Reporter Tells Of Persian Gulf Rivalries, Hacked Emails And A Mueller Subpoena

Mar 29, 2018
Originally published on April 2, 2018 12:28 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The cast of characters in the Mueller investigation is continuing to grow. One of the people subpoenaed, who we're just starting to learn about, is George Nader. He's been given immunity in return for becoming a cooperating witness. Nader has been serving as a political adviser to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, the UAE. Nader cultivated a relationship with the deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee, Elliott Broidy, using Broidy to try to get access to President Trump and his administration and influence policy on issues of special concern to the UAE. In return, Nader would help Broidy get lucrative contracts in the UAE for Broidy's defense company.

My guest, David Kirkpatrick, has been covering this story. He's a New York Times international correspondent based in London. His reporting has drawn on hundreds of pages of leaked emails between Broidy and Nader. Kirkpatrick says Broidy's ability to leverage his political connections to boost his business is an example of how Trump has spawned a new breed of access-peddling in the swamp he vowed to drain.

David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is a great pleasure to talk with you again. So you've described this story as a case study of how two Persian Gulf monarchies - the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia - have sought to gain influence inside the White House. So let's just start with, what do they want from the Trump administration, the Emiratis and the Saudis?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, that's a very interesting question because the Emiratis and the Saudis, of course, are some of America's closest Arab allies in the Middle East. At the same time, they're both very active trying to influence the American government to do what they want in the region. So they're clients of the U.S. but they're also kind of lobbyists to the U.S. And what they want most of all is a tougher stance towards their regional enemies. And those are, first and foremost, Iran, and secondarily, their neighbor, Qatar, with whom they're having a little bit of a kind of family feud.

GROSS: But the United States has an important military base in Qatar, which is very important in the war against ISIS.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. It has an enormously important military base in Qatar and a deep commitment to that country. And inside the Defense Department and the State Department, they view Qatar as a close ally as well, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

GROSS: OK. So let's bring Robert Mueller into this story. He has granted immunity to George Nader, an adviser to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, in return for Nader's cooperation with Mueller's investigation. What do you know about what Mueller hopes to find out from George Nader?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, there are some very interesting possibilities. First of all, Mueller's investigators have been asking witnesses about the possibility that Mr. Nader sought to funnel money from the United Arab Emirates to Trump's political efforts. That would be illegal. It would also signal that the United Arab Emirates was trying to manipulate the 2016 presidential election as well as curry favor with Trump in the hopes of influencing him. So that's already pretty interesting.

On top of that comes an interesting meeting in the Seychelles during the transition that began the Trump administration when he was not yet in office, having already been elected. The crown prince, who is the effective ruler of the United Arab Emirates, convened a meeting including Mr. Nader in the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, that brought together a businessman very close to Vladimir Putin and someone who the Emiratis believed was a liaison to the Trump team. And that person is Erik Prince. Erik Prince was the founder of Blackwater, which was a private security company that worked for the U.S. government in Iraq.

Back in those days, Mr. Nader worked as a kind of business agent for Blackwater in Iraq. So they go way back. And he was present and may have played an important role in bringing together this interesting meeting of a Russian and an American right before the start of the Trump administration, which raises the possibility that Mr. Mueller's interest in the United Arab Emirates is not a detour from his original mission, which was looking after the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election. In fact, it might be part of it. It might be related to it. The UAE may have played a role alongside Russia in trying to get Trump elected.

GROSS: So there's so many interesting branches in this story. So let's look at another aspect of it. You have access to emails that were hacked and leaked between George Nader, who is, again, the adviser to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates and someone named Elliott Broidy, who's a Republican fundraiser who has had access to the Trump administration. So that's another way of looking at how the UAE has tried to influence the Trump administration and get access to it.

So before we talk in more depth about the emails, let's look a little bit at George Nader's background. He's the political adviser to the UAE. He was also convicted on charges of child porn and sexual abuse of minors. So has that served to hurt his reputation?

