Perhaps Jared Kushner really believed that his New York real estate skills set him up to bring peace to the Middle East, solve the opioid crisis, run a government Swat team of business experts and protect his father-in-law from disloyal White House advisers. And that he could do it all while observing the Sabbath and reserving enough time for family ski vacations with Ivanka and their three children.
Or maybe Kushner just calculated that all the hype surrounding his White House role was a not-to-be-missed family branding opportunity. After all, the Washington Post recently watched as his sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, hawked American visas in Beijing to would-be Chinese investors in a troubled Kushner New Jersey real estate development.
But in all his fantasies about conquering Washington at Donald Trump’s side, Kushner undoubtedly never imagined being ensnared in an FBI investigation.
All that changed, of course, when news broke late last week that Kushner had discussed opening up a secret back channel to Moscow last December in a Trump Tower meeting with the ubiquitous Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Let’s put the most charitable interpretation possible on the facts that have emerged about Kushner.
The bizarre suggestion to use the Russian communications system to secretly link the Trump transition team and the Kremlin could have come from Michael Flynn, the star-crossed former national security adviser who was also at the meeting.
Kushner, in his naivete about government, may also not have remembered that Barack Obama was still president and in charge of all negotiations with Russia. And it was an innocent oversight that Kushner failed to mention his talk with Kislyak on his government security clearance form.
Even under the benign theory that Kushner thought a secret back channel was like a small boy’s tin-can telephone, his life in the coming months and maybe years will be a study in misery. He will probably spend more time with his personal lawyer, Clinton justice department veteran Jamie Gorelick, than with Ivanka or his children. Whether it is an appearance under oath on Capitol Hill or the inevitable FBI interview, every sentence Kushner utters will bring with it possible legal jeopardy.
Kushner may have once thought that he established his tough-guy credentials when he stared down angry creditors and impatient bankers over his ill-timed 2007 purchase of a $1.8bn Fifth Avenue office building. But the worst thing that can happen to an over-leveraged real estate investor (as Trump himself knows well) is bankruptcy. When the FBI and special prosecutor Robert Mueller get involved, the penalties can theoretically involve steel bars locking behind you.
That ominous sound is familiar to Kushner from his weekly visits more than a decade ago to his real estate mogul father, Charles, in federal prison in Alabama. The then US attorney Chris Christie (the ironies of Trump World abound) successfully prosecuted Charles Kushner in 2005 for tax evasion, witness tampering and unlawful campaign contributions. The Jared Kushner coming-of-age story pivots around a loyal son taking over the New Jersey-based real estate firm when his father was a guest of the government.
Now the presidential son-in-law may be worrying in his late-night moments that family history may be repeating itself. He may put on a brave front in public and encourage the current rumors that he and Ivanka are tiring of Washington, but for Kushner the high adventure of a senior White House post ended abruptly during last week’s European grand tour.
If Jared and Ivanka do return to New York – either voluntarily or as part of a White House legal strategy – their departure will accentuate Trump’s fate as the loneliest man in Washington. Trapped in the trappings of a White House that he can’t demolish to build something grander, Trump is surrounded by aides like Reince Priebus and HR McMaster whom he neither fully trusts nor feels comfortable with.
All White Houses go through a phase when the familiar faces from the campaign and the Inauguration have disappeared from burnout and a desire to cash in. That is when a president looks around at his senior staff and asks himself: “Who are these guys? Why am I surrounded by strangers?”
Usually that moment comes sometime in a president’s second term. For Trump, the exodus may occur before his first summer in the Oval Office is over.
The Kushner news reminds me of the saddest person I ever saw coming out of the White House. It was a Clinton administration official, shuffling along with his downcast eyes focused on the sidewalk, who had been caught up in the exaggerated first-term scandal known as Whitewater.
There in his familial loyalty to Donald Trump goes Jared Kushner, who is learning a hard lesson about Washington, back channels to the Russians and the FBI.