Jared Kushner: Flying Too Close to the Sun

J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes stock of Jared Kushner’s likely fate and his chances of becoming a literary model as investigations close in around him, just five months into the Trump administration.

When the torturous, tawdry tale of the Trump administration is finally told in full to the horrified amazement of readers, rather than relying upon journalists, it may really have to fall to the skills of a novelist or playwright to make sense of it all. (That, of course, assumes New York City, Washington, London, Paris, St Petersburg, Shanghai and Tokyo haven’t been permanently inundated by a permanent rise in the sea levels from global warming following the US abandonment of the Paris Climate Accord and there are more important tasks than chronicling the demise of the Trump administration.) Regardless, as long as writers can publish and readers can read, such a tale will demand an author who can draw upon the sensibilities, skills and outrage wielded so successfully by a high-powered collection of previous writers who have triangulated, plumbed, and calculated the inner workings of “machers” on the make, in order to render such a tale with clarity and insight.

These could include such an obvious forebear as William Makepeace
Thackeray, creator of both The Luck of Barry Lyndo and Vanity
Fair. Then, add a dose of Anthony Trollope with his The Way We Live
Now, and flavour gently with influences drawn from Edith Wharton’s
novels on the rise and almost inevitable punishment of social upstarts
in New York City.

These ingredients must be blended with more contemporary works by Tom
Wolfe, as with his novels, A Man in Full and The Bonfire of the Vanities; playwright Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run; and Mordechai Richler’s The Education of Duddy Kravitz to provide just the right textures of our era. Well, okay, Richler is Canadian, but he can be let in because of the way he also dealt with the downsides of upwardly mobile Jewish entrepreneurs. Maybe we’ll need a bit of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow too, just in case, to round out the portrait. Anyway, here is a bet that the first, or maybe the best, volumes to come out on the Trump administration will focus on the rise – and nearly inevitable fall – of Jared Kushner, instead of the president himself. Kushner’s circumstances will have more than just the dangerous buffoonery or worse of the Trumpster to chronicle.

Instead, in the first son-in-law’s circumstances, there will be the tragedy of a man who overreached, who was egged on by ambition, carried some awkward family issues, and had an overweening desire to be somebody big, important and influential on the world stage. And who wanted to show doubters he could make the big score and make it work. So let us start with Jared Kushner before the fall, although his role in the Trump presidential campaign, and the presidential transition after the election have now become topics of intense public, media and congressional and Justice Department special counsellor interest, given some dealings with the Russians.

Before he became permanently linked in the public eye to Russian Embassy officials and a dodgy Russian banker, Jared Kushner was known for being a somewhat flawed real estate developer, a former vanity publisher, and the husband of another real estate developer’s daughter. Oh, and he was also the son of a real estate developer who spent a bit of time in free federal accommodation for a litany of unsavoury white collar crimes, courtesy of Chris Christie (the same man who was once an intimate of Donald Trump) when Christie was a federal prosecutor.

Most recently, in a presidential administration where the staffing process has something of the aroma of the Corleone family about it, Kushner became a senior adviser to the new president – responsible for government innovation, solving the Middle East, and pretty much anything else the president chose to toss his way. This 36-year-old went to Harvard (after dad reportedly made a major contribution to that school’s endowment, given Kushner’s lacklustre high school grades); purchased the rather snarky and trend-setting The New York Observer newspaper; took over the running of the family real estate business when dad went into the federal Club Med system in Alabama; and married Ivanka Trump (who converted to Kushner’s Orthodox Jewish faith to marry him).

While he was running the family business during dad’s federal vacation, the younger Kushner’s decision to purchase a downtown Manhattan office building for the eye-watering sum of $1.8-billion (reckoned to be way, way over the then-value of the property) made headlines. And it also put the company on a near-permanent treadmill to chase after the money needed to cover the financing of that purchase. (Later on, a Kushner family member spent some time in China trying to raise investment capital by effectively dangling US investment visas to would-be Chinese investors. Sort of legal, yes, but very tacky when a relative is working in the White House.) Despite Jared Kushner’s long-time allegiance to the Democratic Party (not an unusual political choice for someone with Kushner’s background), he nevertheless became an essential cog in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, with a particular involvement in the campaign’s uses of social media and high-end data crunching to mobilise supporters. At particularly sensitive moments in the campaign, he had made a point of arguing that his father-in-law was not an anti-Semite, in his Kushner’s own pet newspaper and elsewhere, and insisting that just because some of the candidate’s followers were aficionados of hate speech or worse, those sins should not be laid at the candidate’s doorstep.

