As President Donald Trump launches his re-election bid, his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, is waging dual campaigns of his own, preparing to sell ambitious fixes to two of the most stubborn problems of the past 50 years.
With a headlong plunge into immigration reform and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kushner is presenting his political inexperience as an asset, telling lawmakers he is free of preconceived notions that stymied previous attempts. His air of breezy self-assurance in the private meetings he is conducting to tease his plans at times astounds the battle-scarred veterans of past such efforts. Critics complain, too, that his briefings are often woefully short on detail.
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Kushner has been talking up his immigration plan with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, which detractors have derided as laughably simplistic. In the version he debuted to lawmakers on Tuesday, the slides showed circles placed next to each other representing different potential immigration reforms and flags denoting “peer nations” that have adopted merit-based immigration systems such as Canada, Australia and Japan, according to two Republicans who have viewed the presentation.
“Certainly not a McKinsey presentation. But it wasn’t purporting to be. It was a conversation opener, not a closer,” one of the Republicans said.
Kushner has ramped up his private briefings and public comments since the departure this winter of White House chief of staff John Kelly, who chafed at the young real estate developer’s attempts to insert himself into the policy process and worked to curb his influence in the White House. In fact, Kelly, Trump’s first homeland security secretary, viewed the immigration issue as his responsibility and pressed Kushner not to work on it at all, according to a senior administration official. Kelly took a parting shot at Kushner in a TV interview this week, saying the president’s son-in-law and daughter “have to be dealt with.”
Kushner also viewed the conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe as a personal victory and a green light to ramp up his public presence in D.C., allies say. His longshot policy efforts have the blessing of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who made clear when he took the reins from Kelly that he would not get in Kushner’s way.
So while the presidential son-in-law was rarely heard from in public during the first 18 months of the administration, he was on the air with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham in early April, on stage at the TIME 100 gala late last month, and served as the main attraction at a D.C. foreign policy conference last week, where he previewed his Middle East peace plan.
With think-tank experts, among diplomats, and on Capitol Hill, where senators say they talk to him as much as they talk to the president himself, Kushner has become a ubiquitous presence. He is constantly convening meetings of subject-matter experts in the conference room off of his office in the West Wing, and he seems to understand it’s exciting for many of these people to get an invite to the White House — so exciting it just might help win them to his side.
Since arriving in Washington, Kushner has prided himself on his ability to bridge gaping partisan divides over lavish dinners at his home and intimate White House meetings. And he’s had one bipartisan success: a major criminal justice bill that passed Congress and was signed into law last December. He also played a critical role in putting together the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which the White House is now pressing the Democratic House to take up.
But immigration reform and Middle East peace present far higher hurdles than criminal justice reform, and some lawmakers are already calling Kushner’s efforts dead on arrival. Kushner himself acknowledges the long odds, too.
No problem, current and former administration officials say. While Kushner has told allies that “you don’t get points for effort,” he and others have also said he’ll be content if he’s able to shift the conversation on these issues. One goal, said a senior administration official, is to “reframe the discussion” around Kushner’s forthcoming immigration proposal, which would shift the U.S. away from a family-based migration to a system based on skills.
“What we observed during the shutdown was that everyone on the Republican side was willing to say what they were against but nobody was willing to say what they were for,” said a senior administration official.
Kushner may not have much choice but to work on some thankless problems, either. Among those pushing him on Mideast peace is the president himself, who personally tasked Kushner, along with Jason Greenblatt, the former chief legal officer of the Trump Organization who is now the administration’s special representative for international negotiations, and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, an attorney who once counted Trump as a client, with the portfolio.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the president’s belief that he wrote the book on the ultimate deal and this is the ultimate deal, the ultimate unresolved regional challenge,” said the Washington Institute’s David Makovsky. “I do wonder if any of these advisers, on their own, would have pursued a home-run strategy given what they know today without the push from the top.”
