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Jared Kushner dealings raise new questions about conflicts of interest

The White House is swirling with new questions of possible conflicts of interest for Jared Kushner, including reports that his family received more than $500 million in loans from companies who met with the president’s son-in-law, and that foreign officials saw him as exploitable. Judy Woodruff talks to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos and Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the White House is swirling with new questions and allegations of possible conflicts of interest for Jared Kushner, President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law.

    Here for more on the fallout, politically and legally, I’m joined by Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, and Patrick Cotter, a white-collar defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Evan Osnos, I’m going to start with you.

    Let’s remind everybody first, what are Jared Kushner’s responsibilities? What is his role at the White House?

  • Evan Osnos:

    He has a very broad portfolio.

    One of the things he’s in charge of is trying to find a peace agreement in the Middle East. He’s also in charge of the relationship with Mexico. He’s also been tasked with managing relations with China. And on top of that, on the domestic front, he’s also in charge of trying to, as they say, redesign government, find ways to make things more efficient.

    And also I should add he’s also in charge of trying to bring more innovation into the government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, a modest portfolio.

  • Evan Osnos:

    A modest portfolio.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you wrote a piece for The New Yorker about a month ago on his interactions with Chinese officials and how complicated that was. You put that together with reporting in The Washington Post this week on how — quoting officials from four different countries on how they tried essentially to manipulate him, take advantage of him.

    What does that add up to?

  • Evan Osnos:

     Well, there’s a pattern here.

    And the pattern as it relates to China and many of these other countries is that American intelligence officials were picking up intercepted communications that showed that the leaders of these other countries, Mexico, Israel, the UAE, were deliberately seeking to have contact with Jared Kushner because they wanted to try to use his business commitments, debts, obligations, his need for investment, as a way to try to manipulate him on policy points.

    So they were actively seeking out, having diplomatic encounters with him in his role at the White House because they knew that he had this extensive portfolio of business interests, and that was a vulnerability.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which, of course, raises a lot of questions.

    Now, Patrick Cotter, separately, there’s been reporting this week — we know there were conflicts, questions from the beginning because Jared Kushner came from his family’s business, hundreds of millions of dollars in investments there.

    But, yesterday, The New York Times reports about two major financial firms, both Apollo and Citigroup, top officials there meeting with Jared Kushner at the White House, and around the same time both firms lending hundreds of millions of dollars to his family business.

    What does that add up to?

  • Patrick Cotter:

    Well, we’re not sure, but the danger to Mr. Kushner is that he may — he may have exposed himself to an allegation that he violated the bribery of a government official statute, 18-USC-201.

    And that makes it a crime for anyone to offer or accept anything of value to a government official in exchange for an official act. If a prosecutor could link the benefits that Apollo and Citigroup were seeking and the benefits Mr. Kushner got, the roughly $500 million in loans from those two entities, there could be a viable prosecution against Mr. Kushner.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How unusual is it for top government officials to be in these kinds of meetings with people whom their firms or firms they are associated with stand to benefit from financially?

  • Patrick Cotter:

    It’s amazingly unusual.

    It is basic protocol for government officials to run what is known as a conflict check or a due diligence check to make sure that, before they meet with private financial interests and persons, they don’t have any kind of a conflict.

    That could not possibly have been done in this case, and it’s rather stunning that, at this high level and this far into the administration, that such a check wasn’t done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Evan Osnos, as if this all weren’t enough, you have the swirling questions around his security clearance, the fact that it’s now 13 months into the new administration, Jared Kushner still doesn’t have a full security clearance, and he was downgraded this week.

  • Evan Osnos:

    Yes, this, in a sense, is the culmination of the issues we have been talking about. From the very beginning, Jared Kushner had trouble getting a security clearance, partly because he had these very complex business interests around the world, he wasn’t willing to divest himself of those.

    And then also, of course, at the very beginning, he made errors when he filed for his clearance. He left off contacts with more than 100 foreign officials, later amended those forms. But after 13 months in office, usually, a senior White House official has their clearance. They’re fast-tracked. He hadn’t gotten it.

    And by last month, we were hearing from members of the intelligence community, law enforcement that they were concerned. They felt that there was something in his profile, in his portfolio that meant he ultimately couldn’t receive that.

    And for that, it’s very hard to work at that high level in the White House if you don’t have access to that intelligence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I think the question in a lot of people’s minds, Patrick Cotter, is how much jeopardy is Jared Kushner in?

    I saw The Wall Street Journal lead editorial today. This is a newspaper that has been friendly to the president saying it’s time for Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, who of course is the president’s daughter, to leave the White House staff. They can advise the president, but from the outside.

    But my question to you is, as much as we know about what’s happened, how much jeopardy could he be in?

  • Patrick Cotter:

    Well, I will point out that it’s a high standard for a prosecutor to prove bribery of a government official.

    It’s not enough to show that benefits went back and forth. Prosecutors are required to show what is known as quid pro quo, this for that, before they can prove bribery. So I think he has exposure.

    If I was advising him, I would say he definitely has criminal exposure, but at the same time, I think it would be a tough job for a prosecutor to make that very high standard of quid pro quo based on what we know today, though, of course, we may not know everything.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure.

    And, Evan Osnos, it’s a different standard to judge jeopardy from a political and a foreign policy-making perspective. But how do you size that side up?

  • Evan Osnos:

     Well, the problem for him is that this is a problem that is not going to go away.

    Sometimes, when you have a scandal, it’s because you did something and that problem is behind you, the behavior is over. This is a structural problem in the nature of Jared Kushner’s employment in the White House.

    And as long as he retains these foreign assets, and as long as he continues to have these kinds of problems with his security clearance, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to be what we in Washington call a distraction for the White House. It takes energy and it makes it very difficult for him to be effective both inside the American system and also in his dealings with foreign officials.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    At the very least, one more headache for this White House that has its share.

  • Evan Osnos:

    Indeed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Evan Osnos with The New Yorker, Patrick Cotter in Chicago, former federal prosecutor, thank you very much.

  • Patrick Cotter:

    You’re welcome.

  • Evan Osnos:

    Thanks, Judy.

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