The new Democratic majority in Congress is unraveling the many ways that Donald Trump’s administration has been beholden to Saudi Arabia since its earliest days. In a report last month that got lost in the crush of other news, House Democrats detailed how top Trump administration officials, including Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner, pushed to provide the Saudi government with technology to build nuclear power plants. That could put Saudi Arabia on the path to developing nuclear weapons, and further destabilize the Middle East.
Kushner’s role is particularly troubling because, as the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, he has cultivated and shored up the relationship between Trump and the ruthless Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The Kushner-Prince Mohammed friendship is at the heart of the US-Saudi relationship today, and it’s one reason that Trump has tried to shield the crown prince from blame for the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump and Kushner, both used to shady real estate deals, adapted quickly to Saudi Arabia’s system of patronage and clientelism: unwavering support from the Trump administration for the promise of weapons sales and other business deals.
The project to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia began in late 2016, during the presidential transition, when a group of retired US generals and national security officials coalesced around Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. Even after Flynn was fired in February 2017, other White House officials revived the plan, despite objections from administration lawyers who worried that the proposal could violate US laws intended to stop nuclear proliferation. And the idea is still alive: Trump met last month with the CEOs of several private nuclear power companies who sought his help in building power plants in the Middle East.