KIRKPATRICK: You'd think it would - wouldn't you? - because it appears to have been fairly widely known. We were hearing it at the rumor level for a while before it was confirmed by court records. He's a fascinating figure who has been sort of a backdoor diplomat for decades. He's a Lebanese immigrant to the United States, a naturalized citizen. And he set up a journal about Middle East policy in Washington which was able to get interviews with all kinds of leaders - the Israelis, the Iranians, various Arab leaders - for years. And in that capacity, he got into the business of sort of jetting around the Arab world sometimes running diplomatic errands for the American government. For example, he was involved in some kind of backdoor informal diplomacy trying to work out a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.

And then right around 2002, he sort of disappears. One has to assume that had something to do with those scandals you referred to. And after that, he surfaces in Iraq. And he turns up as a kind of adviser or employee of the U.S. Defense Department and people around Vice President Cheney. And then he next surfaces in - around 2009 working for the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, who we might as well refer to as NBZ.

GROSS: NBZ, OK. So he gets in touch with Elliott Broidy, who's a big Republican fundraiser. Tell us a little about Elliott Broidy.

KIRKPATRICK: So Elliott Broidy is a fund manager, a money manager based in Los Angeles. He's been a Republican donor for a long time. He also happens to own a private security company, a defense contractor that provides various intelligence services to the U.S. government and seeks to sell those services and other kind of military or paramilitary services to other governments around the world. So around the time of the inauguration, Mr. Broidy meets Mr. Nader, and a fascinating friendship develops. They set out together to try to land some really big contracts for Mr. Broidy's private security company called Circinus. And at the same time, Mr. Nader, who was working for the Emirates, tries to influence Mr. Broidy as a way to influence the Trump administration.

GROSS: So Nader wants a political outcome from the Trump administration. Broidy wants lucrative defense contracts with Gulf nations like the United Arab Emirates.

KIRKPATRICK: That's right - and also Saudi Arabia. And some of the proposals they discussed were for contracts on the order of $600 million or $650 million. So it's not small change.

GROSS: So when describing who Elliott Broidy is, he's also had legal problems in the past?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, he has. In 2009, he was caught up in a scandal involving the New York State pension fund. He gave a million dollars in inappropriate gifts, including funding for the movie project of a family member of a fund manager. He gave a million dollars in inappropriate gifts to people running the New York State pension fund. And in exchange, his fund got to manage some $200-plus million of money. So he pled guilty. It was negotiated down to a misdemeanor. But he does have that in his past. So he's somebody who's already been in trouble before for bribery, in other words, to help his fund business.

GROSS: Right. And so is Broidy is still deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, he is.

GROSS: So he's working for the Republican National Committee at the same time he's seeking these lucrative defense contracts with Gulf nations who have political interests with the Republican Party.

KIRKPATRICK: Yup. And not just Gulf nations - he's also seeking contracts from Romania, from the Congo, from Angola. He's - you know, he's open for business.

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is David Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for The New York Times. We're talking about the seemingly quid pro quo relationship between George Nader, a political adviser to the United Arab Emirates who's now a cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation, and Elliott Broidy, a top Republican fundraiser who has close ties to the president and also owns a defense contracting company.

So Broidy promises Nader that he can give Nader's client, the United Arab Emirates, access to the Trump administration. What kind of access did the UAE want?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the UAE is out to try to get the U.S. to line up as much as possible with its own regional priorities. So it wants to be tough on Iran. It wants the U.S. to back the UAE in its spat with its neighbor, Qatar. It wants to strike out against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists which the UAE and Saudi Arabia consider a threat to their stability. And it wants to promote officials that share those views. It wants to get rid of officials who don't share those views. So that's the game.

And what emerges, we've been handed, as you alluded to - we've been handed many, many pages of correspondence between Mr. Nader and Mr. Broidy. And what emerges is a really complicated friendship where Mr. Nader is persistently tempting Mr. Broidy with the prospect of these enormous contracts and at the same time is reminding him again and again, I've been flattering you so much to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and I'm really telling them that you're great and we're really going to sign these contracts together, and it's going to be wonderful, things we can do. And, by the way, would you just please help get this message to Trump, who they refer to as the chairman? And that's how it goes for more than a year at the start of the Trump administration.

