After Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale decided he wanted to make the recruitment of donors a top strategy in President Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, his first conversation was with someone not officially employed by the campaign at all: Jared Kushner.

Parscale expected the effort to cost $20 million or more in this year alone, so he knew he had to get buy-in from Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser before moving forward.

“It was something that could make a huge impact on our winning and losing,” Parscale said in an interview. “Once he was onboard, we went together to sell the president.”

Kushner, 38, is the hidden hand of Trump’s 2020 campaign — rarely glimpsed in its Northern Virginia headquarters but signing off behind the scenes on everything from spending to digital initiatives to top-level hires. 

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He has asked Bill Stepien, a senior political adviser to the campaign, to provide him with a 10-year plan outlining how Republicans can win inner-city voters. He speaks daily — and often multiple times a day — with Parscale, and has recommended digital and media vendors for the campaign. Campaign aides who want to brief Trump often go through him. And when Kushner suggested that the campaign bring on Kayleigh McEnany as its national press secretary, Parscale made the hire.

Kushner, along with the rest of the Trump family, also receives a weekly report from the campaign about “everything we’ve done, every dollar we’ve raised, what staff have done, what every single division’s goals were that week and what they did and didn’t accomplish,” Parscale said.

Some allies liken Kushner to a de facto campaign manager, saying his role in Trump’s reelection bid is akin to Karl Rove for President George W. Bush or James Baker for President George H.W. Bush. Some of his critics agree — but also say that Kushner lacks the political savvy of those two experienced hands, and that his position smacks of nepotism. 

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Kushner rejects the comparison, saying he trusts the judgment of Parscale — who in 2016 was the Trump campaign’s digital director — and has simply empowered him. 

“I’m a big believer in hiring great people and working with them to set goals and objectives,” Kushner said in an interview in his West Wing office earlier this month. 

Kushner describes his role as largely a top-line and management one, similar to what he did during Trump’s 2016 bid. “Basically overseeing operations, troubleshooting, making sure we have the right teams in place, making sure we have the right missions and that people are held accountable,” he said. 

This portrait of Kushner’s central role in the Trump campaign is based on interviews with nearly two dozen White House officials, campaign staff, outside advisers and Trump confidants, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details. 

'Unique status'

Kushner’s campaign duties are the latest in a mushrooming list of high-profile responsibilities, from working to fashion an immigration compromise on Capitol Hill to being tasked with attempting to deliver Middle East peace. Neither has had much success, making him a punchline among those in Washington skeptical of his portfolio and his abilities.

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Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said that “Kushner’s unique status enables him to tinker with the campaign machinery at will.”

Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist working with former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld in his long-shot bid for the GOP nomination, was more blunt. 

“I see no reason to believe that he knows anything about politics,” Stevens said, noting that Kushner had believed that Trump’s 2017 firing of FBI Director James B. Comey was “a good move.”

“An entitled son-in-law that has power because who he is married to is not exactly new,” Stevens said. “How many businesses have been run into the ground with such a strategy?”

Within Trump’s orbit, Kushner remains a deeply polarizing force. Nearly everyone has a strong opinion, viewing him either as a trusted conduit to the president with smart ideas or as an entitled, calculating princeling protected by his familial status. Even some allies say privately that he sometimes overstates his role and that they don’t always agree with his ideas.

Trump is unlikely to win inner-city voters, some campaign advisers say, and they are skeptical that criminal justice reform — bipartisan legislation that Kushner helped push through Congress — should be a key campaign theme. Other advisers were also dubious when, during planning discussions for the official 2020 launch, Kushner suggested restaging the president’s now-famous 2015 Trump Tower escalator ride. 

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During the 2018 midterm elections, Kushner urged Trump to travel to Michigan and support Republican Senate nominee John James, even though internal and outside advisers were opposed to the idea and data showed James was likely to lose. Trump never did campaign with James that fall, and he lost the election. 

Kushner’s expansive descriptions of his 2016 campaign purview, including in testimony to Congress and to former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators, have rankled some. The claims have been particularly confounding to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who was the first woman to manage a winning presidential campaign after Trump named her to the post in August 2016, according to someone familiar with her views.

“He’s like a roving chief of staff,” said one Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House. “He can do whatever he wants, he can be in any meeting he wants, and everyone is going to snap when he calls. He’s everywhere other than putting a man on the moon and curing cancer.” 

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Kushner said he simply backed into his campaign role the first time around, when Trump was running a scattershot and disorganized effort — and wanted him to fix things. 

