Why is Israel So Slow to Support Ukraine? Ask Jared Kushner.
Three years ago, I published Kushner, Inc. In it, I told the extraordinary story of Jared Kushner’s foreign policy machinations—motivated, it appeared, less by national security concerns and more by the business concerns of the Kushner family’s real estate business, the priority of which was a trophy building with a $1.4 billion mortgage for which the debt was due in 2019, and thus the clock was ticking to find a foreign buyer who wanted to curry favor.
(Clearly Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, seems equally unaverse to trading in on his political connections abroad, but at least, unlike Kushner, he is not occupying any official capacity in this administration.)
Jared’s dabbling in U.S. foreign affairs, however, led to all sorts of new sucking up that—in the context of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia—looks even more remarkable (not in a good way) than it did at the time. Today, the U.S. is not even on speaking terms with of most Kushner’s best friends and now investors.
Jared Kushner photographed in the White House on August 20, 2020. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images)
To recap what I reported: Kushner kicked things off in the Trump Transition by meeting secretly first with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and then with Sergey Gorkov, the chairman of Vnesheconombank (VEB), a state-owned bank that was partly sanctioned even then because of its criminal clientele. (In the wake of the Ukraine invasion, VEB has now been completely cut off from the U.S. banking system.) Kushner would later say the latter meeting was not about business, but that it was held because the Trump administration wanted to understand the thinking of Vladimir Putin.
Kushner’s “friends” were Russia (now sanctioned by the U.S.), Saudi Arabia (now a haven for sanctioned Russian oligarchs), and the United Arab Emirates (also a favorite haven for sanctioned Russian oligarchs—see my last newsletter), who, thanks to Kushner’s Abraham Accords, are now closely aligned financially and in other ways with Israel (the second home to many Russian Jewish oligarchs).
In fact, I have been told that, thanks to the alliances forged by Kushner’s Abraham Accords, Russian money is quietly moving via Israel to Abu Dhabi. My sources in the State Department are going nuts over this. You are not likely to read any official confirmation of this. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, has called Israel out and asked for stronger support, including weapons.
Kushner’s mentor and broker in the Gulf was the Lebanese-born U.S. real estate developer Tom Barrack, who is currently awaiting trial, charged with acting as an undeclared foreign agent for the U.A.E. (Barrack has denied this.) The indictment has been seen by many as a sign of just how badly U.S-U.A.E. and U.S.-Saudi relations have sunk, while U.S. relations with Israel are something you’ll not hear too many pro-Israel politicians discussing right now.
Meanwhile, the Saudis have just announced that they are relinquishing responsibility for oil production to help ease gas prices in the U.S. And I still cannot get confirmation from the White House that Biden and Saudi crown prince MBS have spoken.
It's hard to imagine that only three years ago, Kushner and MBS were famously WhatsApp-ing each other and that Kushner was first astonishingly silent and then incredibly defensive about the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reportedly at the behest of MBS.
Still, all the networking appears to have paid off for “boy wonder,” as Kushner was nicknamed during his time in D.C. His new private equity fund, Affinity Partners, had raised $3 billion by December and said it planned to invest in American and Israeli companies.
Some of the start-up money reportedly came from the Saudis, who, I’m told, gave part of it to Kushner individually in order to avoid the appearance of a sovereign quid pro quo. There are echoes here of what the Qataris appeared to do when the Canadian developer Brookfield, whose chief outside investor is the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, bailed out Kushner’s dad with a ludicrously uneconomic deal on 666 Fifth Avenue. (See Kushner, Inc. for the details. Brookfield denied that there was any quid pro quo.) MBS, I’m told, didn’t personally give Kushner money because, according to someone who knows him, “he’s not stupid.”
By the end of Kushner, Inc., MBS had a slightly less rosy view of Kushner’s transactional nature, after Trump softened his position on Saudi’s rival, Qatar. MBS called Kushner a “double-dipper.”
But one imagines that Kushner is not too bothered about that. He doesn’t really care what most people think of him. He only cares what useful people think of him.
Recently, I visited Indian Creek, the exclusive island in Miami-Dade County where Kushner and Ivanka are building a home. Indian Creek is not like anywhere else in Miami. It’s like an exclusive country club, where the homes are five times the size of any place else and people look at you strangely if they don’t recognize you. In other words, it’s a bubble.
And while the construction goes on, the word is that Kushner’s wrapping up his book—in which, I’m told, he lays into all the people he doesn’t like: Corey Lewandowski and Kellyanne Conway, among others.
Anyway, as a reminder of the remarkable Kushner days, I thought I’d treat you to an excerpt from Kushner, Inc. on its third birthday—and you can wonder at how quickly the world has changed since then.
