ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has developed a close relationship with Jared Kushner, President Trump's close adviser and son-in-law during Kushner's time at the White House. That relationship now faces more scrutiny after Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance.
NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is here to tell us more about Kushner's role in shaping U.S. foreign policy, including toward Saudi Arabia. Hi, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.
SHAPIRO: So what can you tell us about Jared Kushner's relationship with Mohammed bin Salman?
RASCOE: We know that they've had at least five meetings in person since Trump took office. Their first meeting at the White House was in March 2017, and they seemed to have hit it off. They're both in their 30s, and they're obviously both in very powerful positions. It was Kushner who reportedly convinced Trump to go to Saudi Arabia as his first foreign trip. That's unheard of. Presidents usually go to Canada or Mexico first. And Kushner - he doesn't talk much in public, but in a speech to celebrate the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem this year, he name-checked Saudi Arabia as one of the countries in the Middle East that is looking for reform.
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JARED KUSHNER: From Israel to Jordan to Egypt to Saudi Arabia and beyond, many leaders are fighting to modernize their countries and create better lives for their people.
RASCOE: So this was a relationship that he really cultivated, and he promoted this idea that the Saudis were moving forward in a positive way.
SHAPIRO: Jared Kushner has a big portfolio at the White House. How did he come to be the point person for Saudi Arabia specifically for the Trump administration?
RASCOE: It's a bit surprising because he doesn't have much foreign policy experience. He was obviously in real estate before this. But President Trump - when he came to the White House, he didn't have this wide - this large pool of diplomats on his team. And during the campaign, he really relied on Kushner, and that continued as president. And so a big part of Kushner's portfolio is Middle East peace, peace in the Middle East. And coming up with this deal in Saudi Arabia could play a big role in that. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley was in the Oval Office recently, and she talked about Kushner's role in working on that peace plan and other trade deals.
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NIKKI HALEY: I can't say enough good things about Jared and Ivanka. Jared is such a hidden genius that no one understands.
RASCOE: So Haley had nice things to say about Kushner and about Trump. But there have been reports that former Secretary of State - former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was not happy with Kushner's influence on foreign policy. And both Kushner and Trump - they really approach international relations in a different way. They focus on personal chemistry and personality pretty much above all.
SHAPIRO: So now with this controversy where the White House is getting daily questions about it and the secretary of state has flown to Saudi Arabia, where do things stand today with Kushner and the crown prince?
RASCOE: We don't really know. It's not clear at this moment. Kushner was one of the White House officials who was reaching out to Mohammed bin Salman after Khashoggi went missing. The White House said he and other officials pressed Saudi Arabia to make sure their investigation is open and transparent. But right now, the crown prince is denying knowledge of this disappearance.
One of the criticisms of Kushner has been - from experienced diplomats is that because he lacks experience, that it may be easy to manipulate him and for foreign leaders to manipulate him. I talked to Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement for the Obama White House, and he said he worries that Kushner could act as a back channel to Trump for kind of outside leaders and go outside the national security chain.
SHAPIRO: And then there's the question of financial ties between the Kushner family, Trump and the Saudis.
RASCOE: Yes, and a lot of that is not clear because we don't have President Trump's tax returns, and some of that's not clear as some of these dealings are not transparent. But we do know that President Trump said on the campaign trail that he liked the Saudis because they had bought $40 million and $50 million in apartments from him. And there have been reports that Kushner-backed or associated firms may have been trying to get money from Saudi-backed funds.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, thanks a lot.
RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.