Seriously, Why Is Anyone Defending Jared Kushner?
In advance of his July 24 closed-door testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jared Kushner released a written statement asserting “I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government.”
In the statement, Kushner — and pretty obviously Kushner’s lawyers — address various accusations, mostly pertaining to Russia. This will provide adamant Trump supporters with new talking points. But most of the defense boils down to excusing Jared’s mistakes on the grounds that he lacks relevant experience and doesn’t know what he’s doing.
On May 30, I asked “why is anyone defending Jared Kushner?,” referencing four big stories in the news that made Kushner look bad. I presented the best pro-Kushner spin, evaluated its plausibility, and asked how Kushner looks if we give him the benefit of the doubt. (Short answer: still pretty bad).
Since then, another big story has emerged. The other four haven’t been resolved, but number five might be bigger than all of them.
5 — Meeting With Russian Lawyer Set Up by Donald Trump Jr.
In June 2016, Kushner attended a meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya that Don Jr. set up with Trump associate Rob Goldstone via email. Junior’s emails, which he forwarded to Kushner, show Junior excited to meet a “Russian government lawyer” promising dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
What it looks like: Collusion. At the very least, it shows the campaign open to the idea. And their current argument — anyone would have taken that meeting, it’s just politics — adds to that impression.
Best pro-Kushner spin: He didn’t read the email, dropped in at Don Jr.’s request, and left within ten minutes because the only thing that came up was adoption. Kushner’s statement says he “quickly determined that my time was not well-spent at this meeting,” and emailed his assistant to call him with an excuse to leave.
Is the spin plausible?: Hardly. Then-campaign manager Paul Manafort was at the meeting too, and the idea that these top officials took time out of their busy schedules to join a meeting when they had no idea who it would be with, or what it would be about, is a tough sell.
Don Jr. has been caught in multiple lies about the meeting, changing his story at least four times when evidence emerged disproving the previous version. Among the lies: Junior, Kushner, Manafort, and Veselnitskaya were the only people there. We now know a Russian-American named Rinat Akhmetshin also attended.
Akhmetshin worked counterintelligence for the Soviet army, and after the collapse of the USSR built a career running public relations hit jobs against politicians and business leaders using stolen private information. He’s also led information security seminars, and been accused — though never convicted — of hacking private emails. His presence makes the adoption-only story even less plausible.
Accepting the spin, how does Kushner look?: Naive and disorganized. Kushner didn’t read his emails and didn’t have an assistant review communications he was too busy to handle. Despite limited time and tons to do, he scheduled a mystery meeting. As a result, he walked into something that could have been a foreign intelligence operation.
Assuming the Trump team’s latest account of the meeting is correct, it smells like a probe by Russian intelligence, designed to gauge the Trump campaign’s openness to collusion. Taking the meeting could have put Kushner in a position where he’d want to keep something secret, which would give Russian intelligence leverage over him. My point is not that this is true — remember, we’re giving Kushner the benefit of the doubt and assuming the meeting really was about adoption — just that it’s a serious risk, and an experienced professional would have guarded against it in advance.
Revising the Old Spin
Kushner’s statement addressed the Don Jr. meeting, as well as three out of the four stories I mentioned in the previous article. In each case, he fleshed out the original spin, adding details in an apparent attempt to make the incidents seem more innocuous.
1 — Visas for Chinese Investors
Not mentioned in Kushner’s statement. But of all the stories, this one had the most plausible pro-Kushner spin, and it’s largely disappeared from the news.
2 — Secret December Meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak
Old spin: Trying to set up a back channel to discuss Syria. Incoming top officials opening lines of communication with foreign powers is both normal and smart.
New spin: Kislyak had information on Syria from Russian generals he wanted to transmit to incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and asked if the Trump transition had a secure line. Flynn said no, so Kushner asked Kislyak if they could use the Russian embassy’s. Kislyak said no, so they all agreed to wait until after the inauguration.
