Donald Trump unveiled a new office this weekend that will have the “sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy,” the Washington Post reports. Heading this new shop is a 35-year-old man with no experience in government, politics, or public policy — Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner.
This week, Kushner will also be meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its investigation into Russian meddling in 2016 election.
To understand Kushner’s prominence in the administration, think of Trump’s staffing as a three-legged stool. There’s the establishment represented in former Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, there’s the “alt-right” in former senior counselor Steve Bannon, and then there’s a third, crucial support: the Trump leg.
That third leg includes the entire extended Trump family, but it’s not led by any of his natural children. Instead, the head of the Trump faction of the Trump movement is a true kindred spirit, Kushner.
Kushner was a crucial behind-the-scenes player in Trump’s campaign. He successfully purged Chris Christie and all of his allies from the Trump transition. After the inauguration, he became a senior adviser with authority over some of the biggest and most controversial issues in foreign policy, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’ll lead the charge to overhaul the federal government, an attempt the White House says, to make good on Trump’s key campaign promises.
On the surface, Kushner seems remarkably unqualified for these weighty tasks. He has no experience in foreign policy or domestic policy or government, or really any political activity of any kind. But on another level, that makes Kushner the perfect Trumpnik. He is a high-ranking official in the emerging regime hierarchy who has no conceivable reason to be there other than personal loyalty to the Trump family. He has no base of support beyond the Trumps and no conceivable political role in any other administration.
What’s more, like Trump himself, Kushner is a rich kid with a chip on his shoulder. A hyperprivileged member of the New York overclass who never quite managed to win or buy the respect of his peers. But now Kushner has the last laugh — a direct line to a White House controlled by a father-in-law who obtained the most powerful office on the planet in part because of the very taste and persona that excluded him in the past. Now he’ll have a chance to turn the tables, and humiliate the culture and intellectual elites who’ve humiliated him for years.
That, paired with a total absence of any kind of coherent ideological agenda, makes Kushner a perfect Trump double. In an emerging regime featuring multiple power centers, Kushner stands for the personalized filial agenda. Had the breaks gone differently, you could imagine Bannon storming into office with President Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee. But not Kushner.
Kushner helped Trump lock down a key constituency
Jared Kushner is Trump’s son-in-law, having married Trump’s oldest daughter, Ivanka, back in 2009. And like Trump’s three oldest children, he has played a meaningful role in his campaign from the beginning. Kushner’s first truly noteworthy political moment, however, came back in March 2016 when he played a leading role in drafting Trump’s address to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The speech was not particularly good or particularly interesting, but that was why it was important.
Trump had campaigned for president in a wild, unorthodox style. He’d been especially unorthodox in the realm of foreign policy, where he was deeply critical of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. In turn, he was vehemently criticized by many leading members of the neoconservative school of right-of-center foreign policy thinking. The neocon faction is disproportionately Jewish and is deeply emotionally and intellectually invested in the US-Israel relationship. Trump’s feud with the neocons and his courtship of anti-black, anti-Muslim, and anti-Latino bigotry earned him a chorus of anti-Semitic followers and admirers.
All this was, obviously, a concern for AIPAC. And AIPAC was a concern for Trump, since it’s a generally Republican-tilting bipartisan group that threatened to tilt the other way in the 2016 campaign. Disapproval from AIPAC might also have hurt Trump with evangelical Christian Zionists, who represent an entirely different social group but normally take their main policy cues from the more established AIPAC.
What Kushner did, basically, was write a very dull, very conventional pro-Israel speech for Trump that checked all the boxes. And Trump delivered the speech very faithfully, an early appearance of the slightly awkward, subdued “Teleprompter Trump,” who appears from time to time instead of the more common manic Trump persona.
Kushner can check other Trump loyalists
Back in June, Trump had a problem. Everybody wanted him to fire Corey Lewandowski; he didn’t have the confidence of the RNC, GOP elected officials, GOP donors, or really anyone else. Lewandowski was also embroiled in a long-running controversy over his alleged assault of former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields.
The problem was that Trump liked Lewandowski — a guy who’d been with him since the beginning, back when nobody believed in him.
It was Kushner who persuaded Trump that he had to be let go. It was also Kushner who played a key role in persuading Trump to eschew longtime Trump loyalists and select Mike Pence as his VP nominee instead. This was, arguably, the single best decision that Trump made throughout the entire campaign — giving Republican elected officials throughout the country reason to believe that, however uneasy they were with the way the primary shook out, Trump was clearly on their team and preferable to Hillary Clinton.
Kushner can make those kinds of calls because he is the ultimate loyalist.
People like Lewandowski, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and other enthusiastic members of the Trump Train are certainly loyal followers. But they also have profiles in American politics that are independent of, and in most cases precede, Donald Trump. Kushner is nobody, and thus he is uniquely credible when he tells Trump that a loyalist needs to be set aside for Trump’s own good.
Besides which, as Michael Barbaro and Jonathan Mahler have reported, Trump “sees in Mr. Kushner a younger version of himself.”
Kushner has a longstanding feud with Chris Christie
Kushner’s latest purging of a loyalist was coming to Washington, DC, shortly after Election Day to fire Christie from his job as head of the Trump transition and then implement a purge of all of Christie’s people from the transition operation. This threw the situation into chaos, since the whole reason you put a transition team in place before the election is so the president-elect can hit the ground running. But the conviction of two top Christie aides for Bridgegate activity made his position untenable.
Besides which, Kushner has a years-long feud with Christie because Christie threw his dad in jail. Charles Kushner, you see, was a longtime rich real estate magnate who lived in New Jersey and donated money to various charitable causes and political candidates, mostly Democrats.
