As recently as April, things were looking up for Jared Kushner, the much-mocked 36-year-old heir to the Kushner family real estate fortune and husband of Ivanka Trump. Kushner had, improbably, emerged as a major policymaking force inside his father-in-law’s ersatz administration. Steve Bannon’s star was said to be on the decline in the White House, and though Kushner personally was nobody’s idea of a heavyweight policy thinker, he had instituted a network of other senior Trump aides who were forces to be reckoned with.
It was Kushner who brought former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn onto the team as National Economic Council director. It was through Kushner that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster exercised influence in the administration. And Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognized the power of the Kushner connection by inviting him on a tour of Iraq. Kushner himself cut no profile in public — never appeared on television or spoke at events — but he appeared to be the conduit through which competent, professional people could reach Trump and exert influence over an often amateur-hour administration.
And then came Russia.
Kushner was apparently a leading voice in favor of the disastrous decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey. And post-firing leaks indicate that Kushner’s interest in Comey’s activities wasn’t exactly neutral. The investigation into Trump-Russia links was looking at Kushner, both his transition meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and his even more mysterious meeting with an executive of a Russian state-owned bank that’s operating under American sanctions. There’s even some indication of interest in the Trump campaign’s data operation, which Kushner ran, and the question of whether its information was used by Russians to help target Americans with fake news and propaganda.
The exact scope or nature of Kushner’s misconduct is, as of now, difficult to ascertain. But whatever it is the first son-in-law has gotten himself into, it’s bad news for Trump himself. Kushner is not in any way qualified for high-level government service, and nothing in his track record suggests he’s any good at it, but precisely because his position is so anomalous, he’s an invaluable alter ego to his father-in-law.
Kushner is Trump’s alter ego
The key fact about Jared Kushner is that he is the one person with a high-ranking job in the Trump administration who absolutely, positively would not be there if any other person were sitting in the Oval Office. You can 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.
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 cultural 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 can check other Trump loyalists
One particularly useful role this has allowed Kushner to play is that of designated purger. Back in June 2016, for example, 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 loyalists and select Mike Pence as his VP nominee instead. This was, arguably, the single best decision 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.”
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 beloved by the New York City media crowd that 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 Kushner buying Jared a spot at Harvard — was supposed to cement Jared’s 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. HIs 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 wasn’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.
A scandal that touches Kushner can’t be excised
All of this is exactly what makes the news that Kushner is part of Trump’s Russia problem so difficult for the White House.
Most of the key Russia-linked figures from the campaign — Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page — departed the scene before Trump entered the White House. Michael Flynn made it through the door as national security adviser, but was given the boot by Trump when it became clear that the price of keeping him around would be too high. It’s clear that Bannon and his ideological fellow travelers have a kind of genuine affinity for Russia on a policy level, but it’s also clear that in a practical sense, Trump administration national security policy is mostly in the hands of current or former military officers with more conventional views.
This all paints a picture of a possible scandal scenario that would be more Iran-Contra than Watergate, with the president ultimately insulating himself from the misdeeds of subordinates.
The problem: The way Trumpland works is that Kushner is the guy who convinces his father-in-law that he has to give someone the boot; he’s not the guy who gets the boot. There’s nobody around who can credibly argue that Trump should ditch him, and if he were to vanish, Trump himself would be isolated as a stranger inside his own administration — not sure whom he could trust to act as a loyal steward of his own interests. Beyond that, it scarcely seems credible to believe that Kushner was freelancing in his talks with Kislyak. To freelance, you need to be somebody. Kushner is a cipher, a body double for his father-in-law, not someone with an independent agenda to push.
Whatever dirt lands on Kushner in the end — from whatever it is, exactly, that Comey was looking into to the decision to fire him — can hardly avoid landing on the president himself.