Trump and Kushner benefited from Saudi funds for helping MBS’ rise, investigative report

Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the Khashoggi-founded group DAWN, has called on Congress to pass legislation to prohibit all former senior U.S. officials from working for, or financially benefiting from, a foreign government.

An investment fund overseen by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is backing ventures that profit the former US president, Trump, and his senior adviser, Kushner, raising questions of conflict, according to an investigative report by Michael Kranish, a national political investigative reporter who co-authored the Washington Post’s biography “Trump Revealed,” as well as biographies of John F. Kerry and Mitt Romney.

“In early 2021, as Donald Trump exited the White House, he and his son-in-law Jared Kushner faced unprecedented business challenges. Revenue at Trump’s properties had plummeted during his presidency, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters made his brand even more polarizing. Kushner, whose last major business foray had left his family firm needing a $1.2 billion bailout, faced his own political fallout as a senior Trump aide. But one ally moved quickly to the rescue,” Kranish starts his investigative report, published by the Washington Post, proceeding as follows:

The day after leaving the White House, Kushner created a company that he transformed months later into a private equity firm with $2 billion from a sovereign wealth fund chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Kushner’s firm structured those funds in such a way that it did not have to disclose the source, according to previously unreported details of Securities and Exchange Commission forms reviewed by The Washington Post. His business used a commonly employed strategy that allows many equity firms to avoid transparency about funding sources, experts said.

A year after his presidency, Trump’s golf courses began hosting tournaments for the Saudi fund-backed LIV Golf. Separately, the former president’s family company, the Trump Organization, secured an agreement with a Saudi real estate company that plans to build a Trump hotel as part of a $4 billion golf resort in Oman.

The substantial investments by the Saudis in enterprises that benefited both men came after they cultivated close ties with Mohammed while Trump was in office — helping the crown prince’s standing by scheduling Trump’s first presidential trip to Saudi Arabia, backing him amid numerous international crises and meeting with him repeatedly in D.C. and the kingdom, including on a final trip Kushner took to Saudi Arabia on the eve of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.

New details about their relationship have emerged in recently published memoirs, as well as accounts in congressional testimony and interviews by The Post with former senior White House officials. Those revelations include Kushner’s written account of persuading Trump to prioritize Saudi Arabia over the objections of top advisers and a former secretary of state’s assertion in a book that Trump believed the prince “owed” him.

They also underscore the crucial nature of Trump’s admission that he “saved” Mohammed in the wake of the CIA’s finding that the crown prince ordered the killing or capture of Post contributing opinion columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Now, with Trump running for president again, some national security experts and two former White House officials say they have concerns that Trump and Kushner used their offices to set themselves up to profit from their relationship with the Saudis after the administration ended.

“I think it was an obvious opportunity for them to build their Rolodexes,” John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security adviser, said in an interview. “And I think they were probably hard at work at it, particularly Jared.”

“Why should Jared be worried about the Middle East?” Bolton said. “It’s a perfectly logical inference was that had something to do with business.”

Kushner declined to comment.

Kushner stands among Saudi officials as Trump talks with Mohammad in March 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In his memoir, Kushner did not mention his new equity firm or the Saudi investment, and he has not publicly addressed whether he talked to Mohammed during the administration about doing business with him afterward. It is not known whether Kushner discussed business deals with Mohammed while in office.

A former administration official allied with Kushner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly, said there are numerous examples of top former government employees doing business with people they once dealt with while in public service. Kushner had such a broad agenda that it would be unfair to block business relationships with those he knew from his White House days, the former official said.

Trump declined to comment. His spokesman, Steven Cheung, said in response: “President Trump is the most pro-America president in history and used his superior negotiating skills to ensure this country is never beholden to anyone.” Eric Trump, Trump’s son who is also the executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said in a statement that “LIV is doing incredible things for the game of golf and it should be no surprise that we were asked to host these amazing events.” Trump has also previously said he did tens of millions of dollars of business with Saudis before becoming president.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington and a spokesman for the Saudi Public Investment Fund did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats who have launched congressional investigations into Trump’s and Kushner’s ties to Saudi Arabia said there is no precedent for how the two have relied so significantly on Saudi investments in their businesses after directly helping Mohammed while in office. The lawmakers expressed concern that such business ties could leave them beholden to the crown prince if they return to the White House.

“The financial links between the Saudi royal family and the Trump family raise very serious issues,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and for several years has been investigating various ties between the Saudis, Trump and Kushner, “and when you factor in Jared Kushner’s financial interests, you are looking right at the cat’s cradle of financial entanglements.”