GROSS: So in getting back to what the United Arab Emirates wants and therefore what Nader wants Broidy to help accomplish - and correct me if I'm wrong on any of this - the UAE wants to remove Tillerson.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. Tillerson is someone who took a more conciliatory approach towards Qatar and was not as ready as they would like to rip up the nuclear deal with Iran that Obama negotiated. So he was somebody who the UAE and Saudi Arabia had no patience for. And Elliott Broidy was not shy about expressing that to the president and to other people around the White House.

GROSS: The UAE wanted to block Anne Patterson from being appointed to a top Pentagon position because when she was the ambassador to Cairo, she was too sympathetic to President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who has since been deposed. And she was in fact blocked.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that's right. And in one email that Elliott Broidy sent George Nader, it looks like he's kind of trying to take some credit for that. He says this was done partly by this political action committee, and it's a group that I work with. I'm not sure he actually did work with that group, but certainly he's trying to associate himself with it and take credit for it. And I have no doubt in my mind that he was active in expressing his criticisms of Anne Patterson around the administration.

GROSS: So Nader also wanted Broidy to use his contacts within the Trump administration to get President Trump to meet privately outside the White House with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah.

GROSS: And then...

KIRKPATRICK: Now you've really hit on the interesting one.

GROSS: OK. And then when McMaster - when H.R. McMaster was still national security adviser, he blocked that meeting. Did that meeting ever happen?

KIRKPATRICK: It hasn't happened yet. I think Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed may be on the way to the U.S. this spring. So we'll see. But it is a fascinating situation. Mr. Elliott Broidy went to the White House. He had a private meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. And then he wrote a very detailed memo about the whole trip to George Nader. So it looks like a kind of after action report that you might - that a sort of military operation might write. You know, this is the time I arrived. First I met with Kushner, and this is what I said. And then I met with the president. And this is what I said, and this is what he said. And then I met with McMaster - blow by blow, you know. And this is the time that I left - the whole thing.

And one of the themes that runs through that is Elliott Broidy, at the request of George Nader, trying to set up this outside the White House meeting for Mohammed bin Zayed. Now why does Mohammed bin Zayed want so much to meet in private outside the White House with the president? We don't know. But in a previous email that Nader had sent to Broidy, he really underscores - very emphatically in all capital letters - please be the one to set up this meeting and make it far from the White House. So that was clearly a priority that he'd communicated.

And in his after action report, Broidy says, you know, again and again, that he mentioned that to the president. He mentioned that to the president. He really pushed for it. And then at the end, he says, you know, I mentioned it a couple times to McMaster. The first time was fairly negative and just sort of smiled. And the second time was quite explicit and said, you know, the protocol here is that that has to happen inside the White House in terms of a meeting with a foreign leader. So I mean, that is - it doesn't - it's just provocative. You know, what do you think MBZ really wanted to talk about that he didn't want anyone in the White House to hear?

GROSS: Or to see - like he didn't even want to be seen, I guess.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. Or, well, maybe he just - I mean, people - clearly everyone around the White House would know if he was meeting with Trump in New York or at one of his clubs or a Camp David. But he - you know, maybe he just wanted to meet in an informal setting because he thought they could bond better. But it still raises a lot of questions.

GROSS: So President Trump has actually done some of the things that Nader was pushing for - like firing Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, blocking the appointment of Anne Patterson. But we don't know if the UAE lobbying for that through Nader had anything to do with Trump actually firing Tillerson or blocking Patterson.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, correct. We don't know. In fact, there's a lot of - there are a lot of forces at work pushing in the same direction. The same with the promotion of Mike Pompeo, who was a favorite of the Emiratis and the Saudis, who Mr. Broidy promoted the promotion of Mike Pompeo to succeed Rex Tillerson. We can say that's another instance where the actions of the Trump administration align with the Saudis and the Emiratis. But we can't establish causality and say, well, this is only because Elliott Broidy talked to Trump.

