maintains investments in Uber and the Newcastle United Football Club in Britain.
While he was a White House adviser to Donald Trump—on a host of wide-ranging matters, including Mideast policy, innovation, and the administration’s (deficient) Covid-19 response—Kushner forged a bond with MBS (who has yet to condemn Vladimir Putin’s horrific and illegal invasion of Ukraine). That included brokering $110 billion in arms sales to the kingdom and protecting these deals when MBS and Saudi Arabia came under fire for the murder of Khashoggi and for the brutal, Saudi-supported fighting in Yemen. It’s also possible that given all the Saudis’ global and internal intrigue—only a portion of which is known to the public—Kushner and Trump provided other valuable assistance to MBS.
Whatever the past or future quid pro quos, if any, this deal stinks and demands congressional scrutiny. Allowing foreign authoritarians to shower billions of dollars upon family members of past, present, or future presidents is ethically wrong but carries a greater threat. As Ali Al-Ahmed, the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, wrote in the Washington Post, “The prospect of a dictator using his deep pockets to wield influence at the highest levels of the U.S. political system should be cause for serious concern and targeted action. Not all attacks on American democracy will take the shape of violent insurrections—the corruption of the Saudi-Kushner deal is an attack on democracy, too.”
Last week, 30 House members wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking for a review of US-Saudi relations. The letter read in part:
A recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi partnership is long overdue in order to reflect President Biden’s important commitment to uphold human rights and democratic values in our foreign policy. Our continued unqualified support for the Saudi monarchy, which systematically, ruthlessly represses its own citizens, targets critics all over the world, carries out a brutal war in Yemen, and bolsters authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa, runs counter to U.S. national interests and damages the credibility of the United States to uphold our values.
These members have the power to examine the rotten-smelling Kushner-MBS relationship that far surpasses anything that Hunter Biden could have dreamed of. If Trump does run for president, this should be a campaign issue. With his son-in-law (and daughter) benefiting from a $2 billion sweetheart deal with MBS, the transactional gain for the Saudis from a second Trump administration could be huge. Will Kushner pledge to have no role—official or unofficial—with a Trump White House in the future? If he did, would anyone believe that?
The Trump cosmos is full of grift and scandal. And what’s $2 billion compared to an attempt to overturn an election and incite violent insurrection? But in a world of never-ending Trump sleaze, this shady venture does stand out as especially egregious. At the very least, Kushner deserves the Billygate treatment.
Got anything to say about this item—or anything else? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Watch, Read, and Listen List
Last month, after viewing the first few episodes, I raved about the new Apple TV+ show Severance, and encouraged you to watch. But I added a cautionary note. “It’s important to know,” I wrote, “if the creators can stick the landing.” Now that the first season has concluded, I can render a judgment: a perfect finish. Severance became even more intriguing as the show progressed. The puzzle got more puzzling. If you don’t know the basic idea—which sounded a bit silly to me before I began watching—the series follows four workers at mega-corporation Lumon who have gone through a process in which their memories have been cleaved in half. Inside their sterile workspace in the bowels of an immense corporate HQ, where they are engaged in a process called “data refinement,” they have no recollections of their lives beyond the office. At home, they have no memories of their day job, which means there’s no personal baggage at work and no work anxiety at home. Why would anyone submit to this? Well, Mark S. (Adam Scott) lost his wife in a car accident, and now he can escape the grief and painful memories for at least eight hours a day.
There are plenty of mysteries. It’s unclear what data Mark and his three colleagues are refining, or, for that matter what refining even is. Other departments in the severed division engage in odd and unexplained activities (one of which involves baby goats). Lumon seems to operate more as a cult than a Fortune 500 company. It’s my hunch that the work being done by Mark and the others is not the important thing: It’s the severance that counts, and the process is much more than a workplace efficiency tool. Lumon has other—perhaps diabolical—plans for it.
As the series hits the final three of its nine episodes, it focuses more on the subject of identity: who are the “innies” (the workplace versions of these people) and what agency do they have? Are they just secondary beings in service to the “outies” who have families, pets, friends, hobbies, and pasts—that is, life beyond work? Do they have rights of their own? What if they want to quit? What happens when they wish to know more of their outside lives? In this regard, the show enters Westworld territory, but in a more subtle and sophisticated manner. The question is obvious in Westworld: What happens when robots created for a high-end amusement park develop consciousness and desires of their own? In Severance, it’s a conflict between two human selves, between two separate but related identities residing in one person.
The series has not one but two cliffhangers. The penultimate and the last episode each conclude on a precipice. They expand the scope of the show without resolving the main riddles. Indeed, Lumon is up to something big, but we don’t know what it is. Is severance being deployed in other ways, for other purposes? Is it being used—or will it be used—to turn people into part-time zombies? Is the larger public at risk? And where’s the profit in this? (Soldiers who cannot remember their actions?) I don’t know, but I am eagerly awaiting the answers. Severance is one of the most fascinating offerings in streaming land these days. After you've finished the season, it is hard to forget about.
