nytimes.com Jared Kushner slipped quietly into Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, so the question I’m trying to get the White House to answer is this: Did they discuss American help for a Saudi nuclear program?
Of all the harebrained and unscrupulous dealings of the Trump administration in the last two years, one of the most shocking is a Trump plan to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Even as President Trump is trying to denuclearize North Korea and Iran, he may be helping to nuclearize Saudi Arabia. This is abominable policy tainted by a gargantuan conflict of interest involving Kushner.
Kushner’s family real estate business had been teetering because of a disastrously overpriced acquisition he made of a particular Manhattan property called 666 Fifth Avenue, but last August a company called Brookfield Asset Management rescued the Kushners by taking a 99-year lease of the troubled property — and paying the whole sum of about $1.1 billion up front.
Alarm bells should go off: Brookfield also owns Westinghouse Electric, the nuclear services business trying to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi swamp, meet American swamp.
It may be conflicts like these, along with even murkier ones, that led American intelligence officials to refuse a top-secret security clearance for Kushner. The Times reported Thursday that Trump overruled them to grant Kushner the clearance.
This nuclear reactor mess began around the time of Trump’s election, when a group of retired U.S. national security officials put together a plan to enrich themselves by selling nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. The officials included Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, and they initially developed a “plan for 40 nuclear power plants” in Saudi Arabia, according to a report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The plan is now to start with just a couple of plants.
As recently as Feb. 12, Trump met in the White House with backers of the project and was supportive, Reuters reported.
These are civilian nuclear power plants, and Saudi Arabia claims it wants them for electricity. But the Saudis insist on producing their own nuclear fuel, rather than buying it more cheaply abroad. Producing fuel is a standard way for rogue countries to divert fuel for secret nuclear weapons programs, and the Saudi resistance to safeguards against proliferation bolsters suspicions that the real goal is warheads.
Trump may be vigilant (destructively so) about Iran’s nuclear plants, but in the Saudi case his response seems to be: There’s money to be made! When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised objections to the transfer last year, Axios reported, “Trump and his advisers told Netanyahu that, if the U.S. does not sell the Saudis nuclear reactors, other countries like Russia or France will.”
Trump seems to believe that the Saudis have us over a barrel: If we don’t help them with nuclear technology, someone else will. That misunderstands the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The Saudis depend on us for their security, and the blunt truth is that we hold all the cards in this relationship, not them.
Why on earth would America put Prince Mohammed on a path to acquiring nuclear weapons? He is already arguably the most destabilizing leader in an unstable region, for he has invaded Yemen, kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, started a feud with Qatar, and, according to American intelligence officials, ordered the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The prince has also imprisoned and brutally tortured women’s rights activists, including one who I’m hoping will win the Nobel Peace Prize, Loujain al-Hathloul. As Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, has noted, “A country that can’t be trusted with a bone saw shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons.”
The White House won’t clarify whether Kushner discussed the nuclear issue when he met Prince Muhammed a few days ago, but Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, told me, “I’d be surprised if it didn’t come up.” Along with Senators Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, Merkley has introduced a resolution to oppose the transfer of nuclear technology that would allow Saudi Arabia to create nuclear weapons.
There’s another element of Trump’s Saudi policy that is simply repulsive: the fawning courtship of a foreign prince who has created in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, murdered a journalist and tortured women’s rights activists. The White House genuflections are such that Prince Mohammed had a point when, according to The Intercept, he bragged that he had Kushner in his “pocket.”
No one knows whether Prince Muhammed will manage to succeed his father and become the next king, for there is opposition and the Saudi economic transformation he boasts of is running into difficulties. Trump and Kushner seem to be irresponsibly trying to boost the prince’s prospects, increasing the risk that an unstable hothead will mismanage the kingdom for the next 50 years. Perhaps with nuclear weapons.