Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, found himself back in the spotlight for better and for worse on Monday as the US president appointed him to a new White House role, and it was revealed he will testify before a committee investigating Russian interference in last year’s election.
With Kushner at its helm, Trump’s White House Office of American Innovation is designed to overhaul the federal government with input from the private sector, it was announced on Monday. The venture, which will bring together a team of former executives to privatize certain government functions, will follow through on the president’s business-minded approach to running the country.
The initiative, first reported by the Washington Post, was rolled out on the same day it was revealed that Kushner would testify before the Senate intelligence committee as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the US presidential election.
Kushner’s offer to appear before the Senate panel stems from his meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US. The encounter at Trump Tower also included former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned from the Trump administration after misleading Vice-president Mike Pence about the nature of his discussions with Kislyak.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said there was nothing “nefarious” about Kushner’s meeting with the Russian ambassador, while adding that Kushner “volunteered” to answer questions from the Senate panel.
“Given the role that he played both during the campaign and the transition, he met with countless individuals,” Spicer told reporters Monday.
“That was part of his job, that was part of his role, and he executed it completely as he was supposed to.”
“Throughout the campaign and transition, Jared Kushner served as the official primary point of contact with foreign governments and officials,” a White House official said.
“Given this role, he has volunteered to speak with Chairman Burr’s committee, but has not yet received confirmation,” the official said, referring to North Carolina senator Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee.
Burr and the leading Democrat on the committee said in a joint statement: “Mr Kushner will certainly not be the last person the committee calls to give testimony, but we expect him to be able to provide answers to key questions that have arisen in our inquiry.” They said the timing was still being determined.
To date, Kushner’s interactions with foreign diplomats, including the Russian envoy, have drawn far less scrutiny than Flynn’s. But then so have many of the 36-year-old mogul’s dealings since he traded his office in Manhattan for a perch at the side of the most powerful man in the country.
Married to Trump’s elder daughter, Ivanka Trump, Kushner has been a decidedly quiet force in a White House marked by reality TV-style theatrics. While other top officials blitz the airwaves almost daily and anonymously text message reporters to feed into the administration’s drama, Kushner remains relatively media shy.
But he is regarded as one of the few who truly has the president’s ear, a kindred spirit of sorts to Trump despite the latter’s bombastic public demeanor. Kushner, like his father-in-law, was born to a property mogul and pursued the family business of real estate development in Manhattan.
Both their fathers faced controversy, another point Kushner and his father-in-law have in common. While Fred Trump was sued for discriminating against African Americans and Puerto Ricans seeking to rent apartments in his properties, Charles Kushner was jailed for tax evasion, making illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering.
It thus came as little surprise when Jared Kushner worked to oust Chris Christie as the chief of Trump’s transition team, even though the New Jersey governor had acted as one of the campaign’s most loyal surrogates. Although associates of Kushner downplayed his role in the decision, the moment was widely seen as an act of retribution since Christie prosecuted the case against Kushner’s father that led to his imprisonment more than a decade ago while serving as a US attorney.
To many, the move was indicative of Kushner’s growing prominence in Trump’s inner circle, as well as his shrewdness.
By the last few months of Trump’s bid for the presidency, he had functioned as a de facto campaign manager and was even involved in approving individual radio advertising buys. It was an unlikely ascent to the national stage for a mild-mannered Harvard graduate who lacked political experience.
But Kushner played a key role in internal intrigue throughout the campaign, helping to trigger the departure of Trump’s first campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in June. The two men had been feuding about the direction of the campaign and a source at the time told the Guardian that Lewandowski had even been involved in planting negative stories about Kushner in the media.
Kushner subsequently proved influential in Trump’s search for a running mate and reportedly nudged his father-in-law in Pence’s direction.
But it was foreign affairs, namely the Israel-Palestine conflict, that became a focal point for Kushner that ultimately helped Trump lock down a key constituency in Washington. Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, met at length with the Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, during the campaign and helped craft Trump’s address before the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee at a time when his father-in-law faced skepticism from the pro-Israel lobby.
When Kushner was named a senior adviser in the Trump White House, Middle East diplomacy was placed at the top of his agenda.
“If you can’t produce Middle East peace, nobody can,” Trump told his son-in-law on the eve of his 20 January inauguration.
That task now appears to have taken a backseat to fixing the federal government.
Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said Kushner’s evolving position was indicative of an inflection point in the early stages of Trump’s presidency.
“As the president gets into more trouble and has less to show for his time in office, the circle is tightening,” said Sheinkopf.
“The president will try to find people who can protect him, and Jared is one of them. As it gets tougher, his role will become more important, not less.”
Even as their exact roles remain unclear, Kushner and wife Ivanka are frequently seen at Trump’s side for consequential meetings.
They joined him for his first post-election encounter with a foreign leader, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, at Trump Tower in November. More recently, they dined alongside Trump and the pro-Brexit UK politician Nigel Farage at Trump’s Washington hotel.
But their inability to impose discipline upon an unruly and chaotic start to the new administration calls into question whether Kushner and Ivanka Trump can truly influence the direction of Trump’s agenda.
Even as strategic leaks tout the power couple’s efforts to serve as a moral conscience within White House – from advocating in favor of LGBT rights to seeking to protect Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives – Trump has pressed forth with the nationalist and conservative priorities upon which he campaigned.
Suggesting that such reports of their influence may be overstated, the president has already reversed Obama’s guidance on the use of bathrooms by transgender students and chipped away at environmental regulations; this week, he is poised to kill the clean power plan that was a cornerstone of his predecessor’s anti-climate change policy.
Kushner’s decision to embark upon a ski vacation last week, as the Trump-backed Republican healthcare package floundered and collapsed, placed further distance between him and the president amid yet another of his father-in-law’s more controversial policies.
Back in New York, he remains generally well-liked despite his association with the Trump White House.
“His great ability is to be very quiet – not flamboyant and very careful,” said Sheinkopf of Kushner’s reputation back home.
“The closest he came to major publicity is marrying into the Trump family.”
- Senior adviser to campaign, dubbed as “de facto” campaign manager in later stages
- Senior adviser to transition team
- Senior adviser to the president with focus on foreign diplomacy and Middle East conflict
- Leader of new White House Office of American Innovation
Additional reporting by Ben Jacobs