House Democrats are continuing to probe how President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner received a top-secret security clearance despite concerns from the CIA. The New York Times recently reported Trump ordered then-Chief of Staff John Kelly to grant Kushner the clearance despite the judgment of intelligence officials. Kushner failed to report over 100 foreign contacts on his initial application for clearance, which was denied by the FBI after a background check into his financial history and contacts with foreign investors. Kushner later revised his application three times, and was ultimately granted permanent security clearance last May. We speak with Vicky Ward, the author of a new book uncovering details about how Kushner has continued to let the financial dealings of his family impact the policy decisions he promoted overseas. In one case, this almost led to a war in the Middle East between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The book is called “Kushner, Inc.: Greed. Ambition. Corruption. The Extraordinary Story of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: House Democrats are continuing to probe how President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner received a top-secret security clearance despite concerns from the CIA. The New York Times recently reported Trump ordered then-Chief of Staff John Kelly to grant Kushner the clearance despite the judgment of intelligence officials. Then-White House counsel Don McGahn had also argued Kushner should not have been granted access to top-secret documents. Kushner failed to report over a hundred foreign contacts on his initial application for clearance, which was denied by the FBI after a background check into his financial history and contacts with foreign investors. Kushner later revised his application three times, and was ultimately granted permanent security clearance last May.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, a new book uncovers details about how Jared Kushner has continued to let the financial dealings of his family impact the policy decisions he promotes overseas. In one case, this almost led to a war in the Middle East between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
We’re joined now by investigative reporter Vicky Ward, author of Kushner, Inc.: Greed. Ambition. Corruption. The Extraordinary Story of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Vicky, welcome back to Democracy Now!
VICKY WARD: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s begin there. I mean, it may sound a little odd to talk about the senior adviser to President Trump, Jared Kushner, and how he almost started a war in the Middle East, by asking you about a New York City skyscraper, a New York City building.
VICKY WARD: You’re exactly right, though, to make—
AMY GOODMAN: 666 Fifth Avenue.
VICKY WARD: You’re exactly right to make the connection. So, the Kushners have this albatross around them. In the book, I sort of think of 666 Fifth Avenue as like the Maltese Falcon. It’s just always there, and sort of all roads, when it comes to Jared’s policymaking, lead back to this money pit, this disastrous investment, where a loan of $1.4 billion is coming due in February of 2019, and no American lender will touch it with a 50-foot pole, which means the Kushners need foreign investment. You know, tricky when it’s a family business, and the son is now senior adviser to the president. The Qataris told the Kushners in the spring of 2017, when Jared was already in government—Charlie Kushner asked for over a billion dollars; they turned Charlie Kushner, Jared’s father, down.
So, bearing that in mind, Jared has a new best friend in the Middle East, who also has money: MBS, the future crown prince—he wasn’t crown prince yet—of Saudi Arabia. And these two form a bond that really alarms Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and James Mattis, the secretary of defense, because Jared and MBS cut out all the national security officials who should be looped in onto their communications, cut out everyone in the State Department. You know, these are systems we’ve had in place to protect our security and our government for decades. And Rex Tillerson, who, you know, was very experienced in the region—
AMY GOODMAN: The former secretary of state.
VICKY WARD: The former secretary of state, but, before that, remember, he ran Exxon—knew a bit about MBS’s sort of brutal track record and was really concerned about this.
Jared sees an opportunity for money, for investment in MBS and for subsidizing his peace plan. So he pushes the president to make the United States’ first official visit overseas not to a country with shared democratic values, such as Britain or France, but to the united—sorry, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where they have this summit that is supposed to be all about cooperation in the region. But 10 days later, or thereabouts, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis are at a conference in Australia. To their astonishment, they learn that, instead of cooperating, the Saudis have led a group of Middle Eastern countries to blockade Qatar, where America has an air base. That is our security in the region. They had no prior knowledge of this. Tillerson immediately knew that the green light—Saudis would never have done this without support from the White House—it came from Jared.
And what MBS wanted was to over—was he actually wanted to invade Qatar—it was worse than that—because he wanted the Qataris’ resources, which is why, when he eventually—actually, when he couldn’t get hold of those, that’s what actually then leads him to round up six of the seven ruling branches of the Saudi royal family later in November. You know, it’s all about money. Rex Tillerson said to Jared Kushner, “Jared, have you noticed that the only branch”—you know, there are seven ruling houses in Saudi Arabia—”the only branch that MBS has not rounded up is his own? Don’t you think it’s statistically unlikely that they’re not corrupt, too?” Jared didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to know, when Tillerson told him how dangerous this was. And actually, what Jared did was what MBS wanted him to do, which was fire Rex Tillerson.
