If Jared Kushner wasn’t the president’s son-in-law, right about now he’d be packing up his office and updating his résumé. But he isn’t, precisely because he’s the president’s son-in-law.
You could barely find a better example of the cronyism and corruption that courses through this administration’s every artery, and the damage it does to America’s interests. The fact that Kushner still has a job — and was given one in the first place — shows why we have rules against things like nepotism. If nothing else, the Trump administration is reminding us how government is supposed to work, by doing exactly the opposite.
We have now been treated to two big pieces of news about Kushner. The first is that along with many other White House staffers who have been operating under temporary security clearances, Kushner had his clearance downgraded from “Top Secret/SCI” to “Secret,” which restricts the information he is allowed to see. Let’s put a pin in this part of that report:
Because he had an interim clearance, Kushner was not supposed to be able to see the president’s daily intelligence briefing or have access to other top-secret program information, one administration official said. But the rules were not enforced with regard to the access rules for the president’s son-in-law.
So: There are rules, but they didn’t apply to Kushner. Now to the second report:
Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter. …
Officials in the White House were concerned that Kushner was “naive and being tricked” in conversations with foreign officials, some of whom said they wanted to deal only with Kushner directly and not more experienced personnel, said one former White House official.
This is exactly what President Trump’s critics (mostly but not entirely Democrats) warned about after the 2016 election, when it became clear that not only would he be hiring his son-in-law but that he would be giving him a broad portfolio of critical tasks, which at various times has included reforming government operations, solving the opioid crisis, managing relations with Mexico and China, and achieving Middle East peace. You’d think Kushner was the most talented man in America. But the truth is he’s uniquely unqualified for the job he’s doing — and he’s also uniquely unfireable.
Kushner did not have an iota of experience in government or foreign affairs, and it was already proving damaging even before the president took office. During the transition, Kushner proposed to the Russian ambassador that they set up a secure communications system inside Russian diplomatic facilities that would allow the Trump team to communicate with the Kremlin without U.S. intelligence agencies listening in. This proposal was so insane that even the Russians were taken aback.
Later, it was reported that Kushner would refuse to bring any of the government’s China experts into meetings he was having with the Chinese ambassador. “It was a dream come true” for the Chinese, said a former member of the National Security Council. “They couldn’t believe he was so compliant.”
Today, Kushner’s murky business interests continue to leave him open to manipulation by foreigners and foreign governments in ways that we barely understand. Since Trump took office, Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have taken on massive amounts of debt for reasons that are unclear. Again and again, a seemingly forgetful Kushner has amended his financial disclosures to include investments he previously neglected to mention. His family is struggling under the weight of its disastrous investment in 666 Fifth Avenue, a building for which it paid an absurd $1.8 billion and much of which remains empty of tenants. In its desperate search for cash, the family was caught promoting its connections to the White House to wealthy Chinese who they hoped would invest in the family’s real estate ventures.
So what happens if some foreign government or business proposes to bail the Kushners out? Will that government then get favorable treatment from Jared Kushner?
Which brings me to this line in the article on foreign governments that believe they can manipulate Kushner:
On Feb. 9, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein alerted White House Counsel Don McGahn that significant issues would further delay Kushner’s security clearance process, according to four people familiar with their discussions.
“Significant issues”? What might that be? I have no idea, but this tells us it’s not just a paperwork backlog. There are specific reasons officials whose job it is to protect national security believe that it would be a mistake to trust Kushner with the most sensitive government secrets.
There’s a good chance those doubts are just going to be swept aside. President Trump has the authority to give Kushner any clearance he wants, and though he has said he’s leaving the decision in Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s hands, do you think Kelly would make a final determination that Kushner can’t have a security clearance? It’s not like Kelly doesn’t know who his boss is.
Let’s step back and recall that Ivanka and Jared were allowed to take their jobs only because the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued an unprecedented ruling January 2017 that anti-nepotism laws don’t apply to the White House staff, on the grounds that the White House isn’t actually an “executive agency.” Yet we all know that if Hillary Clinton were president and named Chelsea Clinton and Chelsea’s husband to senior advisory roles, then gave her son-in-law responsibility to solve half the pressing problems facing the country and the world, Republicans would have lost their minds with rage and immediately begun impeachment proceedings.
I raise that not to wag a finger at their hypocrisy (worthy though it might be of some finger-wagging), but to note that even if their reaction would be extreme, they’d basically be right. Even if Chelsea’s husband had relevant experience, it would be grossly inappropriate to hire him and give him the job of managing some of the country’s most essential priorities.
If Kushner were some low-level staffer, this would be inappropriate but perhaps not that much of a problem. But he’s in a unique position to influence policy decisions, by virtue of both his official responsibilities and his closeness to the president. This is why we have laws against nepotism in government. A staffer who can’t be fired, who seems to have almost no idea what he’s doing, who may be vulnerable to influence or even bribery by foreigners with an interest in shaping U.S. policy and who has the ear of a president who is himself uniquely vulnerable to manipulation. What could go wrong?
A lot. Which is why even if Trump won’t listen, we have to say what everybody knows: Kushner has to go.