GROSS: OK, so another thing that Nader wanted Broidy to do was set up conferences that, as part of their agenda, promote the United Arab Emirates' agenda. How successful was Broidy in accomplishing that?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, there were two conferences. They were well attended. It's hard to measure the success of a conference, but they were part of a broad campaign over the course of the last year to gin up suspicions about Qatar and opposition to Qatar in Washington. And I have to say that, from my perspective, it was pretty successful. That's an interesting case because, in that instance, Mr. Nader actually sent some money to Mr. Broidy. Mr. Nader sent $2.7 million in a circuitous fashion through kind of a Canadian company with a funny name, Zeeman International, to Elliott Brody apparently for the use in those conferences. And that raises a lot of questions about, well, the possibility of money flowing between them.

GROSS: At one of the conferences that we're talking about, the Republican Congressman Ed Royce, from California who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the U.S. should consider moving its military base out of Qatar if Qatar doesn't stop funding terrorist groups. Is Qatar funding terrorist groups?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I think the short answer is that they're somewhat selective. If you were to look at all the Gulf countries, you would say, well, many of these countries have a problem with allowing funding for Islamist extremists or terrorist groups. If you were to look more closely, you would say that the biggest problem is in Kuwait. And Saudi Arabia is not immune either. So it's somewhat selective to ding only Qatar. The other allegation that's raised against Qatar is that it's too close to Iran, or it's insufficiently opposed to Iran.

Again, Qatar shares a natural gas field with Iran and needs to have some kinds of relations. But if you were to look across the Persian Gulf and say which country is the closest to Iran - which country is the most likely to sort of play footsie with Iran under the table - there's no question that that is Oman. So when these countries take aim at Qatar, they're using allegations which are selective or a little bit overblown.

What they really don't like is Al Jazeera. Qatar funds and runs the Al Jazeera television network, and that network makes a lot of mischief around the region. It gives voice to various opposition groups. And in particular, the other Arab - the other Gulf states don't like it because it gives voice to the Muslim Brotherhood - to political Islamists. And those are considered troublemakers by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And on that point - supporting the Muslim Brotherhood - they've got an allegation that sticks.

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, a New York Times international correspondent based in London. After a break, we'll talk about a part of the larger story Kirkpatrick has been covering that he describes as eye-popping. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIPPE DUCHEMIN AND PHILIPPE LE VAN AND CHRISTOPHE LE VAN'S "CARAVAN-OL' MAN RIVER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Kirkpatrick, a New York Times international correspondent based in London. We're talking about George Nader, who has agreed to cooperate with Robert Mueller's investigation in return for immunity. Nader has been a political adviser to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, the UAE. Nader formed an alliance with Elliott Broidy, a Republican National Committee deputy finance chair who also owns a defense contracting business. The arrangement was Broidy would help Nader's client, the crown prince, get access to President Trump. Nader would help Broidy get lucrative defense contracts in the Gulf.

So one of the things that Broidy does for Nader, which Nader wanted Broidy to do, is to give him - help him get some kind of access to Trump. One of the things that Broidy helped arrange for Nader was an invitation to Mar-a-Lago to attend the anniversary celebration - a big gala celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Trump inauguration. And it's through that trip, that the FBI presents him with a subpoena for the Mueller investigation. So what's the story there? How did they serve the subpoena?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, he was he was transiting through an airport, and he was stopped right then and there and given a subpoena that he needed to testify to Mr. Mueller. And a series of discussions began. And that's when he was offered immunity in exchange for saying what he knows. He subsequently was allowed to leave the country and go back to the Middle East and was more recently summoned back for a second round of testimony - of interviews by Mr. Mueller. So he remains a subject of continuing interest.

GROSS: What do you think Mueller had on Nader that led him to issue the subpoena and want him to cooperate?

