The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Master negotiator’ or ‘nonentity’? Kushner thrusts himself into middle of shutdown talks.

Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner listens as President Trump speaks at a Hanukkah reception at the White House on Dec. 6, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Jared Kushner spoke up at a recent Oval Office meeting about cutting a deal to end the government shutdown, which has been the latest project for President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

After listening to Kushner expound on policy and possible areas of compromise with Democrats, Trump glanced at the others in the room.

“Apparently, Jared has become an expert on immigration in the last 48 hours,” Trump said, according to three people familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The remark, described by one White House official as playful, underscored the latest power shift inside the White House: Kushner has emerged as an omnipresent and assertive player in the now-33-day impasse, despite deep skepticism on Capitol Hill about his political abilities and influence, according to more than a dozen Trump associates, law­makers and others involved in the discussions.

Repeatedly assuring Trump that he can personally strike a deal with Democrats, Kushner has overshadowed other advisers in a largely empty West Wing this month. He usually huddles to discuss strategy each morning with the president, Vice President Pence and a few others, White House aides said.

Kushner’s role has been fueled by a burst of self-confidence following his help in passing criminal-justice legislation, his assistance on trade negotiations and the departure of former chief of staff John F. Kelly, who curbed his role and accused Kushner of “playing government.” But the efforts carry risks for both him and the president, whose boasts of being a savvy dealmaker are at the heart of his political appeal.

Trump’s top economist says shutdown could stall the economy completely

Vice President Mike Pence and other senior Trump officials were seen arriving to continue negotiations to end a partial government shutdown on Jan. 5. (Video: Reuters)

Convinced that Senate Democrats will eventually crack and that there are votes for a bipartisan agreement, Kushner has urged the president to dig in while also adjusting his position as his popularity suffers in public polls, according to a person close to him and White House officials.

Kushner, who referred a request for comment to the White House, has told Trump advisers that he has solid relationships with several Democrats, such as Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), and that he can sell a compromise to moderate Democrats and Republicans with whom he built a rapport while working on the criminal-justice bill.

But a number of key Senate Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), haven’t heard from Kushner in weeks, according to aides. And aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) say he has played no role in their discussions to reopen the government. 

“He is totally a nonentity,” one senior Democratic aide said.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Kushner  "has already successfully helped negotiate deals" such as the proposed trade agreement with Mexico and Canada and criminal justice reform, "so it's no wonder the President asked him to join the negotiating team to work on a deal to open the government and secure our border."

Trump’s offer in a speech last weekend — to trade temporary protections for young undocumented immigrants and others for $5.7 billion in border wall funding — had Kushner’s imprint, White House officials said, reflecting his push for a “big deal” to end the shutdown. The proposal is expected to fail in a Senate vote Thursday.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a key moderate who has called for the government to reopen, said Wednesday that Kushner “doesn’t have the experience” of Pence, a former House member, and others involved in the discussions.

“That doesn’t mean he’s not helpful or he’s not effective, but there is a difference there,” Murkowski said, adding, “It’s really hard to understand the dynamics unless you’ve really been immersed in this.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Kushner’s role in criminal-justice discussions was constructive but that the shutdown is a far more “difficult situation” for him.

“To the extent he can build upon that, perhaps he can be helpful,” Jeffries said. “But he’s going to have to move off the notion that Democrats are going to pay a $5.7 billion ransom note.”

Pelosi tells Trump: No State of the Union address in the House until shutdown ends

Yet Trump, who often tires of advisers, has continued to give a great deal of control to Kushner, according to a senior White House official.

Kushner has been a constant at the Capitol, ducking into meetings with party leaders and attempting to shepherd talks. He has mostly avoided speaking publicly, instead working from his sparsely decorated West Wing office where Reese’s candy is on the table, a Kanye West poster is above the door and photos of his wife, Ivanka Trump, are on his desk.

Kushner speaks frequently with Republican leaders, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) along with some rank-and-file lawmakers, officials said.