How’s it look?: Better and worse. Accepting the new version, Kushner’s no longer trying to hide foreign communications from the U.S. government. But he’s passive rather than active, ignorantly asking Kislyak to break protocol while failing to realize the U.S. intelligence community would suspect espionage. And the claim he asked Flynn about the transition’s communication abilities, but not about his idea to use the Russian embassy, makes him look careless (at best).
3 — Secret Meeting with Russian Banker Sergey Gorkov
Old spin: Establish another line of communication with the Russian government via a longtime Putin associate who runs a state-owned bank.
New spin: Kislyak insisted Kushner meet Gorkov. Kushner declined, and tried to pawn it off on an assistant, but Kislyak wouldn’t let it go and Kushner didn’t want to be rude. The meeting lasted a half hour, Gorkov gave Kushner a gift from the town where Kushner’s grandparents grew up — which Jared reported — and they didn’t talk about policy at all.
How’s it look?: Like he thinks we’re stupid. Kislyak repeatedly insisting on a substance-free meeting is hard to swallow, as is Kushner just shooting the breeze for a half hour with Gorkov, a graduate of FSB Academy, Russia’s official spy college. But if we accept that Kushner met with a Putin-connected banker and didn’t discuss Putin or banking, he still appears naive and disorganized.
4 — Mistakes on Security Clearance Forms
Old spin: He forgot.
New spin: Because of an email miscommunication, his assistant accidentally sent the forms in before they were completed, leaving off all foreign contacts, not just the Russian ones. Kushner’s team quickly realized the mistake and corrected the forms. But he forgot to add the Kislyak, Gorkov, and Veselnitskaya/Don Jr. meetings because they were so unimportant. Also, he didn’t know he had to mention Veselnitskaya (or Akhmetshin) because he didn’t think they had anything to do with the Russian government.
How’s it look?: A little worse. It’s basically the same excuse, plus the email miscommunication, and ignorance that he had to disclose all foreign contacts, not just those with government officials.
Falsifying security clearance forms is a felony, but that’s hard to prove. Lying is outlawed, but mistakes aren’t. Kushner’s heavily lawyered statement correctly points out that people often amend the forms after turning them in. To borrow a phrase from James Comey, Kushner was extremely careless, but no reasonable prosecutor would bring a case against him.
Jared Kushner: Still Bad at His Job
All these excuses rely on painting Kushner as inexperienced, naive, and careless. His statement argues everyone should forgive his errors because he didn’t realize anything he was doing could be wrong. That’s probably enough to get him out of legal jeopardy, since there’s no proof he deliberately lied on the forms, or that the various meetings went differently from how he says. But inexperienced, naive, and careless is not a good look for someone tasked with leading Middle East peace efforts, relations with China, government reform, and other important tasks.
For example, accepting Kushner’s new spin about his security clearance forms shows he failed to surround himself with assistants capable of handling communications or lawyers who could read a government form and make sure their client couldn’t be accused of a felony. That’s not the sort of team you want handling foreign policy, which requires careful communication.
Less than a month after I first asked why anyone was defending him, Kushner made his most egregious foreign policy error, helping convince President Trump to get fully behind the Saudi-led effort to isolate Qatar. That went against the advice of the departments of Defense and State, risked undermining the U.S. air campaign against ISIS, and ended up pushing Qatar closer to Iran.
Evidence suggests Kushner made his recommendation based on a suggestion from his personal friend, UAE Ambassador Yousef al Otaiba, and because a Qatari billionaire rejected his request to borrow $500 million. But even if we give Kushner the benefit of the doubt and assume there was nothing corrupt or personal involved, he overrode America’s military and foreign policy experts to pursue a strategy that’s gone poorly.
When it comes to Qatar policy, the Don Jr. meeting, interactions with Kislyak, and more, the most generous pro-Kushner spin paints him as in over his head. He’s been given immense responsibility, and there’s no indication he can handle it.
Kushner’s appointment is pure nepotism, because Trump values loyalty over competence. And Trump supporters are okay with it because they value Trump’s political fortunes over the laws and foreign policy of the United States.
But for everyone else, especially conservatives who value national security, I have a question: Why do you think Jared Kushner should have a top level security clearance and run large portions of American policy? Seriously, why?