KIRKPATRICK: I have no idea exactly what he had. But here's a guy who was working for the UAE. He was in and out of the White House. He apparently had close relations with Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon. And he was present at this mysterious meeting in the Seychelles during the transition of the Trump administration that brought together a Trump person and a Russian. If I put myself in Mueller's shoes, I would find that terrifically interesting. As I understand it, U.S. intelligence services had caught wind of the Seychelles meeting and were aware of it, which means Mueller would have known about it. But they didn't know exactly what went on there. Interviewing Nader is a good way to find out.

GROSS: So meanwhile, like, you've gotten access to hundreds of emails between Broidy and Nader that tell you a lot of the back story of what happened here. How did you get the emails, and what do you know about who hacked them?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, they were given to us by an anonymous group which is - introduces themselves to us as being critical of Elliott Broidy and his views on policies in the Middle East. So we don't know who hacked them. Elliott Broidy and his lawyers are sure that it was Qatar and...

GROSS: That Qatar had hacked the emails?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, that Qatar arranged the hacking. It was a sophisticated effort. It required a big budget. It's something that probably only a state or someone like a state could do. And by the way, another bete noire of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates ambassador in the U.S., suffered a similar fate. His emails were hacked into and have been dished out for years now to journalists all over the place. So here you have two enemies of Qatar on American soil, they're both hacked into. Can that be a coincidence?

GROSS: Right. And Broidy is actually trying to sue Qatar for hacking the emails. And that's a kind of precedent-setting lawsuit, right?

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. I don't think anything like that has been done before. He's suing the government of Qatar in U.S. court and trying to hold them accountable for this hacking. So it's interesting because it's novel, and it raises the prospect of going after other countries like Russia or North Korea or China that have carried out hacking on U.S. soil.

However, I'm not sure it's going to be a slam dunk. The question of attributing an attack like that is as much an art as a science, as far as I can tell right now. And it seems like Elliott Broidy's sort of forensic cyber team wants to show at least that at a certain point, the attack originated from Doha or from Qatar. But then it's going to be another step to try to show that the government of Qatar was behind it. So it's an interesting lawsuit, and it may or may not be successful.

GROSS: What was it like for you to get access to these hacked emails? I mean, what do you do? Do you just start reading through all of them?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, first, there's a question of conscience because, you know, to take advantage of these emails is to benefit from a crime, right? I mean, I'm a journalist. I should not be encouraging one party to hack into another's emails. I shouldn't be rewarding that kind of thing. On the other hand, to the extent that there's newsworthy information there and we can give Elliott Broidy a fair chance to respond and make sure that the information we're reporting is accurate, it's terrific. I mean, it's fascinating.

And, you know, let's be honest, there's a certain sort of voyeuristic thrill in reading somebody else's private correspondence, especially when it's such a sort of rich and interesting relationship like the one that developed between George Nader, this sort of manipulative intermediary and informal diplomat, and Elliott Broidy, who was coming and going from the White House and mingling with President Trump. So to see that friendship develop over months in this kind of strange epistolary novel was fascinating.

GROSS: Well, you know, you mention, like, is this ethical? You know, you're a journalist. You have a conscience. Is this OK to read these emails and report on them because leaking them was a crime? Hacking them was a crime. And, you know, did you ask yourself, like, if you had gotten emails from the DNC that were hacked during the presidential campaign, would you have reported on those, especially now that it's become clearer that they were intended to influence the outcome - that the hack was intended to influence the outcome of the election?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I come back to the fact that if the information is newsworthy, we should publish it. You know, our allegiance is to our readers. And we serve our readers. And if we were to start rejecting information from sources with agendas, we might as well stop putting out the paper. So, you know, we do our best to put it in context. We don't publish things which are purely invasion of privacy for its own sake. But if a piece of newsworthy information arrives on my desk and I can confirm that it's true, it would be unthinkable of me to sit on that.

GROSS: So tell us something else about what you learned through the email that just adds some kind of color or drama to this story and helps you understand more the relationship between these two men.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, I must say that the thing that was hard to convey in the newspaper - and I will try to convey now - is just the portrait of manipulation that emerges, that the way that Nader was constantly reminding Broidy that they were working together to get these really big contracts, the way that when the money wasn't showing up immediately, Broidy turns to Nader as the key person to get it delivered, like, it hasn't arrived yet. It hasn't arrived yet. Can you make sure it arrives? And Nader is saying, it's coming, it's coming. I'm talking to Sheikh So-And-So. I'm talking Prince So-and-so. It's on its way. Don't you worry. It's going to be great. I'm really talking you up.

