Why Is Anyone Defending Jared Kushner?
Four big Kushner stories in the news. All of them bad. If even one is accurate, Jared should leave the White House.
1 — Visas for Chinese Investors
Qiaowai, a Chinese company partnering with Kushner’s family firm to find investors for their One Journal Square real estate project in Jersey City, promised U.S. visas for Chinese nationals that put up $500,000. And Jared’s sister Nicole touted her brother’s White House position in a pitch to Chinese investors. On May 24, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Charles Grassley (R-IA) asked the Department of Homeland Security to investigate Qiaowai’s claim it could expedite visas.
What it looks like: Quid-pro-quo corruption.
Best pro-Kushner spin: It’s a con. Jared knew nothing about it and would never trade political favors for large investments in a family project. Qiaowai and Nicole used the Kushner name to trick Chinese investors into believing One Journal Square was like a Chinese state project without intending to follow through, or at least without knowing if Jared would be able to help them. Nicole has apologized.
Is the spin plausible?: Moderately. There’s no evidence Jared was directly involved, and Nicole, unlike Qiaowai, didn’t make a direct investment-for-visas pitch. Plus, the family’s history of shady business practices lends the defense some credibility.
Accepting the spin, how does Kushner look?: Fine. If Qiaowai lied and Nicole insinuated to dupe investors, then Jared didn’t do anything wrong. His family and company look bad, but he’s okay.
2 —Secret Russia Meeting
In December 2016, Kushner met with Russian ambassador (and alleged spy master) Sergey Kislyak in Trump Tower, and asked to conduct private talks in Russian diplomatic facilities.
What it looks like: Treason. At least the popular understanding of the term, if not enough to clear the high bar for a legal case. Meeting at a Russian diplomatic facility would hide the communications from the U.S. government while allowing Russia to record them.
Kushner only proposed a backchannel using ‘Russian diplomatic facilities’ because he knew the Obama administration was spying on the entire Trump team.
Is the spin plausible?: Hardly. Back channels are normal, because diplomacy is often best conducted out of the public eye. Trump critics argue this violates the Logan Act, a 1799 law forbidding private citizens from conducting diplomacy on behalf of the United States. But, even though the law is still on the books, the only indictment under Logan occurred in 1803, and no one has ever been prosecuted. It makes sense for presidential transition teams to begin laying the groundwork for diplomacy, and it’s almost certain every administration has done it.
But, given this normality, why hide it? If Kushner actually wanted to discuss Syria, why would he work to keep this secret from the U.S. military and intelligence community, who have been running operations in Syria for years, and would carry out any change in strategy? And if Kushner was just laying the groundwork for the cooperation with Russia Trump advocated during the campaign, why would he care if the Obama administration recorded it? To buy the spin, you’d have to believe Kushner was doing something only extreme partisans would criticize, but still went out of his way to hide it.
Accepting the spin, how Kushner does look?: Really bad. If an American intelligence officer did something like this, the U.S. intelligence community would treat it as espionage. The most generous interpretation is Kushner did not intend anything nefarious, he’s just so out of his depth that he stupidly played into the hands of a foreign adversary.
Michael Hayden, who ran the NSA under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and then the CIA under Bush, put it this way:
This was probably as off-putting to Kislyak as it is for you and me. This is off the map. I know of no other experience like this in our history, and certainly not within my life experience. What manner of ignorance, hubris, suspicion, and contempt [for the previous administration] would you have to have to think doing this with the Russian ambassador would be a good or appropriate idea?
3 — Meeting with a Russian Banker
A few days after meeting with Kislyak, Kushner met with Russian banker Sergey Gorkov. Gorkov chairs the state-owned Vnesheconombank, which is under U.S. sanctions. He graduated from FSB Academy, Russia’s official spy college.
What it looks like: Corruption. Kushner has had difficulty finding investors or buyers for 666 Fifth Avenue, a building in New York he bought in 2007 for $1.8 billion. At the time, that was the most anyone had paid for a building in NYC, and most observers considered it a gross overpay. 666 Fifth is not even among the 100 tallest buildings in the city. Following the 2008–09 financial crisis, Kushner Properties sought foreign investors for 666 Fifth, primarily in China, Russia, and the Middle East.
This raises suspicions Jared knew he’d be in a position to remove the sanctions on Vnesheconombank, and met with Gorkov to extract something in exchange, such as money for 666 Fifth or other Kushner Properties’ holdings.
Best pro-Kushner spin: This was just part of Jared’s efforts to set up back channel communications between the Trump transition and the Russian government.
Is the spin plausible?: Not really. Gorkov is a known Putin associate, but not one who conducts diplomacy on behalf of the Russian government. Kislyak would be a better conduit to Putin regarding diplomatic relations, and Kushner already met with him.
Accepting the spin, how does Kushner look?: Bad. The generous interpretation paints Jared as excessively cocky, stupid, or both.
4 — Mistakes on Security Clearance Forms
Like everyone else in line for security clearance, Kushner had to fill out form SF86, which requires disclosing foreign contacts. But Kushner did not mention his meetings with Kislyak or Gorkov.
What it looks like: He’s hiding something illicit.
Best pro-Kushner spin: He forgot. He met with lots of people, and didn’t remember every meeting.
Is the spin plausible?: It’s laughable. Kushner spoke to Kislyak at least three times, none of which he reported. Also, Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions both claimed to “forget” meeting with Kislyak, which makes the pro-Kushner spin look even flimsier.