“They’ve gone out of their way to meet with anyone who’s been involved with the process for a long period of time,” said Matthew Brodsky, a foreign policy expert who has discussed the Middle East peace plan with Kushner and his team. Others include the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Clifford May, who said he doesn’t believe that “any plan” is likely to work right now given the political realities in the region, and the veteran diplomats Dennis Ross and Aaron David Miller.
Privately, Kushner and his allies hope that he and the president will get credit for putting forward proposals that move beyond the president’s blustery rhetoric — even if they are never adopted — and unite the GOP behind a new set of policies.
“I talked to him last night and I said, ‘Listen: What’s the use of being up here if you don’t take on the most difficult things?'” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. “Uniting the party behind merit-based immigration and border security is a big accomplishment.”
“Whenever you swing for the fences, the likelihood is, you strike out,” Makovsky said. “But they believe that, even if you don’t get a breakthrough here, this will create a new baseline for future administrations.”
Kushner has acknowledged the long odds, setting the bar of success for himself low. “If we are going to fail, we don’t want to fail doing it the same way it’s been done in the past,” Kushner told the Washington Institute’s Rob Satloff last week. “Hopefully it stimulates discussion and stimulates thought.”
“You want to be original in your failure!” Satloff joked.
On his peace initiative, Kushner has convened dozens of journalists at the White House with the goal of getting them on board with the plan, but declined to discuss the details — though he promises to unveil “the most detailed plan ever,” according to two people who have attended these meetings. In his conversation with Satloff, he described it as more of an “in-depth operational document.”
Foreign diplomats say they have seen what they describe as the “economic portion” of the plan, which involves investment by the U.S. and its Arab allies in the West Bank and Gaza, but remain in the dark about what the White House is describing as the the political portion, which is bound to be more controversial. Speculation in the Middle East is so intense that purported leaks of the plan have gone viral online, prompting Kushner’s team to issue statements denouncing them as obvious fakes.
The proposals pose risks as well. Satloff, who bantered with Kushner on stage, has written that Kushner is “boldly dismissive of expertise.” He warned in an article in Foreign Policy that the plan could set off a chain of dangerous events in the region, starting with the Israeli annexation of the West Bank, and pressed the Trump administration not to release it at all. Barring that, Satloff urged Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to go directly Trump and tell him to “abort the plan.”
The White House seems undaunted by these risks. “There’s risks to not doing anything, too. He doesn’t know what’s in our plan, he doesn’t know what we’re doing, so I think it’s a little naive of him to be saying that without really understanding context,” a senior administration official said of Satloff. “The one thing we are not going to do is do it just like these people in the past in order to get these idiots praising us.”
Kushner told lawmakers on Tuesday that his immigration plan won’t reduce the overall number of immigrants entering the country — a priority for many of the president’s most ardent political supporters. “If there isn’t some reduction in the number, then the White House risks alienating some of its strongest supporters,” said Steve Camarota, the director of research for the Center for Immigration Reform, which supports reducing immigration levels. Camarota said the plan is likely to unite Democrats in opposition and divide Republicans, a risky move as the president heads into his re-election campaign.
The senior administration official disputed this assertion, telling POLITICO that immigration restrictionists are a “pretty fringe” group that have not “been an important part of the president’s base.
“They have bullied a lot of the most rational people out of the conversation,” this person said.
If there are low expectations on immigration and Middle East peace, Kushner’s allies are quick to say the same was true of criminal justice reform, an initiative the president ultimately embraced, signing the First Step Act into law in December. “He worked outside groups and he cracked the code,” said Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has spoken to Kushner frequently and has been with him “every step of the way” on his new immigration bill.
His critics say he’s turned his approach to that issue into a cookie-cutter model he believes can break a stalemate on anything else, and that he is in for a rude awakening.
“Some people have the belief that he had the magic touch on criminal justice. And what he did there he can do on anything else: trade, Middle East peace, immigration,” said one Republican senator who’s met with Kushner recently. “He perceives himself as a dealmaker with elected senators and representatives.”
His role, the senator said dismissively, “was to get his father-in-law” on board.
Gabby Orr and Andrew Restuccia contributed to reporting.