Those concerns come at a high-stakes moment in the fraught U.S.-Saudi relationship. The investments by the Saudis came as the U.S. State Department said in a 2021 report that there continued to be “significant human rights issues” in Saudi Arabia, citing “credible reports” of torture and executions for nonviolent offenses. President Biden, who has backed away from a campaign pledge to hold the kingdom to account for human rights abuses, clashed openly with Riyadh in the fall over cuts in oil production. Trump, if he is reelected, may be less likely to confront the Saudi regime in future crises due to his financial entanglements, experts say.

Retired military personnel are required under ethics rules to obtain approval to work for foreign governments like Saudi Arabia. But there’s no requirement for Trump, a former commander in chief, nor for former senior White House officials such as Kushner, to disclose if they have financial ties to foreign governments, according to Don Fox, former acting director of the Office of Government Ethics. He said their work has exposed a glaring shortfall in ethics laws that needs to be fixed by Congress.

“I think the Congress had a certain vision in mind for what the post-presidency looks like, such as creating a library and museum and some speaking and writing a memoir,” Fox said. “I don’t think it ever occurred to the drafters of these ethics laws that a former president would actually try to cash in on his years of office this way.”

A beneficial relationship

Trump, flanked by Kushner, meets with Mohammed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Shortly after Trump’s election in 2016, Kushner connected with Mohammed for the first time.

Both were ascendant young scions of powerful families. Kushner, a 35-year-old with no foreign policy experience, was tapped by Trump to work toward Middle East peace; Mohammed, a 31-year-old deputy crown prince, was eyeing a path to the throne that seemed blocked by the reigning crown prince.

Over the next four years, that relationship would prove extraordinarily beneficial to both men.

Mohammed would reap arms sales, a presumed green light to blockade his neighboring nation of Qatar — despite a major U.S. military base there — and a hands-off policy when he imprisoned an array of leading Saudi citizens for months in a high-end hotel, reportedly demanding billions in funds from some in exchange for their release.

Trump and Kushner would get Mohammed’s support for an anti-terrorism center, arms purchases, and a deal normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and other nations.

Kushner was the key, making regular trips to Saudi Arabia and staying in close contact with Mohammed — to the concern of some White House colleagues. Two former senior administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said they often felt they were in the dark on sensitive diplomatic issues on which Kushner took the lead.

“I didn’t really know what Jared was doing with the Saudis,” one former administration official said. “That was part of the problem. We didn’t know what Jared was doing generally. And, you know, other governments had decided that you want to get close to Trump, the way to do it is through Jared.”

At the outset, the Saudis had decided the incoming Trump administration could offer a reset to U.S. relations with the kingdom, despite Trump’s campaigning by saying that “Islam hates us” and calling for a “Muslim ban” of immigrants, Kushner wrote in his memoir.

Kushner “was learning diplomacy on the fly,” he wrote in his memoir. Mohammed’s associates sensed Kushner’s inexperience during a post-election meeting. In a summary of the 2016 talk by Saudi officials reported by the Lebanese publication Al Akhbar, Mohammed’s advisers wrote: “Kushner made clear his lack of familiarity with the history of Saudi-American relations.”

It soon became clear that Kushner effectively was running foreign policy on Saudi Arabia.

In March 2017, Mohammed arrived in Washington and had lunch with Kushner and Trump at the White House. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn’t attend, and the meeting went against advice from Trump’s National Security Council. Tillerson could not be reached for comment.

That same month, Kushner asked Trump to make Saudi Arabia the site of his first foreign trip. Kushner said it could jump-start the administration’s Middle East policy by cultivating Mohammed to help forge a diplomatic breakthrough with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Tillerson opposed rewarding the Saudis with the first trip, and Trump told Kushner that he planned to follow the secretary of state’s advice. As Kushner continued to push, he wrote, Trump told him, “Jared, read my lips: we’re not going to Saudi Arabia. Take no for an answer!”

It didn’t matter. As Kushner told it, he had seen Trump change his mind on other matters, so “I didn’t interpret his words as a hard no.”

Kushner wrote that he called Mohammed and told the prince, “Everyone here is telling me that I’m a fool for trusting you,” but after receiving assurances from the prince, he outlined a proposal to Trump: The Saudis would denounce terrorism in the region, sign deals that were supposed to create American jobs and purchase U.S. arms. Trump changed his no to a yes. The trip was on.

