Jared Kushner: The most powerful person in the White House not named Donald Trump

Jared Kushner’s portfolio of duties is already the stuff of legend — overseeing the US-Mexico border wall, ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, solving the opioid crisis, managing the nation’s medical stockpile amid the coronavirus crisis, overhauling the Republican Party platform, and on and on.

It would be an impressive list of responsibilities for President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law — were it not for the fact that Kushner is manifestly unskilled and unsuited to take on any one of them.

But that hasn’t stopped the president from continuing to turn to him — and Kushner from answering the call. It’s a bewildering blend of confidence and ignorance that has unfortunately had real consequences on American lives.

For that reason, I wanted to know more about Kushner — his background, his politics, his relationship with Trump — and why he’s so eager to punch above his weight. I reached out to Andrea Bernstein, who wrote a profile of Kushner for the New Yorker earlier this year. Bernstein’s piece was drawn from her book, American Oligarchs, which took a broader look at the partnership between the Trumps and the Kushners.

Jared Kushner in the White House press briefing room on April 2.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

We discussed Kushner’s ideological core (or lack thereof), why he keeps failing upward, and how he became the most powerful person in the White House not named Donald Trump. We also talk about the irony of Kushner, a Jewish person descended from Holocaust survivors, embracing Trumpist ethnonationalism.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Something that comes across pretty quickly in your writing is that Jared thinks very, very highly of Jared.

Andrea Bernstein

One of the overarching themes after talking to dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who knew Jared was that he was very, very confident in himself and his own abilities, even when he didn’t have information. I heard this over and over again. I heard it as it applies to his real estate business, to his work in the publishing industry, and to his work in politics.

People assumed, based on his demeanor, that they would go in and have a discussion with him, but that he was the one who always thought he was right, and he understood things and he knew how to do things even when he clearly didn’t.

Sean Illing

I don’t know smart or dumb Jared Kushner is, so I’ll ask this question as charitably as I can: Is he as incompetent as he appears to be?

Andrea Bernstein

I think that Jared Kushner’s fatal flaw is he doesn’t see having no information as a flaw. And yet, even though I say it’s a flaw, it seems to have propelled him to one success after another.

Sean Illing

Well, it’s funny how being extremely rich and privileged allows you to fail upward so often, but the troubling thing about Kushner is that he embodies this absurd union of ignorance and confidence and he just keeps taking on more power and more responsibilities —

Andrea Bernstein

But it keeps working, right? Had the Trump campaign gone the other way, which as we all know it almost did, he could have come away with a different lesson. But instead, he came away with the same lesson as always, which was that people doubted him and he did things in an unorthodox way and they won. So far, that has been a successful strategy for Donald Trump.

We’ll see what happens next, but it has worked for him. He has managed to rebuff investigations, he’s managed to be acquitted in his impeachment trial, he’s managed to disrupt all kinds of norms, and the administration survives. I think Jared sees all of this as confirmation that they’re doing things right.

Sean Illing

What surprised you the most in reporting on him?

Andrea Bernstein

I don’t know if it was a surprise, but I feel like the pathos of his family’s story had such a profound effect on me. To understand the story of his grandparents who had survived in these incredibly brutal conditions, I went really deep on Holocaust studies, which was not something I had ever done.

So I really got into studying the history of Poland in the war, which I hadn’t really understood, and I listened to his grandmother’s testimonies and I listened to her sister’s testimonies and I went to the Holocaust Center and I asked for all of the testimonies that they had collected from people who lived in the same village. It’s an incredible story of human resilience and survival and family love that could be transmuted in two short generations to what we’re seeing now.

Sean Illing

What do you mean?

Andrea Bernstein

I mean we have this amazing story of a family that escaped Nazism, and a couple generations later Jared Kushner has fully embraced this idea that there’s an “us” and there’s a “them,” and the “us” will be taken care of and the “them” will be kept out.

Sean Illing

This is a guy whose father went to prison for illegal campaign contributions to Democrats, who has been a Democrat himself for most of his life, and now he’s working for an ethnonationalist president whose administration has presided over a rise in anti-Semitism, among other things.