Accepting the spin, how does Kushner look?: Like an idiot. Falsifying the SF86 form is a felony, and the punishment could include prison time. At best, Kushner was too careless to avoid accidentally committing a serious crime. And he wants us to be okay with him conducting secret meetings on behalf of the United States, even though he’s incapable of remembering them.
Jared Kushner Is Bad at His Job
Maybe these lapses would be excusable if Kushner was such a policy genius that keeping him near the top of the executive branch serves the national interest. One could make a version of that argument on behalf of Henry Kissinger. Some of Kissinger’s actions were pretty shady, but he’s responsible for Nixon-to-China, America’s most important post-WWII foreign policy achievement.
However, before entering government service, Kissinger was a Harvard political science professor, published seminal books on foreign policy, ran the study of nuclear weapons at the Council on Foreign Relations, and consulted for the State Department, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Rand Corporation. Kushner’s main qualification is being married to the president’s daughter.
President Trump has put Kushner in charge of an absurd portfolio, including:
This is fodder for late night comedians. And it’s so ridiculous you have to laugh, until you realize it means one inexperienced person is running a slew of really important tasks, each of which would be daunting for people who know what they’re doing.
In the White House, Kushner’s one success (thus far) was setting up meetings between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. China’s leaders are reportedly comfortable with Kushner because many of them, including Xi, are “princelings”: autocrats who owe their position to fathers who were prominent in the Chinese Communist Party.
Kushner also pushed Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey. Multiple reports say Kushner argued it would be a political win, because Democrats wanted Comey out over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. It was not.
However, Kushner did play a significant role in Trump’s electoral victory, for which he deserves considerable credit. The problem is Kushner, like Trump, believes the election provides endless validation.
Few thought they could do it. They did it. That means they’re right and you’re wrong. About everything.
Why do you think Trump keeps showing everyone the electoral college map?
But as hard as it is to win a national election, governing is much harder. Campaigning is year-long game with enforceable rules against a few primary opponents and then one general election opponent, taking place in one country. In foreign relations, a president jumps into a long-running game without enforceable rules, with dozens of major players and over a hundred minor players, taking place in numerous arenas simultaneously.
A presidential campaign is kind of like the ultimate reality show. International relations is reality.
And that doesn’t even mention domestic politics, which is also, on its own, much harder than campaigning.
Kushner’s position in the White House is the living embodiment of two pernicious American myths:
Trump expressed as much in a Reuters interview about his first 100 days:
This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.
Given his repeated insistence various intractable problems would be easy to solve, his surprise to find out they aren’t (“no one knew healthcare could be so complicated”), and his guy-at-the-end-of-the-bar-who-thinks-he-knows-everything persona, there’s no reason to think this is anything but genuine.
But running a successful business — or, in Kushner’s case, inheriting a successful business and not completely ruining it — is much easier than running the United States of America. And, while someone from the business world might be able to pull it off, there’s no indication Kushner can.
The “Am I a Hypocrite?” Test
When you find yourself defending a political figure from accusations like the four leveled at Kushner, ask yourself this: how would I feel if a politician I dislike did the same thing?
For example, did you criticize Trump’s opaque finances, but defend Bernie Sanders’?
Did you take a “principled” stand on executive authority or Congressional obstruction that just happened to flip after the 2008 or 2016 elections?
When it comes to Kushner’s scandals, defenders should ask themselves how they’d react if Hillary Clinton did something similar.
This won’t be difficult, because accusations against Hillary fell along similar lines. For example, the investment-for-visas scandal brings to mind accusations surrounding the Clinton Foundation.
During the 2016 campaign, I called the Clinton Foundation a conflict of interest, arguing that foreigners shouldn’t be able to funnel money to any private interests of prominent government officials.
Foreign donors gained access to Clinton when she was Secretary of State, and in a few cases even tried to use their access to get the State Department to expedite visas. If you had a problem with that, you should have at least as much a problem with foreigners funneling money to Kushner’s private family business, not to mention Trump’s.
Under a generous interpretation, Kushner’s meetings with Russian diplomats and bankers (and likely spies) were, to borrow a phrase, extremely careless. If you recognize that Clinton creating a situation in which classified information could traverse her private server would have led almost anyone else to lose their security clearance—and it would have — then you should demand that Kushner lose his.
And, if Hillary Clinton appointed Chelsea’s husband to a high-level position, and he failed to disclose foreign contacts on his security clearance forms, let’s just say Republicans and conservative media would not have reacted with “it was probably an honest mistake, and those laws don’t matter anyway.”
Some hypocrisy in politics is excusable. Pouncing on the other side’s mistakes and excusing your side’s is just how the game is played. That’s especially true during an election, as it fits into lesser-of-two-evils arguments.
But at some point, principle has to matter. As John Adams put it, America is “a government of laws and not of men.” And no one is above the law, not even someone married to the president’s kid.
So Why Is Anyone Defending Jared Kushner?
Republicans spent decades building credibility on national security, and a reputation for professionalism, which they threw away in a few months. And for what?
The answer during the campaign was a Supreme Court Justice, but with Gorsuch on the bench, that’s over. What’s it for now? A bad health care bill? A pipe dream of tax reform that will almost certainly turn into temporary, deficit-financed tax cuts for the rich?
It’s clear why Trump and his base are defending Kushner. They value Donald Trump’s political fortunes more than the laws and security of the United States of America.
But why is anyone else?