The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One cheer for Jared Kushner

How to fail upward in the Trump administration.

David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, listens as senior White House adviser Jared Kushner delivers a speech during the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
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Longtime readers of Spoiler Alerts are aware that the hard-working staff here has been curating the #ToddlerinChief thread for more than two years. But even those readers may be unaware that I have also been low-key curating another Twitter thread that focuses on Trump son-in-law and White House staffer Jared Kushner:

This thread is not nearly as long at the #ToddlerinChief thread. Over the past 20 months, there have only been 120+ instances of the media coverage suggesting that Jared Kushner is spectacularly out of his depth. Still, that is enough to confirm a claim that “some people successfully enter the meritocracy through the mastery of [cultural] codes rather than mastery of any substantive set of skills.”

The latest entry into the Jared thread is a Politico story by Eliana Johnson and Burgess Everett. They examine Kushner’s quixotic crusade for grand bargains on immigration and peace in the Middle East: “Kushner is presenting his political inexperience as an asset, telling lawmakers he is free of preconceived notions that stymied previous attempts. His air of breezy self-assurance in the private meetings he is conducting to tease his plans at times astounds the battle-scarred veterans of past such efforts. Critics complain, too, that his briefings are often woefully short on detail.”

Let’s be blunt about this: No deal will be made on either issue. On immigration, there is no way — no way — that a grand bargain will be struck on such a polarizing issue less than 18 months before a presidential election. Party activists on both sides are supremely uninterested in any kind of compromise. Kushner seemed to think that shepherding criminal justice reform through Congress gave him magical negotiating powers. As Johnson and Everett note in their story, however, Kushner’s main contribution in that process was to secure the president’s buy-in. Furthermore, Kushner’s subsequent interactions with Congress have gone, how you say, not good.

The Middle East is not as beholden to domestic politics, but everything we know about Kushner’s negotiations to date suggest that no deal will be achieved. The Trump administration has expended a lot of political capital on a close alliance with Saudi Arabia, but Kushner has nonetheless been surprised that those states still defend the idea of Palestinian statehood. As for the Palestinians, they have refused to meet with Kushner for some time, and it’s not like their last meeting went well at all.

Johnson and Everett’s story makes it clear that most of the White House staff, like acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, are perfectly happy to let Kushner try his hand at these grand bargains. It is not because they hope he succeeds, but rather because: A) he is likely to fail; and B) it keeps him busy.

Do Kushner and his defenders understand these dynamics? Johnson and Everett report in the affirmative. They offer some mildly contradictory explanations for how Kushner is thinking about it:

While Kushner has told allies that “you don’t get points for effort,” he and others have also said he’ll be content if he’s able to shift the conversation on these issues. One goal, said a senior administration official, is to “reframe the discussion” around Kushner’s forthcoming immigration proposal, which would shift the U.S. away from a family-based migration to a system based on skills....
Privately, Kushner and his allies hope that he and the president will get credit for putting forward proposals that move beyond the president’s blustery rhetoric — even if they are never adopted — and unite the GOP behind a new set of policies....
Kushner has acknowledged the long odds, setting the bar of success for himself low. “If we are going to fail, we don’t want to fail doing it the same way it’s been done in the past,” Kushner told the Washington Institute’s Rob Satloff last week. “Hopefully it stimulates discussion and stimulates thought.”

And here we arrive at the nub of Kushner’s thinking. He looks at intractable policy problems and sees nothing but win-win. If he solves the deadlock, he’s a genius. If he tries and fails, at least he has reframed the problem. So, one cheer for Kushner — maybe an out-of-the-box amateur can make headway where a world-weary expert cannot.

Only a single cheer should be offered, however, because there is a big flaw in this kind of thinking. It rests on the premise that things cannot get worse. And they can get so much worse, especially in the Middle East.

Kushner would know this if he had any expertise in the region, but he is “boldly dismissive of the concept of expertise.” This is according to Robert Satloff, who later wrote up his reaction to his conversation with Kushner for The American Interest, pointing out the myriad ways in which warning, “Anyone who knows the Middle East knows that the analogy between the peace process and a New York real estate transaction quickly breaks down.” More importantly, Satloff warns that if Kushner fails, he will have discredited all of his ideas, even the ones that might show promise. Because when it comes to the Middle East, things can always get worse.

Jared Kushner is likely going to fail at his twin gambles. He thinks that at least he’ll have given it the old college try, and it cannot get any worse. Experts on these issues know better. Jared Kushner, however, is blessedly unburdened by knowledge.