Whirlwind: America, Russia & Ukraine. In 2020, Pulitzer Prize-winner Tim Weiner, a former reporter for the New York Times, produced and hosted a gripping 10-part documentary podcast called Whirlwind. The series examined the 75-year intelligence battle between the United States and Russia from the end of World War II through the Cold War, culminating with Moscow’s 2016 attack on an American election that helped land Donald Trump in the White House. The podcast was an offshoot of Weiner’s fine book The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare 1945-2020. (Weiner is the author of one of the best histories of the CIA: Legacy of Ashes.)
He’s now back with a two-episode update for the podcast that focuses on the Ukraine war. The first one features former CIA officers who worked on Russia-related matters assessing the conflict, Putin’s aims, and possible endings to the war. This group includes Beth Sanner, who for two years was Trump’s main intelligence briefer in the Oval Office. (Imagine having that job! That should be its own podcast.) She notes that US intelligence appears to have succeeded before the war in undermining Putin’s plan to create a pretext or false provocation for his invasion by revealing his intention to do just that. This made the “war a lot more obvious that this was Putin’s choice,” she says, adding, “he couldn’t hide behind some kind of provocation.” If true, this can be considered a major accomplishment in the history of US intelligence.
The second episode examines the role of Russian disinformation in the war and its amplification by US media (mainly Tucker Carlson and Fox News). The show opens with Chris Bort, who was national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia from 2017 to 2021. He discusses the Russian word vranyo, which refers to a certain type of lie, what we might describe as BS. As he explains, this word describes “brash, cynical, self-evident untruths that a listener isn’t really expected to believe but can’t do anything about and just accepts.” This is the sort of spin that Putin spews about the war in Ukraine: It’s to de-Nazify Ukraine and stop NATO from engaging in biowarfare against Russia, and the war atrocities are being committed by Ukrainian forces.
It’s telling that Russians have a specific word for this type of prevarication. I suspect it arises out of the Soviet past. When I traveled in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, I met many Russians who did not believe a single thing they read in the newspaper or heard on the news. Yet this didn’t anger them. They shrugged their shoulders and essentially said, “That’s just the way it is.” We certainly could use a word like vranyo in the United States. Think about all the stupid Trump falsehoods that he can’t expect people to believe—such as the lies about the crowd size at his inauguration—except there are millions who do believe his patently untrue statements. Also in this episode, Julia Davis, a Daily Beast columnist who monitors Russian media, points out that Russian commentators have expressed concern that Carlson has been so pro-Putin that he risks being seen in the United States as a Russian agent. Their message: Tucker, ratchet back on the Putin-love so you can keep being of use to the Kremlin. (I, too, appear on the show, discussing how American right-wingers in Congress and the conservative media have legitimized and spread Russian disinformation.) Weiner does an excellent job of tying the intelligence wars of today to the long history of East-West conflict, pointing out that right now we are all part of the information warfare battlefield.
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
April 5, 2022: The power of the thug; a joke about Trump; Ben Affleck’s moves in Deep Water; and more.
April 2, 2022: How Donald Trump just helped Putin’s barbaric and illegal war; good Trump news; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Mike Pence, Lauren Boebert, and Donald Trump Jr.); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 29, 2022: Why you should worry that Ginni Thomas is bonkers; The Adam Project and movie-world time travel; The Sea The Sea, an indie-pop-folk duo, shimmers; and more.
March 26, 2022: Do Joe Biden and the Democrats have a Covid problem?; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Special Supreme Court Edition); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 22, 2022: John le Carré’s farewell gift to us; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Emergency Edition); the former Kremlin official who spoke out; a disappointing Suspicion; “Kyiv Calling”; and more.
March 19, 2022: How Trump and his crew boost Putin’s disinformation; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Candace Owens, Jesse Waters, Lara Logan, Herschel Walker, Elon Musk, and others); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 15, 2022: Tucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin, and me; why you should watch Severance; and more.
March 12, 2002: Putin, Ukraine, nuclear war, and Trump; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Madison Cawthorn, again!); the Mailbag, MoxieCam™; and more.
March 8, 2022: The progressive dilemma in Ukraine; rehabbing West Side Story; does Inventing Anna target or celebrate Instagram culture?; and more.
March 5, 2022: Once again, Merrick Garland should tell us if the DOJ is investigating Trump for his attempted coup; Dumbass Comment of the Week (winner: Ben Shapiro); masks and freedoms, the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 1, 2022: From CPAC to Ukraine—how the right went from wrong to crazy; rebranding this newsletter; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at email@example.com.