Christie, the US attorney for New Jersey at the time, was eager to use the office to advance his own political career by aggressively investigating corruption allegations against New Jersey Democrats. That’s how a Federal Election Commission fine of Kushner for improperly making a political contribution on behalf of a business partnership he controlled became a federal criminal investigation.
These matters are often allowed to rest with nothing more than a fine. Donald Trump, for example, was found to have illegally used a charitable foundation he controls to make a campaign contribution to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. But no federal prosecutor decided to make a criminal case out of it.
Christie was different. He launched an aggressive investigation into Kushner, including getting Kushner’s brother-in-law, William Schulder, to cooperate with law enforcement. Kushner sought to counter that move by hiring a prostitute to seduce Schulder so he could then blackmail him into withdrawing cooperation. It was a twist worthy of network television, but he got caught, adding witness tampering to the charge bill and earning himself a tough prison sentence.
But beyond the criminal penalty, choosing to engage in this particular form of witness tampering ensured that a sort of boring white-collar case would generate ample media coverage, especially in the tabloid-rich environment of greater New York City. That Christie later ascended to the governorship of Kushner’s home state, while Kushner himself entered the celebrity sphere by marrying Donald Trump’s daughter, kept the core humiliation in front of the public eye years before Kushner and Christie found themselves awkwardly collaborating on a plan to send Trump to the White House.
People have made fun of Jared Kushner a lot
Kushner and I were both in Harvard’s class of 2003, a group of mostly very smart, hard-working people that also included a large minority of legacies, development cases, athletes, and others. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about being the son of a rich donor and also in the bottom third of the class in terms of academic ability.
But due to his father’s infamy, Kushner had the misfortune to have the particulars of his admissions case discussed in detail in Daniel Golden’s 2006 book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. Golden discusses in some detail Charles Kushner’s donations to Harvard and his apparent use of his influence as a Democratic Party donor to get former Sen. Ted Kennedy to mention Jared to Harvard’s then-president, Neil Rudenstine. Golden then goes after Jared’s qualifications in a very direct and personal way:
“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former [official at Jared’s high school] told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not. I believe that Jared, for the longest time, didn’t want to talk about any of this, because he felt a little bit upset or guilty that he may have taken somebody else’s place. One of the things the Ivies ask is, ‘was this student in the most challenging courses offered in the school?’ We could not answer that question yes.”
Golden quotes, by name, Margot Krebs, who was the director of the college preparatory program at Kushner’s high school, saying, “Jared was certainly not anywhere near the top of his class. … It was an unusual choice for Harvard to make.”
Back in 2011 when Trump was getting into birtherism, he also attacked Barack Obama’s educational credentials. “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible,” Trump told the Associated Press. “How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?”
The timing of this whole thing was particularly unfortunate for Kushner, because Golden’s book was released shortly after he bought the New York Observer, a weekly newspaper that’s beloved by the New York City media crowd and that’s frequently served as a launching pad for young journalists. The Observer was a purchase with low financial value but reasonably high cultural cachet. Buying it — like Charles buying Jared a spot at Harvard — was supposed to cement his status in high society. But the exposure of the earlier effort to turn money into prestige merely hung like a cloud over the later one, with the Observer as a whole sliding into relative obscurity anyway in the digital age.
Trump and Kushner have a unique bond
The vast majority of New Yorkers live in Brooklyn and Queens, which makes owning and operating apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens a very sensible way to make money. That’s what Fred Trump, Donald’s dad, did, and he made himself a fortune that way.
But perceptions of New York as an iconic global city are dominated by Manhattan, and what Donald wanted to do with daddy’s money was move into Manhattan and join America’s social and cultural elite. It never worked out for him, basically because he has terrible taste. Trump’s gold-plated condo and other ostentatious ticks are considered horrifically gauche by his fellow Manhattanites, and have been ever since I was a kid growing up in Manhattan in the 1980s. People laughed at him — constantly — because he was ridiculous.
The very-hip-at-the-time Spy magazine relentlessly trolled him as a “short-fingered vulgarian,” and it truly bothered him.
As comedian John Mulaney put it, “Donald Trump is like what a hobo imagines a rich man to be.” Actual social and economic elites in the contemporary United States regard ostentatious displays of wealth as vulgar and low-class. What you’re supposed to do is be subtly snobbish about various things — from locally sourced produce at the lower end to unique experiential vacations at the high end — not just slap gold on everything.
Kushner, by the same token, took all the appropriate steps to become a pillar of Northeastern society — get a Harvard degree, own a small but beloved media outlet, donate to local Democratic Party elected officials, marry a society wife — but ended up being a laughingstock, with his intelligence publicly mocked and his dad in jail and humiliated for a particularly sleazy crime.
Trump, of course, has gotten the last laugh. He successfully turned his garish persona into a series of marketing gimmicks — the wine, the fake university, the reality show — and then a successful presidential campaign. When Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof dreams of life as a rich man, he says he’ll have “one long staircase just going up / and one even longer going down / and one more leading nowhere just for show.” Like most working-class people, in other words, he would like to have more money, but he doesn’t especially want to become a cosmopolitan urbanite with hipster tastes. He wants to be Donald Trump. And while Trump never managed to ingratiate himself with his peers, his very failure to do so became part of his electoral appeal to voters looking to stick a thumb in the eye of their social betters.
But Trump didn’t going to actually staff his administration with members of his white working-class fan base. Kushner, described by Politico’s Annie Karni as one who “sees himself as an outsider who, despite his Ivy League pedigree, scoffs at intellectual and cultural elites,” is the next best thing. Trump, at the end of the day, doesn’t actually have much of anything in common with the Southern evangelicals, Rust Belt populists, and working-class rural voters who put him in office. But he and Kushner — rich bridge-and-tunnel kids who tried to make it in Manhattan — are two peas in a pod.