Scheduled to become a formally appointed White House presidential adviser, his appointment quickly ran into a buzz saw of criticism over nepotism, potential conflict of interest charges, as well as his total lack of Washington, diplomatic or national political experience, but he was appointed anyway, and given rather weighty responsibilities. Given his propensity to glide wordlessly into and out of White House meetings, sans contributions, one of his less-than-impressed colleagues dubbed him “The Shadow”.

In terms of the constant power struggle that the Trump White House has created as its modus operandi, on a wide range of issues and challenges in this still-new administration, Kushner has found himself increasingly aligned with Gary Cohn, the president’s chief economic adviser (and formerly of financial giant Goldman Sachs), National Security Advisor H R McMaster, and Kushner’s wife, Ivanka, now also a presidential adviser. They are seen in opposition to the clique largely centred on advisers Steve Bannon, Steve Miller and Kellyanne Conway. The Cohn/Kushner/Ivanka Trump axis has been dubbed the New Yorkers-versus their alt-right chief tormentors.

Despite any dreams of a quick rise to international prominence and influence, Kushner has now found himself a key part of the scandal that threatens to become the defining characteristic of the Trump administration, even with some serious competition from the Trump’s decisions on climate accords, Muslim bans, and the like. This scandal, of course, is the bizarre way the Trump forces tried to tap into the Russian presence in America to carry out the candidate’s, then president-elect’s insistence he would build a new relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And this, of course, has come on the heels of the growing realisation that Russian computer hacking of Democratic Party data and the planting of disinformation had been part of a larger plan to interfere with the 2016 election – and the appalling possibility of some actual collusion with the Trump campaign, or some of its operatives, in this effort.

In the past week or so, the reporting has been (without any solid rebuttal or denial) that Kushner actually tried to set up a secret back-channel with the Russians, away from the prying eyes of – wait for it – the US Government. Even before his father-in-law had become president. (Yes, many presidents have made use of back-channel communications to adversaries and allies, but they usually have had the decency to wait until they are actually in office, as with John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

The idea was that Kushner had proposed to Russian Ambassador Sergey
Kislyak that they should arrange a secure communications link between
the president-elect and the Russian president. Now aside from the
obvious security issues of such a proposal, the idea that the still-incoming president had such low trust in the government he would shortly head that he needed to use Russian commo gear to communicate with Moscow; or without thinking the US agencies that routinely listen in on Russian embassy communications would soon get wind of such a scheme, are astonishing. Now, the Russians apparently shied away from such a proposal, sensing a trap, or at the very least evidence of amazing incoherence and gormlessness on the part of the incoming administration.

But there was apparently worse to come, as Kushner was apparently also
in contact with a Russian banker, Sergey Gorkov of Vnesheconombank. That is a state-owned bank already cited under the regimen of sanctions in place over Russian interference in Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Gorkov is known to be an informant of the senior levels of government back in Russia and he had previously gone through Russian intelligence training programmes, which may be an indication of where his government friends are these days. The problem is that with the opaque finances of the Trump organisation, as well as the Kushner company’s own financial problems, it is hard to disentangle whether there wasn’t a personal business angle to the whole messy affair, besides a wide-eyed, free-wheeling, new diplomatic style. Scenting serious trouble for Kushner in all this, the New York Times editorialised,

Stupidity, paranoia, malevolence — it’s hard to distinguish among competing explanations for the behaviour of people in this administration. In the case of Mr. Kushner’s meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the ambassador, and his meeting that month with Sergey Gorkov, a Russian banker with close ties to the Kremlin and Russian intelligence, even the most benign of the various working theories suggests that Mr. Kushner, who had no experience in politics or diplomacy before Mr. Trump’s campaign, is in way over his head.

Maybe he was talking to Mr. Kislyak about Syria strategy and other security issues. Perhaps he was wooing Mr. Gorkov and other Russian investors to help offset his huge real estate debt. (Adding to the confusion, everyone has a different explanation of the Gorkov meeting’s purpose.)

Meanwhile, if reports of the Kislyak meeting are accurate (the White House has not denied them), the fact is Mr. Kushner, while still a private citizen, met secretly with officials from a hostile power that had just orchestrated a campaign aimed at damaging American democracy and swinging the election to Mr. Trump. He discussed setting up a direct line with that power that would be hidden entirely from American intelligence.