This is from Chapter Eleven, “Kushner’s Disappearing Act,” in Kushner, Inc.:
In the week following the election, Bannon and Flynn were contacted by Matthew Freedman, a political operative who had State Department experience and was overseeing the National Security Council transition. “The [Trump] kids [and Kushner] made a request to put in for security clearances,” he told them. Bannon replied, “Security clearances? Unless they are coming with the administration, absolutely no way they’d put in for the family for security clearances. As soon as that happens, it will leak.”
But Flynn had no problem with the clearances. One senior campaign official suddenly realized why Ivanka had been so eager to “reward” Flynn’s loyalty. “Flynn is totally malleable,” this person told me. “Jared [and Ivanka] realized it would be a client relationship.” That is, Kushner and Ivanka would be Flynn’s VIP clients.
As Bannon had predicted, it was immediately leaked that Kushner wanted a security clearance. (The Obama White House was still involved in the clearance process and received the request.) The transition team’s response? Fire Freedman—a move that unsettled even Bannon. Trump put out a narrowly worded denial, tweeting: “I am not trying to get ‘top-level security clearance’ for my children. This was a typically false news story.” (A Kushner spokesman told The New Yorker that Kushner was unaware of any such requests made on his behalf.)
But Congressional Democrats were not satisfied. On November 16, eight days after the election, U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings from Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote a letter to Pence asking whether Kushner had requested a security clearance or might do so in the future. Cummings pointed out that Kushner was barred from becoming part of the administration due to anti-nepotism laws and that giving him access to material such as the President’s Daily Brief would “demonstrate a breathtaking lapse in judgment and an astonishingly cavalier attitude towards our nation’s most sensitive secrets.”
There were lots of reasons Kushner should not have been given daily access to America’s most sensitive intelligence. First, he was still conducting business on behalf of Kushner Companies, which was desperately looking for a way to pay off the [then-]$1.2 billion mortgage on 666 Fifth by February 2019—and, as would become clear to his transition team colleagues, he never properly divested from his business interests, although his lawyer Jamie Gorelick stated that his legal team had consulted with the Office of Government Ethics and was in compliance with their requirements.
Second, the guidelines for a transition are normally to coordinate with the sitting State Department. “The idea is, we’re supposed to have one foreign policy at a time,” said former deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken, “so if you’re having conversations that undermine existing policy, that’s a problem. But if you’re having conversations for the sake of making contact, normally, you would do that . . . by looping the State Department in.” Kushner was already freelancing on his version of “foreign relations.”
On November 16, three days after the Trump family’s 60 Minutes interview—following which Ivanka’s brand emailed out a “style alert” advertising the gold-and-diamond bangle she’d worn for the show, available from Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry for $10,800—Kushner attended a dinner hosted by the chairman of the Chinese insurance giant Anbang, Wu Xiao-hui, and other executives, in a private dining room at the restaurant La Chine at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. (Anbang was the potential lifeline investor for 666 Fifth.) Weeks later, The New York Times reported that they dined on “Chinese delicacies and $2,100 bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild.” Kushner did not tell any of his senior transition team colleagues about the dinner—not Bannon, Priebus, or Cohn.
Kushner Companies’ other potential investor in 666 Fifth, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani (HBJ), reportedly popped into Trump Tower during the transition. He wanted to be respectful and “gracious” to both Trump and Kushner, according to two sources, though he had decided that he would not invest in 666 Fifth.
That first week of the transition, Bannon ran into Ivanka, who breezily informed him that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had just been on the phone and Abe was planning a visit to Trump Tower. On November 17, Abe was photographed sitting with Trump, Kushner, and Ivanka in Trump Tower. Ethical questions were raised, especially by the Times, because both Kushner and Ivanka were still running their businesses. (Ivanka’s brand was closing in on a licensing deal with Sanei International, a major Japanese clothing company whose largest shareholder is the government-owned Development Bank of Japan.) Those concerns were dismissed in the Times by “an individual close to the family” who said the “meeting was very informal” and that the family still needed “to adjust to the new realities.” After the media outcry, Ivanka’s brand pulled out of the deal.
It seemed obvious to Ivanka’s colleagues that not only was she trying to promote her business abroad, as if nothing had changed, but also that she did not care about—or had not even considered—the inherent appearance of corruption in that. The New York billionaire developer Leonard Stern, who has a decades-old dislike of Trump, stemming from a fight about an article (in a publication owned by Stern) that stated that Trump Tower resale prices were below the original ofering prices, has studied Ivanka’s finances. Although Stern has no firsthand knowledge of them, he does have a deep understanding of how intergenerational wealth is usually managed in real estate families. He observed that Trump, atypically, to his knowledge, has not given his adult children substantial legacy assets. Instead, it appears that Trump prefers to retain the majority of the equity. (For example, regarding the Trump International Hotel in D.C.—a project Ivanka led—it was reported that the three eldest Trump children own 22 percent between them.) Ivanka’s brand was therefore much more potentially lucrative than her Trump Organization role, Stern contended, because it was solely owned by her. “She wasn’t sacrificing any large investments [when she left the Trump Organization],” he said.