But there’s an ironic twist to this tale. In the spring of 2018, MBS arrives in Washington, and the president asks him for $4 billion to help rebuilding Syria. And MBS says, “I don’t have that kind of money.” This atrocious war in Yemen has cost the Saudis a lot, and oil prices fell. Well, Trump and Jared listened. The Qataris then arrived in Washington. And, you know, strategically, they offered Trump and Jared—they said, “We’ve got plenty of money, for whatever you want to do. But you need to end the support of this blockade.”
So, what happens is that at exactly the sort of same time period, 666 Fifth Avenue, the Kushners’ troubled building, gets an extraordinary deal that makes absolutely no sense. A Canadian firm, whose second-largest investor is the Qatari Investment Authority, says it’s going to lease this building, that someone who’s been involved in it said would be worth—more valuable if it was just a pile of dirt. They’re going to pay $1.3 billion, 99-year lease, and they’re going to pay all that lease up front. I mean, this is a deal that stinks. So, I mean, it seems hard—and at the same time, the U.S. changes its policy towards the blockade on Qatar. I mean, Congress is now, quite rightly, investigating this.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, that’s one of the incidents, one of the principal incidents, that you cite in the book as a conclusion, which, you know, might surprise people, which is that Jared and Ivanka are Trump’s greatest liability.
VICKY WARD: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, it seems that there are a number of contenders for that position, not least Trump himself.
VICKY WARD: Yes, but I think, you know, Trump, as we’ve seen, particularly in this last week, to a much larger degree than Jared and Ivanka, is in plain sight. Right? He’s not holding back on anything, unfortunately. You know, all the inappropriate things that have come out his mouth or his Twitter feed in the last week illustrate that. Jared and Ivanka would never say those kind of things, which means, I think, that they’re more dangerous, in a way, because they’re in disguise. You know, what I just described to you, I think of as sort of diplomacy in the dark. I mean, the idea that Jared is running around doing all of this, and nobody knows anything about it, not even our State Department, not the National Security Council, I mean, that’s horrifying.
AMY GOODMAN: So, moving from Jared Kushner to Ivanka Trump, his wife, both advisers, of course, senior advisers to President Trump—last May, President Trump announced he would save Chinese electronics company ZTE from collapse, just two days after Beijing invested $500 million into a Trump development project in Indonesia. A week before that, Ivanka Trump’s fashion business won approval for trademarks in China. Then, last October and November, Chinese trademark regulators awarded preliminary approval for an additional 34 trademarks, covering everything from Ivanka Trump-branded veterinary services, nursing homes, sausage casings, handbags, shoes and even voting machines.
VICKY WARD: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Vicky Ward, explain.
VICKY WARD: So, this issue of the trademarks, you know, is something that appalled everyone who worked with Ivanka, should appall all of us. It certainly was another thing that Rex Tillerson just, I mean, found abhorrent, because what Ivanka would do would—you know, she would get on calls, I mean, not just with the Chinese, you know, all sorts of foreign leaders. You know, we have India, Japan. I mean, she’d get on calls or put herself in meetings, in quite a subtle way, and, you know, not ask directly in front of people, “Oh, and by the way, can you please now boost my business?”—which needed, desperately, foreign support. It wasn’t doing at all well domestically. And, you know, I mean, we have very firm laws about this. You can’t stand on White House grounds and ask for money. I mean, that’s just flat-out illegal. And the people—so, the people in the State Department watching all this, because they would be on some of these calls, were absolutely horrified at how completely inappropriate it was, because it just seemed like such blatant self-dealing.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the Middle East peace plan of Jared Kushner?
VICKY WARD: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: To the shock of many. Not Secretary of State Jared Kushner, not national security adviser Jared Kushner, but Trump’s son-in-law and so-called senior adviser, who apparently now—
VICKY WARD: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —we’ve just learned, it was Trump himself who intervened, above the intelligence services—
VICKY WARD: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —to get him top security clearance.
