In a breach of protocol, senior White House officials confirmed reports of Kushner's trip before he had landed in Iraq, raising security concerns from the Pentagon. U.S. military officials typically provide information about trips made by senior officials under the condition that media not report them until the official already has landed in a country, and declined to confirm Dunford and Kushner’s trip until they arrived in Iraq on Monday.
As reporters caught wind of Kushner’s trip and began calling the White House Sunday night, senior administration confirmed the early reports of the visit, including the original — and incorrect — timeline, saying Kushner was already on the ground. Asked about the mistake, a White House official Monday said their timing on the logistics of the trip had been slightly off.
And Reuters, which Sunday night initially reported that Kushner had arrived in Iraq over the weekend, took the step of briefly pulling its story until Kushner had touched down in Iraq.
Navy Capt. Gregory Hicks, spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reached by email Monday, declined to comment on the White House releasing the information before Dunford and Kushner were on the ground.
In a statement, Hicks did say that Dunford invited Kushner to take part in meetings that include a “visit with U.S. forces in the field to receive an update on the status of the counter-Isis campaign in Iraq and Syria.” Also on the trip is Thomas Bossert, the assistant to the president on domestic security and counterterrorism.
Usually when Pentagon officials travel to active combat zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, their destinations and travel dates are left intentionally vague and distributed to the press for planning purposes only.
Even though they fly into the countries on military aircraft, usually after swapping their civilian jets in hubs such as Kuwait or Bahrain, their travel is still kept secret to help ensure that the enemy does not attempt to attack their aircraft or launch any large assaults. Officials believe that U.S. government delegations may be seen as a target.
In 2007, for instance, the Taliban, having gained knowledge of Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, carried out an attack on the base, killing more than 20 people.
Although the Islamic State remains a potent threat in areas of northern and western Iraq, the vulnerability of the capital, Baghdad, and that of the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Irbil, has lessened significantly since 2014. While Baghdad has been hit by a series of high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years, both cities bustle with commerce and major airlines fly in and out of their airports.
Nonetheless, even as officials point to the security gains that have been made since 2014, the Pentagon continues to keep military leaders’ visits to Iraq, like those to Afghanistan and other countries considered to be high-risk, under tight secrecy.
Colin Kahl, a senior administration official under former president Barack Obama, called the Trump administration’s move to release information about the trip ahead of Dunford and Kushner arriving in Iraq very unusual.
“Given how dangerous Iraq is, and the likelihood that senior U.S. officials could be targeted, the Obama administration always waited to announce any high-level visit until the official was on the ground,” Kahl said. “Political imperatives may incline some to advertise these trips -- but in life-and-death situations, safety of our officials comes first."
Kushner, 36, who is married to the president's elder daughter, Ivanka Trump, acted as a de facto campaign manager during much of the 2016 presidential race, and has consolidated even more power since entering the White House.
Kushner also has taken on some international outreach for the White House, and his portfolio includes China, Mexico, Canada and the Middle East. The president, in fact, has specifically tasked Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, with brokering peace in the region.
He also recently emerged as the head of the Office of American Innovation, a SWAT team of sorts tasked with bringing a more business-minded approach to overhauling the federal government.
Although Kushner's closeness to Trump, as well as his mushrooming portfolio, has prompted some grumbling and mocking within the White House — and outside — Kushner remains a deeply influential figure.
Often, amid the warring factions that have plagued Trump's young presidency, Kushner finds himself in the role of therapist and mediator, gathering the feuding parties in his office to help forge consensus.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Brian Murphy and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.