So the dangling of the money accompanied by the flattery, you know, the phrases like, you know, you're doing just this phenomenal, wonderful, terrific job there. What you're doing for these princes is irreplaceable. It's the greatest. You're terrific. We love the way you handle the chairman. That's their code for President Trump. I'm talking you up. I'm making you a hero to them in the royal courts - the flattery of Elliott Broidy for his access accompanied by the temptation of money and then slipping in the instructions. And then - and by the way, it would really be great if you could be the one to set up this private meeting. And we've really got to bust the snake. That's their code for Qatar, or the Muslim Brotherhood. We've really got to crush the snake. You know, we really should work together. It's great for the world. We're doing a public service.

And by the way - at one point, he even says - this is one of my favorites. He gets so down in the weeds that he writes - Nader writes to Broidy and says, look; this book has come out, "Fire And Fury" - the controversial book about President Trump, the Michael Wolff book. This book has come out, and there's stuff in there that might hurt the feelings of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It's a very disparaging portrait of him. Could you please just get President Trump to place a call to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and make him feel better and make sure that his feelings aren't hurt? Boy, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates would really appreciate it. So at that point, they're so down in the weeds that Nader is calling Broidy to get the president to try to soothe the feelings of one prince as a favor to another.

GROSS: So the carrot for Elliott Broidy was Nader saying, I'm going to get you these contracts, really lucrative, it's going to be great. You're doing a terrific job, and I'm going to get you these contracts. Did Broidy get contracts from the UAE or the Saudis?

KIRKPATRICK: He has a contract with the UAE. Its final value was not as large, I'm told, as they originally sought. But it is worth more than 200 million. It appears to include some intelligence services and also training a kind of a paramilitary force. The UAE was keen to create a paramilitary force of Arabs and Muslims that they could deploy around the region against what they consider to be terrorists. And they tried to encourage Washington to support this by suggesting that it might be deployed against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

That's one of the messages that Broidy carried to the White House on behalf of the UAE. It looks like a contract with Saudi Arabia was discussed, and those discussions were still ongoing when these leaks and the newspaper coverage happened. So who knows whether the contract with Saudi Arabia will ever get consummated. But it looks like Mr. Broidy's company is still pursuing it.

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is David Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for The New York Times. We're talking about the seemingly quid pro quo relationship between George Nader, a political adviser to the United Arab Emirates who's now a cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation, and Elliott Broidy, a Republican fundraiser who also owns a defense contracting company. Broidy was supposed to help Nader get his client, the crown prince of the UAE, access to Trump. Nader was supposed to help Broidy get lucrative defense contracts in the Gulf.

So the United Arab Emirates, which we've been talking about, is basically on the same page with the Saudis when it comes to alliances in the Middle East. Both the Saudis and the UAE are kind of enemies of Iran and of Qatar. Last week, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was welcomed to the White House by President Trump. Do you know what that meeting was about?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is on kind of a tour right now. He visited London. Then he visited Washington. He's visited New York. He's meeting with business leaders. He's kind of trying to establish himself on the international stage, and that is a step in his broader consolidation of power within Saudi Arabia. And his relationship with Trump appears to be a part of that consolidation of power, I think, if Saudi Arabia really prides itself on its relationship with the U.S. and its alliance with the U.S., the backing and protection of the U.S. military.

So within Saudi Arabia, it's perceived as important to have a close relationship with the U.S. government and the backing of the U.S. government. So that matters to Mohammed bin Salman as he goes around securing his place as the next king, and possibly the king of Saudi Arabia for a long time to come.

GROSS: There's also a big weapons deal, right?