VICKY WARD: Well, I think one of the strong themes in my book, you know, is Bibi Netanyahu, very, very old family friend of the Kushners. You know, famously, when Jared was a child, Bibi slept in Jared’s bedroom one night. You know, Jared was kicked out. Charlie Kushner actually—his father—went to jail. One of the counts he pled guilty to was campaign finance fraud, and that involved paying, in the wrong way, for Bibi’s many visits to Charles Kushner’s local Jewish community. Bibi Netanyahu is like the grand chess master of—I mean, he may as well really have been our secretary of state these last two years. He—
AMY GOODMAN: The current prime minister, who looks like he’s about to be indicted for corruption, of Israel.
VICKY WARD: Corruption, exactly. Because Jared’s peace plan is essentially Bibi’s peace plan and involves everyone else sort of doing things and everyone else paying for it, except Israel. And I think you can’t underestimate the influence of Bibi here. I mean, it was Bibi’s idea to really have the U.S. soften its attitude toward Russia, because he thought it would be helpful in batting down Iran and Syria. This is not a view that is shared by many of our—well, any, actually, of our security analysts who deal in the region. And, you know, he was very supportive of this idea that Jared and MBS should form an alliance, so that the Saudis could basically—and the United Arab Emirates, could sort of subsidize Jared’s peace plan.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the things that’s been pointed out by critics of the book is that Steve Bannon seems to be one of the principal sources, though you never say explicitly whether you interviewed him or not. And obviously, quite apart from the other problems with Steve Bannon, he is not a disinterested party. I mean, he has always been critical of Jared and Ivanka Trump.
VICKY WARD: Yes, totally.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, did you interview him?
VICKY WARD: Look, I’m a—I’ve got to protect my sources. But I would point out that if you look—I think the book has 25 chapters—Steve Bannon appears in six. So, the idea that he would be a principal—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I think maybe that’s—
VICKY WARD: I mean, the book is a very—you know, the book is sort of six books in one. It’s very dense. We actually start in Belarus. Then we move to New Jersey.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yes.
VICKY WARD: Then we go to New York. Then we go to Washington. And we then go from Washington to the Middle East. You know, I mean, there are many threads in it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, it’s probably more striking, because—
VICKY WARD: So I don’t think Bannon—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —there are not many people who are cited by name. You interview more than 200, but—
VICKY WARD: No, no. Yes, I understand. But Steve Bannon was only in the White House—I mean, obviously, he was in the campaign with Jared and Ivanka, and in the White House for six months. I mean, the great—the reveal, I think, that’s interesting in the book, about Bannon, is that he was the one who brings them in. It wasn’t actually Trump. You know, it was Steve Bannon. When Don McGahn, the White House chief counsel, comes in with a draft of an opinion from the Justice Department, saying, “Look, you know, everyone’s a bit”—overriding the nepotism laws that we have in place, saying, “Look, no one really wants to do this”—to bring Jared and, later, Ivanka in—”but we can, if you think it’s absolutely necessary.” But McGahn didn’t want to do it, not just because of the worries about corruption—
AMY GOODMAN: White House counsel McGahn.
VICKY WARD: Yeah, White House counsel—but because of worries about competence, actually. He said, “How does anyone know that these two are going to be competent?” I mean, it was a really good question. And he posed this to both Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. And Bannon was the one who said, “You know what? Think back to Billy Bush weekend, when the president was so upset when those tapes leaked, and the only person who could really calm him down was Ivanka. I think we might need them.” And obviously, you know, so they come in, and, six months later, Bannon is pushed out. But I don’t—you know, I think that given the scope of this book, Bannon’s time period in it is very limited.
AMY GOODMAN: And, ultimately, your conclusion, in these last 30 seconds, about the power of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in the White House?
VICKY WARD: I think that is a complicated answer. They’re still there. The body count that they’ve caused is up in the thirties, I mean. But I also—I think the book shows that at the end of the day, she can’t speak candidly to her father. In the end, he’s going to do what he’s going to do, although, you know, again, it is complicated. You know, he gave Jared that—
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
VICKY WARD: He gave Jared that security clearance, I mean, against—
AMY GOODMAN: And Ivanka Trump.
VICKY WARD: Against everyone else’s advice.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2, post it online. Vicky Ward, investigative journalist, author of the new book Kushner, Inc.: Greed. Ambition. Corruption. The Extraordinary Story of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.