“What I found was that every time the candidate was upset about something, I would get involved and figure out how to make it something he wasn’t focused on,” Kushner said.

He added: “Most people were afraid to make decisions and what I found was I wasn’t afraid to make decisions. And if he disagreed with the decision, he would call me and tell me.”

For 2020, the campaign structure is intentionally siloed, with Kushner and Parscale among a handful of officials with full visibility of its inner workings. Kushner has spoken with Rove about how to structure a presidential election campaign, and also speaks frequently with Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s former chief of staff; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.); and Ken Kurson, Kushner’s longtime friend who is a former aide to Rudolph W. Giuliani and was tapped to edit the New York Observer when Kushner was its publisher.

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Recruiting major donors

Friends and associates say Kushner is especially interested in the digital side of the operation. He helped Republicans launch WinRed — a new fundraising platform for small-dollar donors intended to compete with the Democrats’ successful ActBlue effort — and has been working with Parscale to develop a Trump app that supporters can download on their phones and encourages increased engagement. 

Kushner worked with Parscale to select and secure the campaign’s headquarters overlooking the Potomac River, weighs in on fundraising and budgets, and has worked to better integrate the campaign with the Republican National Committee — a major source of tension in 2016.

And so far the decision to spend money to recruit major donors — a strategy known as prospecting — seems to have paid dividends. Filings released Monday revealed that the campaign, the RNC and affiliated committees have raised at least $97 million over the past three months and had about $118 million on hand. This does not cover money raised by the RNC last month. 

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“It’s not an accident we have so much money in the bank,” Kushner said. “It’s not an accident we’ve built out the team. It’s not an accident there have been so few leaks out of what we’ve done. I think what you’re seeing is a super highly competent operation.”

The efforts include Kushner reaching out to donors who did not support Trump in 2016. Last fall, he appeared at an event for the American Opportunity Alliance — a group of center-right donors — in Manhattan. Kushner was interviewed there by Dan Senor, a former adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and former congressman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), about making inroads into various coalitions that were initially skeptical of Trump.

“I would describe him as a hands-on CEO,” said ad-maker Larry Weitzner, who worked on the 2016 campaign and is likely to do so again in 2020. “He was involved in all the major decision-making, strategy conversations, allocation of resources, where the candidate travels.”

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Jon Lerner, a Republican pollster and strategist who worked closely with Kushner in the administration for two years when he served as deputy to former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, said Kushner’s campaign role is similar to his administration one.

“It strikes me that the campaign operation is like the White House operation: others are involved, but the president is unquestionably the top decision-maker, and then there is Jared,” Lerner wrote in an email. 

Kushner said the 2020 campaign’s long lead time — Trump officially filed his reelection papers with the Federal Election Commission on the day of his 2017 inauguration — has allowed them to improve on the 2016 effort, which often felt makeshift and haphazard. 

“We did a lot of unconventional things, and I think the things that have worked, we doubled down and tripled down on,” he said.

His critics are less impressed. Some complain Kushner has installed loyalists in the campaign to be his eyes and ears — or, in the words of one White House official, “has trip-wired it with people who are in his orbit or in his debt.” Others say he brags about having insight into particular groups such as Evangelicals, when he does not. 

Kushner has privately suggested that he thinks the campaign may be able to keep costs down by having some staff volunteer to be unpaid for a portion of their work, according to one person familiar with his comments who called the idea naive at best. Kushner denied suggesting the idea, saying he has simply identified some hires whose jobs might not begin until later in the campaign.

Kushner said his closest allies on the campaign are RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, Parscale, and Eric Trump, his brother-in-law. Tensions have run high between Kushner and McDaniel — Kushner was critical of McDaniel and the RNC over their fundraising efforts — but the two say they have a strong relationship.

At a recent fundraising dinner for Trump’s super PAC, the president touted his administration’s successful push for a criminal justice reform law, telling the crowd that even liberals supported the legislation.

“And we have a couple of liberals in my White House, like my son-in-law,” Trump said to laughter, according to three people who heard his comments. 

Despite the 2020 campaign’s vastly larger scope and scale, Kushner compared it to the effort four years ago, when Donald Trump Jr. crossed the country holding events on his father’s behalf, Ivanka Trump traveled to swing districts trying to woo more moderate voters and Eric Trump worked on campaign operations.

“The last campaign was actually really a family-run campaign,” he said. “This is very similar to the last one, in that we’re all working together very closely.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Trump never endorsed Republican Senate nominee John James. Trump did endorse James, but he did not travel to Michigan to campaign with him in fall 2018.