KIRKPATRICK: Saudi Arabia is an enormous purchaser of American weapons. When Trump visited Saudi Arabia last year, there was a bunch of big weapons purchases announced. When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was at the White House last week, President Trump decided it was a good time to remind the American public of how much Saudi Arabia is spending on American weapons and even had some kind of flashcards to show that off. So there is some money changing hands there, too, and Trump is proud of that.

GROSS: The Saudi crown prince is really controversial right now. He's arrested a lot of business leaders, academic leaders. And he arrested them and put them in confinement at, what, the Ritz-Carlton in Saudi Arabia? And that might sound really posh, but some of the people there were actually physically abused. And also they've said - some of those leaders have said, that their money has been confiscated, their real estate has been confiscated. What's the story behind that?

KIRKPATRICK: It's just eye-popping. It's just one of those stories that blows my mind. So Saudi Arabia has been ruled for decades through a system of power sharing. There was a king, but he would spread around the ministries and consult with his broader family. And that's been the ticket to stability since the Second World War for the kingdom. Now comes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose father is the king, and he's completely up-ending that. He has sort of systematically taken control of all the levers of power inside the kingdom - over economic policy, over the oil ministry, over the National Guard, over the Defense Ministry, over the Interior Ministry. He's got all the hard power. He's got everything. And as part of that, on November 4, he carries out this sort of midnight blitz of arrests, including close to a dozen of his royal cousins. And he locks of all these people up in The Ritz.

And details have been very slow to emerge, but it was billed as a crackdown on corruption. That's going to be selective because corruption is so rampant in the kingdom. And after all, it's an absolute monarchy. It's very hard to know what's corrupt and what's not corrupt when it's just the king enriching himself. It's billed as a crackdown on corruption. There's no legal representation. There's no due process whatsoever. It's selective by its nature. And as you say, it emerges over time that a number of these people were subjected to physical abuse. They were beaten. Some 17 or so are hospitalized for their beatings in the first days. There was some - there is some evidence that people were subjected to electrical shocks. There are secondhand reports of waterboarding. And at least one person, a general, Ali al-Qahtani, appears to have died from his treatment inside the Ritz when he was held captive there.

So this is not due process. It's not due process for the U.S., but it's also not due process for Saudi Arabia. It up-ends everything about the way that kingdom has operated. I mean, this is the kind of tactics that you associate with a brutal strongman, really, especially when you think, as I said before, that he's included 11 of his royal cousins in this in this crackdown.

GROSS: But he's getting some good press in the sense that he's trying to, you know, like, modernize and Westernize Saudi Arabia a bit, allowing women to drive, allowing - what? - like, movies - more movies to be shown. What are some of the things he's doing to try to make it a more open, less, you know, radically conservative country?

KIRKPATRICK: He - that's exactly right. He is - styles himself a modernizer, you know, a little bit in the model of the United Arab Emirates where he said, look, I don't have any time for political reforms or democracy. I'm not about that stuff. But I'm going to use my autocratic power to try to make this kingdom more socially liberal. You know, it's been, as all your listeners know, a very, very conservative place.

He's done things like reining in the religious police that would roam the streets and enforce dress codes on women. He's said that women will be allowed to drive later this spring for the first time. Some women are already taking driving lessons. He's allowed women to attend sporting events in sporting stadiums. He's said that there's going to be movie theaters opening inside the kingdom for the first time. That one is really the smallest of all when you think about it because in this day and age, you can watch a movie on your mobile phone. But he's going to do it. And I think it's something a lot of young Saudis are fired up about.

And it's part of a broader package of changes, which are aimed at really making the life in the kingdom a little less constricting, a little bit more like the United Arab Emirates where you have some personal liberties in terms of your social life but no personal liberties in terms of politics, political expression or dissent.

GROSS: But doesn't - does that kind of modernization, liberalization give him political cover in the U.S.?

KIRKPATRICK: It sure seems to. It sure seems to.