Kushner continued taking meetings with foreigners that would draw major scrutiny when they later came to light. On December 1, the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, met in Trump Tower with both Flynn and Kushner. According to a statement later delivered by Kushner to congressional investigators, they discussed Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad is supported by both Iran and Russia, which has military bases there. Kislyak had asked for a secure way to allow his “generals” to communicate with Flynn about Syria. Kushner had suggested using the secure facilities in the Russian embassy. This notion was met with fierce condemnation from Congress when it heard about the meeting months later while probing into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Intelligence analysts were appalled.
Kushner probably felt emboldened to do this because of a new so-called “grand bargain” that was being negotiated between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince MBZ, and Saudi Arabia’s heir apparent, Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Because Obama had cut each of their countries out of the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, which they had opposed, the Palestinian dispute, which had always divided the Israelis from the Arabs, was now secondary to a far more pressing concern that united them: Iran. This new alliance believed that a cooling of animosity between the U.S. and Russia was critical in pushing Iran out of Syria.
This was not a view endorsed by many Middle East experts in the U.S. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and an expert on policy in the region, explained, “The Iranians regard Syria as their single most important ally in the world, and they’re not going to abandon the Syrians, and they’re not going to leave. Bashar Assad needs the Iranians. He needs Hezbollah [the Iran-backed militant group based in Lebanon]. He needs the various Shia militias that the Iranians recruit for him in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think this is a fantasy foreign policy, which is something that Bibi Netanyahu has long indulged in.”
Nevertheless, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told The New Yorker that Kushner, who’d later be tasked with bringing peace to the Middle East, had one big advantage: “Obama set out to bring Jews and Arabs closer together through peace. . . . He succeeded through com- mon opposition to his Iran policy.”
The Russians did not leave Kushner alone after that first meeting. Almost two weeks later, Kislyak met with Kushner’s assistant, Berkowitz, and stressed the importance of a meeting between Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, the chairman of Vnesheconombank (VEB), a state-owned Russian bank. Gorkov was a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Kushner would later testify before Congress that Kislyak said Gorkov could provide crucial understanding of the thinking of the Russian premier. Kushner met with Gorkov, but would later insist that the approximately twenty-minute meeting had been largely substance-free. No policies were discussed, nor was personal business, Kushner would say. Gorkov had bought him a piece of art from Novogrudok, his grandparents’ village, and a bag of dirt from there, and Kushner would later say he formally registered the gifts with the transition office. The Russians would also say later that Kushner acted as the head of his family’s real estate company when he met with Gorkov. Executives from the bank were meeting “with a number of representatives of the largest banks and business establishments of the United States, including Jared Kushner, the head of Kushner Companies,” the bank said in a statement only released after the meeting was revealed.
Cohn was horrified when he read about the meeting in the press. He reiterated the message he had kept trying to drum into Kushner almost every day: “You shouldn’t go to any meeting without taking a lawyer with you [as a witness]. . . . Everything you do is discoverable from this moment on.” But, as usual, he felt that Kushner just didn’t seem to get it. Or didn’t want to.
Senator John McCain had been openly concerned about the Trump campaign’s methods—as well as its pledges. He felt it had suspiciously little ground game and too heavy a reliance on TV ads and fake-news bots. Rick Davis, a senior McCain adviser who knew Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political adviser, had discussed how campaigns connected to Stone were often known for dirty tricks. Soon after the election, McCain had issued a strong statement that a “reset” of Russian relations would be “unacceptable.”
That irritated Kushner, who did not know McCain, so he phoned Davis. Kushner began the call calmly, mentioning that their mutual friend, Revlon chairman Ronald Perelman, had suggested he reach out. And then, in a flash, he turned hostile: “Has McCain got a strategy or is he just an egomaniac?” Davis, taken aback, said that McCain had always taken a negative view of Putin since he’d been elected to the Senate twenty years earlier. Kushner car- ried on with his tirade: “He needs to step back. We have a plan. He ought to give us time to implement our plan. He’s being obstructionist.” And then he added, “He does not want to get on Donald Trump’s radar screen.” Davis was shocked. He recommended that Kushner treat McCain with some respect. Six previous presidents had found it worth their while to engage with McCain one-on-one. Perhaps it would be sensible for Trump—and Kushner—to do likewise? Kushner appeared to be unimpressed and hung up.