Of all the people from President Trump’s circle who could be representing the United States at a Saudi Arabian economic conference, three men whose activities raise significant ethical questions related to the country are slated to attend.
Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, investor and close Trump friend Tom Barrack, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry are set to bring their questionable connections with Saudi Arabia into the spotlight by attending and likely speaking at The Future Investment Initiative, a Saudi-sponsored economic conference, this Tuesday through Thursday. Last year, the US did not send a delegation, as a rebuke of the Kingdom’s murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi only a few weeks before the conference. However, that gesture did nothing to stem the ongoing entanglements between the Trump administration, people in the president’s circle, and Saudi Arabia, which will now be on full display as the conference takes place.
Trump Business Conflicts
President Trump’s financial connections to Saudi Arabia have been well established. CREW has identified 9 conflicts of interest with the president’s businesses involving the country, the 7th most of any foreign nation. Two of these conflicts came to light following Khashoggi’s murder. In December 2018, The Washington Post reported that lobbyists representing the Saudi government paid more than $270,000 on lodging at the Trump Hotel DC within a month of the president’s election. Reuters then reported that the State Department allowed seven foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, to rent spaces in Trump World Tower in New York City without the Congressional approval required under the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
Additionally, CREW found that three weeks before Khashoggi disappeared, the Trump Organization’s business partner in Indonesia inked an agreement with a construction firm that the Saudi government owns a large stake in to work on a Trump-branded resort. Donald Trump Jr. was recently in Indonesia to promote the development alongside multiple Indonesian government officials. The development also makes an appearance on Kushner’s financial disclosure since his wife, Ivanka Trump, lists the development among her assets.
The president’s failure to divest from his business, and his children’s interest in its success, means that we cannot trust that Kushner’s participation in the conference isn’t an attempt to please people cushioning his wife’s and father-in-law’s bottom lines.
Kushner’s Saudi Ties Raise National Security Concerns
Since the start of the administration, Kushner’s relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has raised national security concerns . Kushner has made special accomodations for the prince and engaged in private conversations with him, including over WhatsApp, which likely violated the Presidential Records Act by not producing an official record of the conversation. MBS has reportedly claimed that he had Kushner “in his pocket.” Additionally, in March 2019, CREW called for an investigation of Kushner’s security clearance in order to address conflict of interest concerns linked to Kushner’s family business and work portfolio in the Middle East. After investigating the issue, Congress is continuing to examine “the White House’s Dysfunctional Security Clearance System,” by planning a hearing before the House Oversight Committee scheduled for October 30, 2019.
Barrack’s Involvement in the “Middle East Marshall Plan”
CREW uncovered emails showing that Tom Barrack, a longtime friend and media surrogate of the president who chaired his inaugural committee, had access to high-level officials in the Commerce Department and pitched a plan to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear technology to advance his own financial interests. Barrack’s role in the promotion of this so-called “Middle East Marshall Plan” came under scrutiny in a House Oversight Committee investigation because Barrack may have been improperly influencing government activities for his own benefit. The plan would have transferred sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia outside of the process required by the Atomic Energy Act, which is intended to ensure that countries receiving nuclear technology will not use it to create nuclear weapons. Kushner also helped to promote the proposal.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s Plan
Energy Secretary Perry’s role in developing a plan to deliver nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia has also raised ethics flags. In February 2019, CREW requested documents on Perry’s promotion of a plan that was strikingly similar to one developed by Barrack and promoted by Kushner. The similarity between the plans raised concerns that Perry had possibly been influenced by Barrack. DOE has failed to provide responsive documents.
Not only is the decision to attend the conference troubling given Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, it also shows the administration’s disregard for the ethics concerns and conflicts of interest created by their dealings with Saudi Arabia. CREW is not the only party to have flagged concerns; Congress and a whistleblower within the administration raised the alarm over these events. Had these men decided not to attend the conference and actually rebuke the Kingdom, we would not have to worry that they were influenced by their own gain, or the president’s. However, they leave us no choice but to do so.