GROSS: Everybody's reading about, you know, like, oh, wow, women will be able to drive now in Saudi Arabia. That - that's real progress. But at the same time, there's this incredible political crackdown going on.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. I mean, you could sort of choose your flavor. He certainly has the best possible advice about public relations. And I think that advice has been very effective. I mean, his message to the West is I'm a reformer. I'm opening up the kingdom. And he's got some evidence, as we said. We - there are some things he's doing on the social front which will make the kingdom a little bit less bizarre to the eyes of an American.

At the same time, he is not in the slightest making any concessions to political openness or democratic reform. He rounded up a bunch of clerics before his big anti-corruption crackdown in The Ritz. And some of the ones he said, oh, these are radicals. But some of the ones that he rounded up, Salman al-Ouda in particular, were not known for their socially conservative views. They were just known for their support of things like elections. And he has absolutely no tolerance for that.

GROSS: My guest is David Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is David Kirkpatrick, an international correspondent for The New York Times. We've been talking about George Nader, a political adviser to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, and Elliott Broidy, a Republican fundraiser who owns a defense contracting business and tried to help Nader get his client - the crown prince - access to President Trump to push the UAE's political agenda. The UAE's geopolitical agenda is aligned with the Saudis' agenda. When we left off, we were talking about the new Saudi crown prince.

So the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who is 32, has a relationship with Jared Kushner. What do you know about their relationship?

KIRKPATRICK: They clearly have a close relationship. And in one instance, it's raised a lot of questions. Last fall, in quick succession, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia held a big investment conference. Lots of investors from all over the world were coming to Riyadh. He was talking about how he's going to open up the economy and so forth and so on. A few days later, Jared Kushner arrives. He meets privately with the crown prince. They stay up into the night talking. Nobody else from the State Department - apparently, reportedly - sits in on their discussions. That's unusual.

Other people in the State Department have complained to us that Jared Kushner has these conversations, including with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, alone and unaccompanied, and nobody knows what he's talking about. And a few days after that conversation, the crown prince goes ahead and rounds up hundreds of rich people, including 11 of his cousins, in the Ritz. So that has set off a lot of theorizing about what was said by Jared to - by Jared Kushner to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman right before the crackdown at the Ritz. And really, that's why you should bring other people with you when you meet with foreign leaders because it's a good way to head off that kind of speculation.

And I can't tell you now what was said, but I can tell you there are a lot of people in the Middle East wondering, did Jared Kushner in some way encourage or authorize or give a nod to this crackdown, or even by his very appearance there, by staying up late into the night talking with Mohammed bin Salman, did he give Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the feeling that he could get away with this?

GROSS: So stepping back a bit, when we look at this story of how Nader, the adviser to the United Arab Emirates, worked with Elliott Broidy, the Republican fundraiser who had an in in the Trump administration, and they worked together to get the United Arab Emirates to try to influence Trump's policies in the Gulf in return for the promise of defense contracts for Broidy's company, does this story represent anything new in the way influence works in the White House? Do you think this is like standard operating procedure in presidencies, or is there something different going on here?

KIRKPATRICK: Well, to a certain extent, definitely fundraisers have been using their status as fundraisers to better their business and their status forever. I have to believe this is new and special. I go back to the memo that Broidy sent Nader about his meeting with Trump. In Broidy's own account, he's very up front with Trump right at the start of the meeting. He says, look, my company, Circinus, is working on landing some great contracts with the UAE. And while we're here, here are some things you can do for the UAE that would be great. And while we're talking, let's talk about Republican fundraising.

And so that juxtaposition, to me, was striking. And it raises questions about why the Trump team continued to allow him the access that it did, you know, that when he calls up and says, hey, you know, can you please help my friend George get his picture taken, the Secret Service seems to have some kind of problem - it actually happens. I mean, I would have thought that Elliott Broidy's mixing of discussions of policy and discussions of his personal business and discussions of fundraising would raise a lot of flags.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick, thank you so much for your reporting and for talking with us again. It's great to talk with you again.

KIRKPATRICK: It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: David Kirkpatrick is a New York Times international correspondent based in London. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview about President Trump's business deals in India and our interview with "Daily Show" correspondent Roy Wood Jr., check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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GROSS: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNNAR HASLAM'S "METER BY ME, SYBIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.