Jared Kushner said Monday he'd advised Mohammed bin Salman to be fully transparent in his investigation of a Saudi journalist's death.
Kushner, the presidential adviser and son-in-law who has come under harsh scrutiny for cultivating close ties to the powerful and domineering Saudi crown prince, indicated it was too early to tell whether his advice was being followed and noted the Trump administration was still in the "fact-finding phase" regarding the death of Jamal Khashoggi.
Still, he defended the longstanding Washington-Riyadh alliance. And he suggested the White House would need to balance any punishment for the death with its interests in the region.
"The Middle East is a rough place. It's been a rough place for a very long time," Kushner, a White House senior adviser, told Van Jones at the CITIZEN by CNN conference. "We have to be able to pursue our strategic objectives. But we also have to deal with what is obviously a terrible situation."
"We're getting as many facts as we can," Kushner said, "then we'll determine which facts are credible."
Kushner's comments came in the opening session of a daylong conference organized by CNN that is exploring a range of topics with newsmakers like former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi two weeks before the 2018 midterm elections.
Kushner has fostered a close relationship with Prince Mohammed, the kingdom's de facto leader who has enacted new reforms over the past year even as he's consolidated power and worked to stamp out rivals. The two men, close in age, have visited each others' capitals and discussed various strategies for the Middle East.
In its early stages, the relationship caused some anxiety among career national security staffers, who worried off-the-book conversations with untested leaders could create problems.
As the Khashoggi crisis descended on the White House over the past two weeks, Kushner's relationship with Prince Mohammed gained new scrutiny. He has remained intentionally in the background as West Wing officials feared a more public role would prompt backlash, multiple people familiar with the matter said.
Trump has privately aired frustrations that he and his son-in-law appeared overly cozy with the Saudi royal court, and has told confidantes he did not believe the Kushner-Mohammed bin Salman relationship was as close as it is perceived to be.
Yet Kushner has been quietly shaping the administration's response, including during phone calls with Prince Mohammed.
"The world is watching," Kushner said was his advice to the young leader. "This is a very, very serious accusation. A very serious situation. To be sure you're transparent and to take this very seriously."
"We'll see" if he takes that advice, Kushner said.
Saudi Arabia has presented a shifting narrative of what happened to Khashoggi. After weeks of denying involvement in Khashoggi's disappearance, on Friday Saudi Arabia said that he was killed in the Istanbul consulate, saying his death was the result of a "fistfight." A Saudi source close to the royal palace later told CNN that the Washington Post journalist died in a chokehold. On Sunday, its foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, went further, describing Khashoggi's death on Fox News as a "murder" and a "tremendous mistake." He also said they "don't know where the body is."
"We are determined to uncover every stone. We are determined to find out all the facts. And we are determined to punish those who are responsible for this murder," the foreign minister said in the interview.
The administration is approaching Saudi Arabia's explanation for Khashoggi's death with "our eyes wide open," Kushner said on Monday.
"I think the President is focused on what's good for America," Kushner said. "What are our strategic interests. Where do we share interests with other countries, let's work toward those."
Kushner said it was important to maintain the US-Saudi alliance, which has persisted across Democratic and Republican administrations, despite a woeful human rights record in Saudi Arabia and questions about the country's ties to extremism.
"We have to be able to work with our allies, and Saudi Arabia has, I think, been a very strong ally in terms of pushing back on Iran's aggression," Kushner said.
Kushner was instrumental in arranging Trump's first stop abroad as president to occur in Riyadh, where the President was welcomed with extravagant displays of royal pageantry, including a traditional sword dance.
Since then he's visited the Kingdom on his own, including during a tour of the Gulf in June. Prince Mohammed has also been welcomed to the White House for talks, including during an American tour that included stops in New York, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Prince Mohammed has promoted reforms within his kingdom, but some in Washington have cast skepticism on his intentions. Those came into sharp relief after the detention and reported torture of dozens of Saudis in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh -- an episode that came just weeks after Trump stayed at the hotel on his visit.
Kushner on Monday offered praise for reforms enacted in the kingdom since Prince Mohammed assumed power, saying they helped advance American interests.
"A lot of the reforms they've been making there to help us track down the terror financing and also to push back against the people who are perverting the religion, have been very historic over the last year," he said. "So we're hopeful we can keep pushing forward with a lot of the initiatives that further American interests and that push back Iran's aggression, so we're going to stay focused on that."
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