And then, only weeks later, he forgot all about it — or so claims his lawyer, who characterised Mr. Kushner’s failure to mention the meetings on his security-clearance application, along with dozens of others he held with foreign officials, as a mere ‘error’. For his sake, it better have been; falsifying or concealing material facts is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison.”

A Washington friend, an attorney with international experience and an acquaintanceship with security issues, summed up the challenges for the would-be crown prince and his political and legal mess. He noted that with special counsellor Robert Mueller now on the case to get to the bottom of hacking, Russian interference and any possibility of collusion by the Trump campaign or its operatives in disrupting the election – and the relationship of any of this to the abrupt firing of the former FBI Director, James Comey – the friend had noted, “I suspect they are all in jeopardy -- political jeopardy if not legal jeopardy. It’s fairly clear the Trump et. al. were planning to lift Russian sanctions at the same time the Russians were helping to elect Trump. That stinks. It’s also possible that plans by Jared and others to get loans from Russian banks (or to get other Russian business) got entangled in the plans to lift sanctions. The two-way traffic in favours will look horrible even if no specific links are proved.

The key thing is that the investigation will be comprehensive, relentless, and independent. (Trump truly screwed himself when he fired Comey and set in motion the appointment of an independent counsel.) It seems clear that many laws were violated -- lies to the FBI, false statements on security clearance applications, failures to register as foreign agents, etc. If that's right, then the prosecutors will have plenty of material to keep themselves busy, even if they can’t directly tie the Trump campaign to the hacking.”

Or as The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington and David Smith wrote about Kushner,

If he’d just let his elegantly thin-lapelled suits and pinstriped ties do the talking, he might still be atop that wave, lauded by some as the one voice of reason and calm in a wild and unpredictable White House. But he didn’t rest there. Instead, he allowed himself to be lured by the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, to a meeting with a top Russian banker, an alumnus of the country’s top spy academy with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Details of the discussion with Sergey Gorkov remain sketchy, but according to Gorkov himself Kushner was present in his capacity as CEO of Kushner Companies, the family real estate empire from which he had yet to step aside in preparation for his move into the White House.

Gorkov’s description suggests that money matters may have been on the table between the two men. Even more incendiary was the alleged proposal that passed between the two men about setting up a back-channel between the Trump inner circle and the Kremlin, as revealed by the Washington Post. With that one encounter, barely 30 minutes long, Kushner eviscerated his carefully cultivated image and propelled himself into the centre of the inquiry into possible links between Trumpworld and the Russians. He now finds himself as a person of interest, though not a target, of the FBI investigation.

Next Thursday the conflagration will flare up again with the testimony to the US senate intelligence committee of James Comey, the FBI director sacked by Trump. Kushner can expect to be dragged into that arena too, having reportedly argued firmly in favour of Comey being dumped.

The revelation of the Gorkov meeting in December has landed Kushner in a place that he has tried hard to avoid: the public spotlight. On a more visceral level, it has threatened the mission that has driven him ever since he was plucked from obscurity to lead the family business at the age of 24 – his desire to redeem the Kushner name after the disgrace and imprisonment of his father.”

And so, that is what Jared Kushner has to look forward to during the remaining three-and-a-half years of the Trump administration – and perhaps more. By their very thoroughness, Mueller’s investigations (plus all those Senate and House of Representatives probes) will probably take years to wrap up. Throughout that period there will be the drip, drip, drip of tantalising bits of information from anonymous investigators – and also from those in the Trump camp on the defensive as they attempt to deflect blame, suspicions and public outrage onto someone – anyone – else.

This is not what Kushner signed on for; and it is not what he had hoped for in helping propel his (fill in your own adjectives here) father-in-law into the White House. But that is what he has to look forward to in the years ahead. Others who still work for Trump, or who were part of his campaign, will similarly face such challenges, and they will increasingly “lawyer up” for the battles to come, the testimony to prepare, the possible lawsuits to defend against, and even the possibilities of criminal prosecution. Instead of being a wunderkind fresh from Manhattan’s real estate battles with an itch for the big dance, this is probably how history will remember Jared Kushner instead, as the central protagonist in a novel of Washington, striving and overreaching, Icarus gone too close to the Sun. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump (L) is flanked by his senior advisor Jared Kushner (R) during a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (not pictured), at Villa Taverna in Rome, Italy, 24 May 2017. EPA/ETTORE FERRARI