The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jared Kushner must be able to challenge President Trump about coronavirus

To minimize the damage of the pandemic, the president needs advisers who can say no.

White House adviser Jared Kushner listens as President Trump talks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after meeting with Senate Republicans. (Susan Walsh/AP)

On Wednesday, seeing the administration’s coronavirus response floundering, President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, with no relevant experience, asserted himself, going so far as to have his “supermodel sister-in-law’s father, Kurt Kloss, an emergency room doctor,” crowdsource “suggestions from his Facebook network.”

Kushner’s role in the coronavirus response is a reminder of his immense power in the Trump administration — power that caused serious friction with former Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. Kelly’s rocky, short-lived time in the White House began with high hopes, with observers believing the general would bring a grown-up sense responsibility to the administration’s reported disorder.

But it was not to be. The story of Kelly’s tenure — and departure — and his relationship with Kushner is crucial to understanding the interpersonal dynamics involved in staffing a presidential administration. Kelly has discussed the powerful influence exerted by Kushner and the president’s daughter, Ivanka. Following a campaign to bring Kelly into the administration, the two became disillusioned with him, for reasons ranging from the downgrading of Kushner’s security clearance to Kelly’s questioning what the couples’ duties in the administration actually were. Kelly’s consistent criticism of Kushner was one of a number of factors leading to his eventual dismissal from the administration at the end of 2018.

In this, Kelly is not the first military man to join a presidential administration, only to be sidelined by more loyal — and less experienced — aides. As historian Tevi Troy writes in his entertaining and informative new book, “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump,” during the administration of Harry S. Truman, conflicts arose between Truman’s protege, Clark Clifford, and Secretary of State George C. Marshall that would rupture the relationship between Marshall and Truman. What these conflicts reveal is that, to best serve the country, presidents must have advisers with diverse perspectives, including those willing to challenge them. When, they don’t there is real danger of errors.

Truman had become acquainted with Clifford during the late 1930s, when Clifford was a lawyer in St. Louis and Truman represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate. The two shared a similar background that included a Midwestern upbringing, an interest in Missouri politics and a love of American history. Truman who had a daughter, but no sons, soon came to view Clifford as a trusted confidante, while the ambitious Clifford saw the president as a political mentor.

As Troy writes, while Truman did rely on his cabinet to formulate policy, the president also organized his staff in a highly informal manner. Rather than creating a disciplined hierarchy in which cabinet secretaries briefed and advised the president, many of Truman’s advisers had a variety of different roles. As with Kushner, Clifford was a trusted member of the president’s inner circle whose role was undefined. “I never received any instructions from any other staff member; I got them from the president,” Clifford recalled. Unsurprisingly this model was frustrating to Marshall, who had come from the regimented world of the military.

In 1948, this structure produced an explosive confrontation between Clifford and Marshall over the recognition of Israel, with Truman siding with his protege. Truman knew the issue presented him a no-win situation; so before making a decision, he wanted to hear the cases for and against recognition. Knowing Marshall opposed recognition the president asked Clifford to make the case for bringing Israel into the community of nations.

When the three met, Marshall argued that due to the number of Muslim states dominating the region, Israel would immediately be overwhelmed by Arab forces. Clifford agreed the Middle East was unstable. But he contended that the establishment of a democratic nation could have enormously positive national security benefits not only for the United States but for the entire world.

Clifford’s powerful moral case failed to move the secretary of state, who stared at him in utter fury. When Clifford finished, Marshall remarked to the president, “I don’t even know why Clifford is here.” In Marshall’s view, Clifford was “a domestic adviser and this is a foreign policy matter.” But then Marshall went too far, contending that Clifford’s only interest in arguing for the recognition of Israel was one based on domestic politics. The president had had enough, tersely reminding Marshall, “Well, General, he’s here because I asked him to be.”

Marshall, livid over his belief that electoral politics was dictating American foreign policy, informed Truman that he would not support the president in the upcoming election if Clifford’s position on Israel was upheld.

Though this stinging rebuke from the man Truman admired more than any other in his administration was hard for the president to accept, Truman agreed with Clifford and the United States recognized Israel a few days later. Marshall never spoke to Clifford again nor was he known to even utter the younger man’s name for the rest of his life. The feelings were mutual. Clifford thought little of Marshall, referring to him in his memoirs as a man of “little notable sense of humor.” Echoing Kelly’s opinion of Kushner, Marshall’s resentment of Clifford may also have been due to his unhappiness with Truman’s informal command structure.

While the two situations have differences, there is a crucial commonality. In every administration there are figures who share a personal connection with the president which makes them far more important than their titles might indicate. Their roles have ranged from Harry Hopkins’s service as special envoy to Churchill and Stalin during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, to Robert Kennedy’s involvement in numerous domestic and foreign policy issues during his brother's presidential tenure.

As with Clifford and Truman, Kushner and Trump share similar backgrounds. Both grew up wealthy, as sons of men who achieved success in the New York real estate world. The two also have similar outlooks, particularly in their disdain for an elite who showed them little respect as they made their way around New York’s Upper East Side. Like the Kennedys, they also share a family connection.

While Truman continued to view Marshall as one of the great figures of his time, the general’s cold, aloof demeanor was a poor match for a president who surrounded himself with a tight group of friends from Missouri, and who enjoyed cards, whiskey and other activities that the serious-minded military man had little to no affinity for. As with Marshall, Kelly who had devoted his life to the military was a strict taskmaster who had little in common with the disorganized and temperamentally unpredictable president he believed it was his duty to manage and serve. In an interview in late October 2019 as the Ukraine scandal began to be revealed, Kelly told the Washington Examiner that he urged the president “not to “hire a yes man, someone who won’t tell you the truth — don’t do that.” This advice turned out to be a prescient, if ignored, recommendation.

Trump’s big mistake, in fact, might not only be relying on Kushner to help set policy in areas about which he knows little, but also firing Kelly. There is no doubt the enmity between Clark Clifford and George Marshall made life difficult for Truman. Nor did he side with Marshall. But the conflict served a vital purpose. The intensity of opinion allowed the president to hear two unvarnished points of view, thereby giving Truman the opportunity to make a thoughtful decision on an important issue. Truman possessed the humility to understand that the presidency required him to be surrounded by those who were comfortable speaking truth to power. At a moment of crisis like we’re facing today, Trump desperately needs such figures if he has any hope of mitigating the coronavirus outbreak.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece noted that Harry Truman did not have any children. In reality, he had a daughter, Margaret Truman, but no sons.