It was the first of Kushner’s many boons to Mohammed, who used Trump’s visit to aid his sudden rise over a rival to become crown prince later that year. At a dinner, Mohammed told Kushner about a Saudi plan to blockade Qatar, which has a large U.S. military base. Tillerson later told Congress that the conversation made him “angry” because he didn’t have a say, but Trump essentially endorsed the move on Twitter.

One of the starkest tests of the Trump administration’s relationship with Mohammed came as a result of the prince’s ire with Khashoggi, a prominent journalist with ties to the royal family who had called for changes in the kingdom. Shortly after Trump’s election, Mohammed’s aides had ordered him to stop writing critically about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but he refused and later relocated to the Washington area and became a columnist for The Post.

In October 2018, an assassination team that had flown from Riyadh to Istanbul aboard two planes owned by the Public Investment Fund killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate there. After Turkey said Saudi Arabia was responsible, Kushner talked with Mohammed about how to respond.

The next month, the CIA concluded that Mohammed had “approved an operation” to kill or capture Khashoggi, which the prince denied. Mohammed’s years-long effort to rise to power was in grave danger.

But, as Trump later put it in a recorded interview, “I saved his ass,” according to “The Trump Tapes” by Post associate editor Bob Woodward. Trump refused to endorse the CIA’s conclusion, equivocated about Mohammed’s involvement, opposed releasing of the report and vetoed a congressional bill to block arms sales to the kingdom. The president sent Mike Pompeo, who had replaced Tillerson as secretary of state, to meet with the prince and remind him of his debt.

“My Mike, go and have a good time. Tell him he owes us,” Pompeo recalled in his 2023 memoir, “Never Give An Inch.” Pompeo did not respond to a request for comment.

It was a pivotal moment that halted efforts to isolate Mohammed, who is known as MBS, in Congress and around the world. “Without the absolute protection of Trump and Kushner, MBS would definitely have fallen,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, the director for the Gulf at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a group founded by Khashoggi. Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, said in a statement to The Post that Trump and Kushner “covered for the Crown Prince.”

Before Trump left office, Kushner flew to Saudi Arabia in early January 2021 for his final official meeting with Mohammed. On the public agenda was finalizing an agreement to end Riyadh’s blockade against Qatar.

Kushner flew home on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, and rushed to the White House.

Troubled businesses

As his administration ended, Trump’s brand was troubled. His family’s hotels, resorts and other properties had lost $120 million in revenue in 2020 thanks to the pandemic and his polarizing presidency. He faced multiple investigations into his business practices and actions seeking to overturn his 2020 defeat; then in December 2022, the Trump Organization was convicted of tax fraud.

Kushner, meanwhile, faced potential difficulties because of both his association with Trump and his own failings. Kushner’s family company had already required a bailout in 2018 from a Canadian firm because of his decision to buy a $1.8 billion office building in New York. An ongoing congressional investigation is looking into whether the bailout was partially financed by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. Now, despite having no experience running a private equity fund, Kushner was in search of billions of dollars for his new venture.

Saudi Arabia, however, soon invested in both men.

The day after the Trump administration ended, Kushner created a company called A Fin Management and used that as a springboard to create a private equity fund later that year called Affinity Partners. Such funds typically use investor money to buy into emerging companies.

Kushner has not said when he first sought $2 billion from the Saudi’s Public Investment Fund. The four members of a five-person panel of the fund’s advisers who attended a meeting about the matter were “not in favor” of the investment, citing Kushner’s inexperience in private equity and the fact that the Saudis would bear most of the risk, the New York Times reported, citing confidential minutes of the panel’s meeting in June 2021 that have not been made public.

Shortly after that meeting, however, Mohammed led the full board in approving the investment, according to the Times report.

Kushner listens as Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the White House in August 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In March 2022, the Kushner-run company filed an investment adviser registration document called Form ADV with the SEC that requires only a vague report on where its money came from. Kushner’s company declared that $2.51 billion out of its total $2.54 billion in assets under management came from “non-United States persons.”

The form also asks whether the “type of client” is “sovereign wealth funds and foreign official institutions.” Kushner’s firm left that box blank, instead describing its client as pooled funds operated by his company, which subsequently confirmed the Times report that $2 billion had come from the Saudis.

Chad Mizelle, an adviser to Kushner’s company, said in a statement to The Post that “Affinity Partners’ Form ADV, like numerous other private equity firms, correctly states that it has pooled investment vehicles as clients.” An SEC spokesman declined to comment.

Kushner’s company stands to receive a $25 million management fee annually from the Saudi investment plus a share of the profits.

