Kushner’s privileged status stokes resentment in White House – Politico
In a White House where President Donald Trump commands reverence, Jared Kushner often refers to the president by one name: Donald. And while cable TV can dominate the president’s mood and set the agenda for senior administration staff, Kushner usually keeps his large flat-screen TV in his office turned off, a stark departure from other top aides.
Kushner, the president’s 36-year-old son-in-law and White House senior adviser, does essentially what he wants, having the benefit of not only Trump’s ear but — as a family member — his implicit trust.
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That trust has resulted in a vast portfolio that so far includes negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, helping oversee relations with Canada, China and Mexico and, as of this week, reinventing the federal government through the new White House Office of American Innovation.
But Kushner’s status as the big-issue guru has stoked resentment among his colleagues, who question whether Kushner is capable of following through on his various commitments. And some colleagues complain that his dabbling in myriad issues and his tendency to walk in and out of meetings have complicated efforts to instill more order and organization into the chaotic administration. These people also say Kushner can be a shrewd self promoter, knowing how to take credit — and shirk blame — whenever it suits him.
“He’s saving the government and the Middle East at the same time,” one senior administration official quipped.
In addition to being arguably the president’s most trusted and influential adviser, Kushner also serves as Trump’s unofficial hatchet man. And all eyes are on Kushner as White House insiders predict a broader staff shakeup amid rising tensions between Kushner and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Kushner would like to present Trump a plan for improving the White House within weeks, around the 90-day mark, according to a person familiar with the plan.
In a move that’s alarming the West Wing’s hardline conservatives, Kushner is increasingly aligning himself with national economic adviser Gary Cohn, who’s participating in Kushner’s innovation office and a Democrat whose moderate political positions in some ways mirror Kushner’s own.
Kushner, the person familiar with his plans said, wants fewer zealots and less ideology in the West Wing — and is frustrated with the constant leaking and infighting that have characterized the administration’s early days.
“Everyone is jealous,” said one person close to the White House. Kushner is “the ultimate decider. Mostly people are jealous.”
This account of Kushner’s role is based on more than a dozen interviews with senior White House officials, allies, donors, lawmakers and others.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Kushner has been an asset to the Trump administration. “Jared has been a top advisor to the president from the beginning. Using his wealth of private-sector experience, he is always finding innovative solutions to our country’s biggest problems.”
Kushner spends his days bopping from meetings on Capitol Hill to pacing the Oval Office with Trump to calling Trump’s friends and potential media allies, like morning show host Joe Scarborough. He involves himself in high-level discussions on all manner of policy priorities, ranging from health care and tax reform to trade policy. In foreign policy, he’s been publicly tasked with solving Middle East peace, while also handling Canada, China and Mexico issues.
He created the innovation office last week — which is amorphous but designed to save the government money, improve technology and reduce bureaucracy, officials say. He is particularly interested in large infrastructure projects, a senior administration official said.
The creation of the office added to a perception around the White House that Kushner’s portfolio is almost impossibly ambitious, and that he prefers big-picture discussions to the sometimes mundane and detail-oriented work involved in carrying out policy changes.
On Wednesday, White House staffers and outside allies passed around a story from the parody website The Onion indicating that Kushner had “quietly moved the task ‘solve Middle East crisis’ to his to-do list for next week” because “there was simply too much on his plate right now to bring stability to the fractious region by end of day Friday.” Kushner did not see the piece, a person close to him said.
Yet he is frequently the last person Trump speaks to at night. He spends most weekends with his father-in-law, traveling to Florida aboard Air Force One. Last week, he called lawmakers from a vacation in Aspen, Colo., as the health care bill went off the rails — and, while several aides questioned his decision to go on holiday at such a critical time, Kushner was the one who went to dinner with the president the day after the bill failed, joined by his wife Ivanka Trump–who is now also taking a formal position alongside her husband in her father’s administration.
Kushner’s boosters see him as “a visionary” who is bringing to government a disruptive Silicon Valley mindset that helped him succeed in the technology and real estate industries, as well as on Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign.
Kushner signed off on a mini-shakeup formalized on Thursday, when White House Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh packed her bags and headed to the non-profit group created to support Trump’s agenda, sources familiar with the move said. His involvement with White House staffing echoes his role in orchestrating Trump’s campaign, where Kushner was instrumental in the removals of Corey Lewandowski as campaign manager, as well as Paul Manafort as campaign chairman, and later New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as transition chief, according to people involved in all three shakeups.
Kushner has told people that he believes at least some of the resentment of him is being whipped up by people who worked on the campaign but didn’t get the jobs in the White House, such as Lewandowski, as well as conservatives concerned that he’s too liberal.
Lewandowski did not respond to a request for comment, but Kushner’s allies contend that Lewandowski and other critics have tried to plant negative stories about Kushner in the media.
