The question referred to the campaign by Trump to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president. The conspiracy theory, never supported by any credible evidence, vaulted the real estate mogul and reality television star to political relevance. Trump didn’t abandon the idea until September 2016, more than a year into his presidential bid, which Kushner was instrumental in guiding.
“I know you weren’t,” Swan said, shrugging. “Was it racist?”
“Like I said, I wasn’t involved in that,” Kushner repeated.
Asked a third time whether he perceived the behavior by his father-in-law to be racist, even if he didn’t take part in it himself, Kushner offered, “Look, I know who the president is, and I have not seen anything in him that is racist. So again, I was not involved in that.” He declined to say whether he wished Trump had not become the face of birtherism, maintaining once more, “I was not involved in that. That was a long time ago.”
The response came in a wide-ranging interview that touched on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist, and the way the president’s son-in-law, a political neophyte and former Democrat, got his job. Kushner strained to defend the president while also declining to embrace aspects of his politics, such as curtailing abortion rights.
“Again, I was not the person who was elected,” he said, adding, “I’m here to enforce his positions.” Kushner’s apparent belief that he can advance the president’s agenda without being held responsible for it finds a parallel in his wife’s attitude that, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit, but I hope time will prove that I have done a good job.”
The rare interview also prompted Kushner, the White House’s Middle East czar, to question whether the Palestinians were capable of governing themselves.
“The hope is that over time, they can become capable of governing,” said Kushner, an architect of Trump’s “deal of the century,” a yet-to-be-released plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He said there would be a “high bar” for Palestinian freedom from Israeli government and military interference. While he stressed of the Palestinians, “I do think they should have self-determination,” he also said, in response to questions about the depth of his engagement with Palestinian concerns, “I’m not here to be trusted.” He said the Palestinians would judge his plan on its merits, not “based on trusting me.”
The interview landed at an especially delicate moment for Kushner, a 38-year-old real estate developer, investor and newspaper publisher. Trump’s threat to slap tariffs on Mexico for failing to contain the surge of migrants crossing the southern border was issued over the expressed objections of his son-in-law, who favored dialogue to try to resolve the migration crisis. And The Washington Post reported Sunday that Trump’s own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, privately told Jewish leaders that Kushner’s plan to end the standoff between Israelis and Palestinians could fail to gain traction.
“It may be rejected. Could be in the end, folks will say, ‘It’s not particularly original, it doesn’t particularly work for me,’ that is, ‘It’s got two good things and nine bad things, I’m out,’” Pompeo said in an audio recording of a closed-door meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Pompeo said he understood why the public perception was already that the deal would be one-sided. “I get why people think this is going to be a deal that only the Israelis could love,” he said.
Repeated delays in the plan’s unveiling have sharpened the focus on its unconventional origins. It is the brainchild of Kushner, who is married to Trump’s eldest daughter, and Jason Greenblatt, a presidential adviser and former real estate lawyer. Both men are Orthodox Jews with long-standing interest in Israel but without government or diplomatic experience.
Kushner, in the Axios interview, addressed criticism that he owes his position to nepotism, acknowledging that his personal relationship with the president made his role possible. Still, he defended his capabilities.
“The president wouldn’t have been able to get me to work on his campaign had it not been for familial relations,” Kushner said. “I guess because I’m related to him people will make that accusation one way or the other. I do think I have a good track record in all the things I’ve done, of focusing on producing results.”
He said he did not dwell on what he would do without the advantages he was handed but felt “blessed” to have had many opportunities. “My grandparents came here as refugees and they were able to build a great life for themselves,” said Kushner, whose paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors.
Describing how he brought a picture of his refugee ancestors with him to Washington, he claimed not to see a contradiction with the administration’s hard line on asylum.
“We inherited a crazy world,” Kushner said. He continued, describing the administration’s approach to the refugee crisis emanating from the civil war in Syria: “In the scheme of the magnitude of the problem we have, I think that we’re doing our best to try to make as much impact to allow refugees to be able to go back to their places and conflicts in places like Syria and find ways to make sure that you’re funding these situations so that the people that are immediately becoming refugees can get as much care as possible. But we have a lot of tragedies all over the world.”
The White House adviser made a similar realpolitik assessment of the administration’s continued embrace of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who, in the judgment of the CIA, ordered Khashoggi’s execution.
Kushner would not say whether he had discussed the murder, which he called “horrific,” with the Saudi prince. The kingdom is a “long-term ally,” Kushner said, heralding these ties as vital to American interests, namely in countering Iran.
Kushner’s comments drew scorn from advocates of human rights and experts in international law.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, observed that Kushner’s concern for religious tolerance, expressive rights and the rule of law — prerequisites to Palestinian self-governance, according to the White House adviser — appeared more flexible when it came to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He listed these countries as examples of authoritarian regimes that have earned praise from the Trump administration.
The blunt discussion of birtherism came in response to Kushner’s affirmation that he had not seen his father-in-law say or do anything racist. The line of questioning drew on comments from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat and bugbear of the Trump family, who declared in a “60 Minutes” interview in January that there was “no question” that the president was a racist.
She is hardly the only Democrat to hold that view, which is virtually creed among Democrats vying to oust Trump from the Oval Office. Former vice president Joe Biden, who has made his ties to Obama a focal point of his campaign, announced his candidacy by focusing on Trump’s reaction to the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, when he said there were “very fine people” among torch-wielding white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville.
Not just Democratic presidential contenders, but also the majority of Americans, believe Trump has worsened race relations, according to a study published in April by the Pew Research Center.
Kushner dismissed the criticism.
“No, absolutely not,” he said. “You can’t not be a racist for 69 years and then run for president and be a racist. And what I’ll say is that when a lot of the Democrats call the president a racist, I think they’re doing a disservice to people who suffer because of real racism in this country.”
Those who argue that the president harbors racial prejudice hardly suggest that his worldview was transformed when he decided to enter politics. Rather, they point to his role in racial controversies reaching back decades.
In 1973, the Justice Department under President Richard M. Nixon sued Trump Management, which was led by Trump and his father, for allegedly refusing to rent to black tenants in violation of the Fair Housing Act. In 1989, Trump stoked racial tensions when he called for the reinstatement of the death penalty to punish the black and Latino teenagers convicted — wrongfully, it turned out — of brutally assaulting a white woman jogging in Central Park.
In the Netflix miniseries dramatizing the jogger case, “When They See Us,” which was released on Friday, Trump is referred to as a “bigot” whose “15 minutes” are “almost up.”
Not if Kushner has anything to say about it. The president’s son-in-law has reportedly taken on an ever greater role in the 2020 reelection effort.
Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.
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