It seems like only last week I was writing about the disproportionate power Jared Kushner wields in the Trump White House, and that’s because it was last week. But since then, Kushner’s ludicrously weighty portfolio has grown to include not just “peace in the Middle East,” but war there as well.
As Tomahawk missiles dropped in Syria, administration aides were already spinning — but they weren’t spinning the bombing and what it might mean for our foreign policy. (The “Trump Doctrine” remains unappetizingly vague.) Instead, insiders framed the unilateral aggression as a sign of Kushner’s ascendancy, and Trump’s willingness to have his heartstrings plucked by Ivanka’s manicured fingers.
The deployment of 59 missiles is quite the housewarming present for the lucky couple. (Meanwhile, we can assume, Tiffany looks for a place to use the expired Blockbuster gift certificate she got for Christmas.) Desperate optimists have grasped on to Kushner’s and Ivanka’s growing influence as proof that white nationalist Steve Bannon’s clique of belligerent race-baiters are losing their hold on Trump; shouldn’t we be happy that the White House advisers Bannon has dismissed as “the Democrats” are the ones with the president’s ear now?
No. First of all, Ivanka and Jared aren’t the only ones with Trump’s ear. Two of the other officials Bannon thinks of as “Democrats” — economic adviser Gary Cohn and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell — both have one far more significant affiliation: They're both Goldman Sachs veterans. In service of that primary association, they have been pragmatists when it comes to party, giving money to and working with both Republicans and Democrats ... not unlike their boss in that regard. The main difference between these plutocrats and Bannon is that they don’t even pretend to care about the working class.
As for Kushner and Ivanka? Evidence for either of them having a liberal ideological belief system is thin at best. Excuses and hopes about the couple are based almost entirely in their style and pedigree: They’re well educated, wealthy East Coast professionals, so of course they’re liberal. As one starry-eyed Democratic representative working on criminal justice reform put it: “How can you be 36 years old and grow up in New York City and be for having people jailed for marijuana?”
You might have said the same thing about Donald Trump, though, who also grew up in New York. And you know what? Steve Bannon has a degree from Harvard, too.
What do we really know about Kushner and Ivanka’s desire for “moderate” policies? Aside from vague reports that Kushner and Ivanka blocked a transphobic executive order, the only evidence that Kushner could be a moderating presence is his absence during the health care debate. While his father-in-law dithered and dickered over the legislative turd, Kushner and his family went skiing. Some have interpreted this as a refusal to go to bat for Republican legislation he didn’t like — but even there, Kushner’s actions can be better explained by relationships rather than principles. Joshua Kushner, Jared’s brother, cofounded Oscar, an insurance start-up almost entirely dependent on the Obamacare marketplaces for business.
Kushner’s relentless focus on family connections can’t be overstated.
Jared abandoned plans to be a lawyer after his father, Charles Kushner, was sent to prison. His actions since then suggest he harbors a well-tended grudge against those who went after his father. He reportedly tried to use the newspaper he owned, the New York Observer, to retaliate against a real-estate rival, and Chris Christie — who prosecuted the elder Kushner in his time as a U.S. attorney — tumbled in the campaign hierarchy as Kushner rose. I won’t claim to know if Jared falls asleep at night whispering their names to himself, Arya Stark–style, but here’s what observing his father’s experience did for Jared’s understanding of the law:
My dad’s arrest made me realize I didn’t want to be a prosecutor anymore. Seeing my father’s situation, I felt what happened was obviously unjust in terms of the way they pursued him.
I just never wanted to be on the other side of that and cause pain to the families I was doing that to, whether right or wrong.
I don’t doubt there’s pain in seeing one’s father go to jail. What’s worrisome is Kushner doesn’t comment on the pain of anyone else involved — like, say, the family of the brother-in-law Charles Kushner was caught hiring a prostitute to seduce. And it’s not like Charles Kushner was breaking rocks on a chain gang while he served his time. His minimum-security Montgomery, Alabama, prison ranked third on a Forbes list of “cushiest” white-collar prisons (you can enjoy dedicated music and craft spaces); it’s also where one of the Enron executives and a Watergate burglar served their time.
You could take a lot of lessons from such a life experience, including, “Wow, the government doesn’t really take financial crime very seriously!” And, well, we might yet discover that impression to have shaped his future behavior. But what he says he learned shows that he values relationships more than the law. He didn’t want to be a prosecutor any more because he didn’t like the idea of causing pain to a family like his, “right or wrong.”
This might explain everything you need to know about what passes for “moderate” in the Trump White House, and, indeed, perhaps Trump’s America: “Moderate” is an unwillingness to cause pain to people like you.