To hear White House adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner tell it, the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election was really not a big deal.
“Quite frankly, the whole thing is just a big distraction for the country,” Kushner said during the Time 100 Summit in New York on Tuesday, referring to the special counsel’s investigation into that interference.
“You look at what Russia did, you know, buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent and do it, and it’s a terrible thing,” he said. He later explained: “I think they said they spent about $160,000,” referring to the paid ads bought by the Russian social-media team. “I spent $160,000 on Facebook every three hours during the campaign."
Those aren’t the lines that attracted the most attention, though. The lines that raised a few eyebrows were these:
“I think the investigations and all of the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads,” Kushner said, later adding that “if you look at the magnitude of what they did and what they accomplished I think the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful to our country.”
The claims about the Facebook ads are broadly disingenuous, but in a way that’s on-brand for Kushner. Waving away the interference effort as “a couple of Facebook ads” does downplay the number of ads that were purchased. But it’s fair to note that the scale of those ads was small, particularly given the breadth of Facebook’s reach. It was also spending that occurred over a much broader timeline than most people seem to realize.
He focuses on those ads because that’s what he focused on during the campaign. He was the data guy, the guy who bought the ads. So that’s what he sees as the Russian effort, too. But Russia had another component to its social-media push, one that was much more sweeping: the creation and promotion of Facebook pages and various Twitter accounts all meant to highlight issues intended to stoke partisan anger. If the Russian ads mirrored Kushner’s campaign role, the rest of the social media effort mirrored his father-in-law’s.
But that social media effort — generally unfocused, often sloppy and only loosely centered on the election itself — was the much less important component of what Russia did. Far more important was Russia’s hacking into the Democratic National Committee and the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Material stolen in those hacks was later released in bulk by WikiLeaks.
A July 2016 dump of material stolen from the DNC had precisely the divisive effect the Russians were looking for, amplifying tensions within the party as it was trying to unite after the protracted Clinton-Bernie Sanders primary fight. The October 2016 dump of Podesta’s emails — a dump carried out day after day — helped successfully distract the media from other issues, including mounting allegations of sexual misconduct by then-candidate Donald Trump. We’ve noted before that WikiLeaks’ document releases quickly flooded out cable-news discussion of the “Access Hollywood” tape that month.
Kushner doesn’t address any of this, instead isolating a subset of a subset of what Russia did and then dismissing its already narrow scope. It’s not an honest assessment. But notice the point he’s hoping to serve with that argument. He’s arguing not about effects or about ethics. He’s arguing about “harm” to the country.
The investigations and speculation “had a much harsher impact on our democracy” than the Facebook ads, he said. “[I]f you look at the magnitude of what they did . . . the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful to our country.” (Especially if you downplay that magnitude.)
Well, of course Kushner sees an effort meant to aid the election of Trump as less harmful to the country than investigations into his father-in-law. Of course Kushner believes what he did on Facebook to get Trump elected was far more sweeping and important. Of course he thinks that Russia buying ads to help promote Trump’s candidacy isn’t that big a deal. Of course he thinks that investigations into the administration — investigations of which he is also a subject — are much more dangerous.
I’m not saying Jared Kushner is Al Capone, but I suspect that Capone had exaggerated opinions on income-tax laws relative to most Americans, that perhaps we should have taken Capone’s views on the relative harms to society of bank robbery with a grain of salt.
As a member of the Trump administration, there appears to be an unwritten rule that your view of issues should be in line with the president’s. It’s certainly the case that, for many of the reasons outlined above, Trump sees the investigation into Russian interference as more fraught than the interference itself. Kushner, like many of those closest to Trump, is simply highlighting that same difference.
At least he admits the interference happened.