How does he square that circle? He’s dodged these sorts of questions in the past, but do you know what he really thinks about this? How does he justify it?

Andrea Bernstein

This is living with the contradictions of history, right? I mean, when I started writing this book, I thought, “Okay, if you have lived through the Holocaust, if your family lived through the Holocaust, you are going to be sympathetic to the plight of refugees and immigrants and are going to be willing to reach out a helping hand to those who were in a situation that your family was once in,” and I think that that was something I assumed was a direct line, but it clearly wasn’t. Understanding why that was the case was a big project of my research.

Sean Illing

Is there any indication that he’s even aware of these contradictions, that he’s introspective about it?

Andrea Bernstein

All I can see is that he backs his father-in-law by instinct. He comes from this family where loyalty to family is the primary thing, and not even loyalty to the family in general, but loyalty to immediate family. But you can’t get him to reflect on this stuff.

There’s a part in my book where I talk about the exchange he had with Dana Schwartz, a writer at the Observer, who said, “‘America First’ was Charles Lindbergh’s campaign slogan, and he was explicitly anti-Semitic. Don’t insult me. You went to Harvard and have two graduate degrees. I know that you know this.” And all Jared would say is that that’s the “Twitter throngs” talking and that he knows his father-in-law better than anyone else.

Sean Illing

Does he have any deep ideological commitments?

Andrea Bernstein

I think he’s really committed to the “Make America Great Again” campaign. I’ve no reason to believe otherwise.

Something I noticed when I started reporting on Jared is that people in New York, especially, had this impression of him — and his family — as center-left Democrats, because of all the money their family had given to Democrats over the years. So there was a sense that he was this vaguely Democratic guy who was in the mainstream of New York society. And a lot of people who know him told me they felt betrayed and shocked when they went to Jared to try to explain what they thought was an error in Trump’s policies and the response they got was, “I believe my father-in-law. I am not going to listen to you.”

But I think this shock comes from a misreading of who Jared Kushner is and what his family was about. Sure, they were massive Democratic donors, but they’re real estate developers and a lot of that is just transactional politics, not a reflection of deep ideological commitments. I don’t think Kushner was ever a Democrat in any meaningful sense. But I think he’s found meaning in political engagement through his father-in-law’s campaign and subsequently his presidency.

Sean Illing

What’s that relationship like between Trump and Kushner?

Andrea Bernstein

I mean, they get along in a family way. Trump has said on many occasions that he thinks Jared is a brilliant guy, a successful guy, and of course he’s married to his daughter, Ivanka.

A lot of people in the administration don’t like Jared and keep waiting for him to get his comeuppance. But it never happens. Jared’s office is right next to Trump’s in the Oval Office and he can go into the East Wing as well as the West Wing. So when everybody else leaves for the night, he can have family dinner with the president and that gives him enormous power. Trump also likes the sense that the family is running the business, and he trusts Ivanka and he trusts Jared.

Sean Illing

Here’s the thing I keep wondering: Why is he doing this? Jared doesn’t have to take all this heat; he doesn’t have to accept all these jobs for which he’s grossly ill-prepared. He could just as easily enjoy the fruits of power and privilege without exposing himself in this way.

Andrea Bernstein

Nobody really actually wants to walk away from power in that way. It’s incredibly hard to walk away from power. You could have a less troubled life, but there is an allure to being at the center of power and I think he enjoys it.

Sean Illing

Right, but I’m saying he could wield influence in a more clandestine way. He doesn’t have to be out front like this.

Andrea Bernstein

I know what you’re saying, but I think there’s an allure to being at the podium. It’s an impulse that goes all the way back to the Greeks and to Shakespeare, right? People want to be at the center of power. But I’d also stress, again, that Kushner seems to really think he’s contributing to the country.

Sean Illing

What’s the most important thing people should know about Jared Kushner?

Andrea Bernstein

I don’t think people understand how powerful he is. I really don’t. People underestimate his proximity to power and his willingness to use it. And this is a moment of real crisis and real uncertainty, and this guy is at the center of it with no training whatsoever. He’s just experimenting as he goes.

Sean Illing

Is he the most powerful person in the White House not named Donald Trump?

Andrea Bernstein

Yes.

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