They point, for example, to a burst of inquiries from at least seven media outlets chasing a tip that Kushner was lobbying Trump to pardon Kushner’s father Charles Kushner, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign contributions. There’s no evidence Jared Kushner sought such a pardon, and no media outlets have corroborated the rumor.
Kushner defenders argue that he has a moderate sensibility that benefits the White House. Kushner, for his part, believes striking middle ground means people are often going to be mad at him from all sides.
But it’s made him a target for those who believe Trump is being encouraged to jettison some of the promises that got him elected—or adopt new positions at odds with what his Trump Train voters thought they were getting. Influential conservative talk show host Mark Levin has name-checked Kushner several times as a liberal influence in the White House, including late last month when Kushner reportedly was considering supporting a border adjustment tax proposal. Levin called the tax “an old-time liberal Democrat protectionist” policy and called Kushner “some 32-year-old, liberal Democrat kid out of New York.”
When the White House is planning initiatives on those issues that might offend moderates, one of the senior administration officials said, “You can expect to read the anonymous story that Jared and Ivanka are trying to stop it.”
Others are more concerned about what Kushner hasn’t done. One pro-Israel operative who works with the administration said “there were high hopes” that Kushner — an Orthodox Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, whose only picture in his office is of his grandparents — “was a guy who really understood our community” when Trump tapped him as a point person on the Middle East.
But, the operative said, those hopes mostly have been supplanted by “deep concern that Jared is not the person we thought he was — that this guy who is supposed to be good at everything is totally out of his depth.”
Those concerns have been fueled by a series of disappointments, including Trump’s equivocation on campaign trail pledges to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to support Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, as well as his unwillingness to force personnel moves at the State Department sought by neoconservatives.
Influential Jewish Republicans including the mega-donor casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson lobbied Kushner to convince Trump to appoint prominent neoconservative foreign policy hand Elliott Abrams as the No. 2 official in Foggy Bottom and to remove Michael Ratney, a State Department official who previously served as U.S. consul in Jerusalem under Obama, from his role handling Middle East affairs.
Kushner was non-committal about Ratney, according to two sources familiar with the lobbying. But Kushner did go to bat for Abrams, only to have Trump veto the appointment because Abrams had criticized Trump during the campaign and was opposed by Bannon. Nonetheless, Adelson, who has spoken repeatedly by phone with Kushner, was disappointed with Kushner’s inability or unwillingness to deliver on the personnel recommendations, as well as the stasis on the embassy, said three Jewish Republicans active in Israel causes.
On Abrams, Kushner “got outmaneuvered by Bannon and couldn’t turn it around,” said a leading neoconservative who has spoken to both Kushner and Adelson in recent weeks. The leader added that, despite the attendance of Vice President Mike Pence at this week’s conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, Kushner’s absence was noted by attendees, who questioned the administration’s Israel policy and Kushner’s role in it.
“One of the things that people are realizing now for the first time is that he’s in charge of too many things, and therefore his ability to get deeply involved in any one of them is limited,” said the neoconservative leader.
That dynamic was apparent during the debate over the failed health care bill, the Trump administration’s first major public policy fight. Kushner privately expressed displeasure with the GOP replacement bill to the president repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, three people familiar with the discussions told POLITICO. He voiced his displeasure so often that Trump at one point grew exasperated, telling his son-in-law that he fully understood his position, according to the two senior administration officials.
Kushner played a key role in arranging for health expert Zeke Emanuel, an architect of Obamacare, to meet at the White House three times with senior staff and at least once with the president himself to discuss healthcare, according to three people familiar with the visits. Two of the people said the meetings drew eye rolls from conservative Trump staffers, who viewed Emanuel—brother of former Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel—as the opposition. (The third Emanuel brother, talent agent Ari, represented Trump during his “Apprentice” days.)
Kushner is “genuinely interested in trying to find the right answers to solve difficult problems in the country in a bipartisan way,” Zeke Emanuel said. “Nothing suggests that he is deeply ideological, and unlike many people in Washington, he’s not afraid to acknowledge that there are things that he knows and other things he doesn’t know that much about.”
But during Emanuel’s final White House visit, on the Monday before the implosion of the healthcare bill, Kushner kept walking in and out of the meeting, according to a source who attended. Then, he disappeared for a few days of skiing and ice-cream outings in Aspen, an absence his critics saw as either a protest or a dereliction of a duty.
It didn’t help that a front page spread in The Washington Post unveiling Kushner’s new White House Office of American Innovation appeared on the same day that it was revealed that he had acquiesced to a Senate Intelligence Committee request to testify about meetings with the head of a Russian-government-owned development bank. Kushner failed to disclose the meetings to the White House, blindsiding colleagues managing fallout from the Russia-related scandals gripping the young administration.
He has encouraged allies not to worry about the Russia investigation because he believes it will go nowhere — and says the Trump administration will outgrow its early stumbles. But if it doesn’t, allies and aides say, one thing is clear: the president will surely find someone else to take the blame. And Kushner will likely be delivering the bad news.