Jared Kushner’s critics say that, when the going gets tough for the Trump administration, Kushner goes quiet.
But on Monday, amid the ongoing uproar over a Saudi Arabian journalist’s murder, Kushner unexpectedly stepped into the spotlight instead of avoiding it.
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President Donald Trump’s son-in-law made a rare televised appearance on Monday at a CNN forum, where he fielded questions about the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. It was a particularly sensitive subject given that Trump himself has expressed annoyance over media scrutiny of Kushner’s close relationship with the Saudi prince widely accused of ordering the murder.
The interview — planned before Khashoggi’s death erupted into an international scandal — was conducted by Van Jones, a liberal pundit-activist whom Kushner has cultivated through his work on prison reform.
It was unclear whether Kushner might have preferred to skip the event — or, as one Republican close to the White House suggested, whether he welcomed it as a safe space to break his silence on the alleged role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Kushner has forged a close bond.
Kushner’s language was careful, and Jones did not press him hard on the explosive issue. “Right now, as an administration we’re more in the fact-finding phase,” Kushner said about the U.S. inquiry into Khashoggi’s death, which is still pending roughly 20 days after Khashoggi stepped into the Saudi Consulate in Turkey and disappeared.
Even those tame words were unusual for Kushner, who has spoken on-camera just a handful of times since joining the Trump administration as a senior adviser.
At other times of great stress in the White House, Kushner has retreated into his niche policy portfolio of trade, prison reform and Middle East peace talks — or has skipped town altogether. During a failed GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare last year, he and his wife, Ivanka, enjoyed a well-publicized — and much ridiculed — weeklong ski trip in Aspen, Colo. Amid last year’s uproar over a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he and Ivanka escaped to bucolic Vermont. And shortly after the FBI raided the home and office of Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen earlier this year, the young couple decamped to Peru on official business.
“When things go south, people always wonder ‘Where is Jared?’” said one Republican close to the White House. “Jared does what he does.”
Kushner, who has visited Saudi Arabia several times during the Trump presidency, has stayed away from Riyadh since the Khashoggi scandal unfolded. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled there last week and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was in the Saudi capital on Monday.
For Kushner, the trick has become protecting his own image both inside the White House and before the public, while privately keeping the counsel of a key ally.
Unable to dodge the subject entirely, Kushner offered cautious words on Monday that underscored the White House’s struggle to condemn Khashoggi’s death without rupturing a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia — one crucial to Kushner’s effort to develop a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, among other Trump priorities.
“The world is watching,” Kushner said on CNN when asked what advice he had given the crown prince. “This is a very, very serious accusation. A very serious situation.” He added that he had urged Salman to “be sure you’re transparent and to take this very seriously.”
Jones did not dwell on Kushner’s relationship with Salman, widely said to have been instrumental in shaping Trump’s positive view of an authoritarian Islamic monarchy which Trump had often denounced before his election. It was Kushner who pushed for Trump to make his first official trip overseas to Riyadh, where the president and Kushner himself were lavishly celebrated at a royal palace.
In a sign of uncertainty over how the Khashoggi saga will play out, White House officials have been reluctant to comment even privately until they have a better sense as to where the president will ultimately land on the matter. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to deliver a Tuesday address revealing more details about the Oct. 2 killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent days, Trump has been particularly annoyed by the narrative that Kushner and the crown prince — both wealthy and self-confident heirs in their mid-30s — are close friends, said a second Republican close to the White House.
Trump does highly value the U.S.-Saudi relationship, not least as a means of containing Iran as the U.S. cranks up political and economic pressure on Sunni-led Saudi Arabia’s Shiite arch rival.
Trump does not believe responsibility for Khashoggi’s death should be laid at his feet, said the Republican — and the president is eager to put the spotlight on the U.S. and Saudi Arabia relationship behind him as he stresses issues like immigration ahead of next month’s midterm elections.
Some Trump allies are doubtful that the issue can be swept aside, however.
“The reality is that I don’t think they can put behind them,” said White House ally and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “If they don’t adopt some type of strong sanctions, then Congress will focus on it and make more noise. It’s just as a matter of national policy.”
Gingrich was quick to put the blame on the Saudis for damaging that relationship by going off “doing something stupid,” saying the administration wants to find a path out of this.
“They are not going to give up on that priority because the Saudis killed Mr. Khashoggi,” said a third Republican close to the White House.