Kushner has made his work with Mohammed while in the White House a selling point for his business. In a presentation to investors, first reported by the Intercept, Kushner notes his work “managing Middle East peace efforts” and specifically cites the result of his Jan. 5, 2021, meeting with Mohammed, saying they had discussed lifting the Qatar blockade.

There’s little transparency in private equity firms like Kushner’s. Such funds are allowed to keep secret the names of their investors, which has led Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, to push for legislation requiring more disclosure of foreign investments. The FBI said in 2020 that “threat actors likely use private placement of funds, including investments offered by hedge funds and private equity firms, to launder money.”

Kushner’s company, which is staffed by a number of former top administration officials, has so far allocated only about 15 percent of its available cash — a strategic move as it waits for the economy to improve, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal business decisions.

Information about Trump’s possible Saudi payments is even more opaque. Before his political career, Trump had long claimed a profitable history of dealmaking with the Saudis.

On the day he launched his campaign at Trump Tower in 2015, he said, “I love the Saudis. Many are in this building.” Later that year, he said at a campaign rally that “they spend $40 million, $50 million” buying his apartments. In August 2015, The Post reported, he established eight shell companies that included the name “Jeddah,” apparently referring to Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, and four mentioned a hotel — but there’s no record that anything resulted, The Post reported.

Starting last year, LIV Golf hosted two tournaments at Trump properties, with recent court proceedings revealing that the Public Investment Fund covers 100 percent of tournament costs, according to coverage of the case.

A LIV Golf spokesman declined to comment, and a Public Investment Fund spokesman did not respond to requests to comment.

Trump hits a shot before a LIV Golf event at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in July. LIV Golf, which is backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, has held multiple events at Trump courses. (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

LIV Golf, which was set up as a competitor to the PGA Tournament, has struggled to attract top golfers. After the PGA pulled a tournament from a Trump course following the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump boosted the LIV tour, calling it a public relations coup worth billions of dollars for Saudi Arabia and urging golfers to “take the money” and join LIV. He has not said how much he earned from the arrangement.

Ted Bishop, a former PGA president, said in an interview that a major tournament typically pays $2 million to $3 million to play on a course, not counting other revenue such as sponsorships, merchandise, and food and beverage.

Critics of LIV Golf have called the Saudi funding an effort at “sportswashing,” meant to divert attention from the killing of Khashoggi and its record on human rights. “I think the vast majority of golf fans oppose LIV Golf because it is a moral question,” Bishop said.

The Trump Organization in November signed a deal with a Saudi Arabian firm, Dar Al Arkan, to develop Trump-branded villas, a hotel and a golf course in Oman with the support of that country’s government. Such branding was once the mainstay of Trump’s international business, but the Oman agreement was the first such international deal publicly announced after he left office.

Eric Trump said in a statement that “Trump Oman is an exceptional project, in an exceptional location and we are excited to enter that rapidly growing market with an incredible hotel, world class golf course and much, much more.”

Democrats have continued to push for more details about Donald Trump’s and Kushner’s deals.

The House Oversight Committee said in a June 2 letter to Kushner that it wanted to know if he had “improperly traded” on his government position to get the investment and whether he influenced U.S. policy to do so.

The committee’s investigation has stalled as a result of the Republican takeover of the House, but Wyden’s Senate Finance Committee may request the same documents as part of a broader inquiry in whether there is a connection between what Trump and Kushner did during the administration and the subsequent Saudi deals.

“Following the money is the premier issue,” Wyden said. “That’s how you understand potential conflicts of interest.”

Saudi special forces salute in front of a screen displaying images of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, right, and Mohammed in July. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Mohammed, meanwhile, has continued his rise to power and is expected to become king when the current monarch dies or steps down.

Biden, who vowed during his 2020 campaign to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are” over Khashoggi’s murder, traveled to Saudi Arabia in July and fist-bumped Mohammed. Then his administration said that under international law, Mohammed was immune from a lawsuit in the Khashoggi killing because he had been named the sitting head of his government.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the Khashoggi-founded group DAWN, has called on Congress to pass legislation to prohibit all former senior U.S. officials from working for, or financially benefiting from, a foreign government. Without such a law, she said in a statement, former U.S. officials can “monetize their work for our government into lucrative contracts with foreign governments.”

Meanwhile, the financial benefits of the Saudi relationship with Trump and Kushner continue.

Trump is slated to hold three more LIV tournaments on his properties this year.

“And Kushner reportedly has raised at least another $500 million for his company from international investors since he filed the SEC form last year, bringing the total to around $3 billion. He has not identified the source of that additional money,” Michael Kranish concludes.