Before this week, Jared Kushner hadn’t taken part in a televised interview since President Trump was elected. So when the White House adviser, who also happens to be Trump’s son-in-law, sat down with CNN’s Van Jones on Monday as part of the Citizen by CNN forum in New York, there was no shortage of ground to cover.
But Jones’s first question had some viewers scratching their heads.
“I want to start — how did you get this job?” he asked Kushner, who was seated rigidly in an oversize armchair. “I mean, you have, like, the dopest job in the world — the secretary of everything. Does it bug you when they call it secretary of everything?"
“Yes,” Kushner responded, with a small smile.
“You’re a business guy,” Jones went on. “How did you wind up in this position?”
To many, the answer was obvious: Kushner is married to the president’s daughter and had worked on the Trump campaign and transition team before being named a senior adviser to the president in a move that ethics experts decried as nepotism.
And Kushner’s response didn’t exactly provide any new revelations. “I did not plan my life to go into politics,” he said. “I had a good life. I have a great wife, a great family. I was working in business. I had several companies.”
When Trump decided to run for president, he was not a typical candidate, Kushner said. “He didn’t have the traditional entourage that came with a politician, and so I kept getting called on to do more and more in the campaign,” he said.
He added, “I believed in the mission that my father-in-law was fighting for, and he won and I was honored to join him in the administration to work.”
Jones and Kushner have formed an unlikely alliance around the issue of prison reform, something that Jones frequently alluded to during his interview. In May, Jones called Kushner’s advocacy on the topic “surprising” and “inspirational.”
Toward the end of the interview, Jones asked Kushner, “Are you having fun?”
“I wouldn’t say fun,” Kushner replied. “I have a lot of joy in my life, and I feel very blessed to be there every day fighting for the things I’m fighting for. It’s a lot of responsibility to do the jobs that we have. I’d say more invigorated by it.” The job, he added, was “obviously the challenge of a lifetime.”
The interview did touch on weightier topics, such as trade, peace in the Middle East and the disappearance and death of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. “I’d say that right now, as an administration, we’re more in the fact-finding phase,” Kushner said when asked if he believes Saudi Arabia’s account of Khashoggi’s death. “Once we have all the facts, we’ll make an assessment.”
But Jones, who hosts CNN’s “The Van Jones Show,” was widely criticized for what some saw as a “softball” interview. “Van Jones' Interview With Jared Kushner Was a Master Class in How Not to Do That,” read a headline in Splinter, a left-leaning news outlet.
Jones later defended himself. Talking to CNN’s Erica Hill, Jones pointed out that it was Kushner’s first televised interview and that “when you get somebody like that talking, sometimes, just let them talk.”
“People on Twitter are saying, ‘Cut him off, beat him up,’” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘This is the first time you’re hearing him say something. You want me to stop him from saying something?’”
Later, Jones added: “I think letting him talk, letting him express how his mind works, how he thinks things through is something that’s important for Democrats and Republicans. He is one of the most powerful people in the world. You never hear from him. His internal thought processes can have a huge impact on global and national affairs. I wanted to just give him a chance to be heard, and people can do with it what they will.”
Unlike other members of the Trump administration and the president’s extended circle, Kushner rarely appears on television. In December 2017, he participated in a question-and-answer session as part of a forum hosted by the Brookings Institution, which was filmed and posted online. But before Monday, he hadn’t done an extended interview since Trump was elected. His silence became a source of fodder for John Oliver last year.
“For someone with the amount of power that he has, have you ever heard him speak?” the comedian asked in April 2017. “Seriously, what does his voice sound like?” He then played footage of Kushner’s lips moving and dubbed in Gilbert Gottfried’s voice.
Meanwhile, Jones has emerged as an outspoken, and sometimes controversial, liberal pundit. Weeks after memorably calling Trump’s election a “whitelash against a changing country,” the activist-turned-commentator declared Republicans to be “the party of colorblind meritocracy.” In February 2017, he described a portion of the president’s congressional address as the moment Trump “became president of the United States” and called it “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period.” And he hosted a Web series centered around talking with and listening to Trump supporters.
“I’ve spent my whole life being half bomb-thrower, half bridge-builder, and as a result, pissing people off on both sides,” he told The Washington Post’s Janell Ross in March 2017. “I think sometimes people see me as the black anti-Trump crusader, but that’s not what I’m there to do all the time."
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