Last week, Kushner told several moderates who were considering sending Trump a letter calling for the government to reopen that they should hold off on doing so because a bipartisan pact was still possible. Kushner’s message was to “save the postage” because Trump would not support a short-term plan, GOP and White House officials said — and the letter went unsent.

Kushner has also been willing to consider a number of suggestions from Democrats that others in the White House have blanched at considering, adding to conservative anxiety.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump and Kushner ally who presided over an unpopular shutdown during the Clinton administration, said there is “tension between what Jared is trying to accomplish and what some people in the White House are trying to block.”

“For Jared to succeed, he’s going to have to get control to make sure the legislative language of what comes out from the White House reflects the commitments that are being made,” Gingrich said.

A person familiar with Kushner’s strategy said he has been focused on targeting Democrats who may want to break from leadership and has had positive conversations with many of them. The person declined to say whom Kushner had spoken to, citing the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Democrats have shown skepticism about Kushner in the past. When members of Congress visited Tel Aviv last April, some chuckled aloud when the U.S. ambassador talked about Kushner’s extensive progress on Middle East peace, according to a person present for the meeting. Trump put Kushner in charge of drafting a peace proposal, yet to be proposed, for Israel and the Palestinians at the start of his presidency.

Kushner, aware of the suspicions in some GOP quarters, has reached out to conservatives and assured them that his commitment to a border wall is as strong as Trump’s and that he wants to make sure they support a bipartisan deal if one emerges.

“I love the Cush,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a conservative Trump ally, said. “I’ll tell you what, he’s turned out to be a master negotiator and a competent force on the Hill. Jared has really deployed private-sector dealmaking to this process and brought that to Trump world.”

White House wants a list of programs that could be cut if shutdown lasts into March

Ken Kurson, a longtime Kushner friend, said he “could teach a master class in getting to yes.”

“When he first began serving in the Trump administration, many Twitter tough guys took shots at his lack of experience,” Kurson said. “Now that he’s helped the president put together a series of wins that many of those same pundits said were impossible … I think everyone in America, on all political sides, is glad Jared Kushner is in the room.”

Over the last year, Kushner has had a dramatic stretch of highs and lows, including scrutiny from the ongoing special counsel’s Russia probe and for his work to build a relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom intelligence officials have connected to the gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had been living in the U.S. and wrote columns for The Washington Post.

“They can’t jam Pelosi. They never will. They think Nancy Pelosi will have to eat something. She’s not going to have to eat anything,” said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

Kushner has also kept others out of the deliberations, determined to avoid leaks to the news media, White House officials said. A person close to Kushner said he doesn’t trust many of his colleagues in the White House. 

Shahira Knight, the legislative affairs director, has expressed unease with the White House’s operation during the shutdown. Another senior White House official called Kushner’s positioning “delusional.”

At a meeting last Thursday, Kushner spoke at length about why his proposed compromise could work. McConnell offered his reservations but said he was willing to support it to jump-start negotiations, according to people familiar with the matter. Others present said Kushner was the main speaker from the White House, even though Pence and Mulvaney were present.

After Trump spoke over the weekend, conservatives who are aligned with Trump’s immigration stance, from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to commentator Ann Coulter, denounced the new proposal as “amnesty” and a political mistake. Democrats, meanwhile, rejected the offer before it was announced.

As the shutdown enters its second month, there is little confidence among White House aides that a deal is near. Morale has plummeted, according to five White House officials. Many desks in the building sit idle due to the shutdown. 

But Kushner has told others in the White House that Democrats are coming along — and that a deal will be done. For his part, Trump has told advisers he could still declare a national emergency, a route Kushner has cautioned against. 

Trump’s patience with Kushner’s involvement could become strained if Democrats continue to wave off Trump’s offer and hold firm, officials said.

“I’m glad he’s involved,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “Is it a tough issue? Yes. Is it different than criminal justice? Yes. But he’s trying to get people together, and for that, there is appreciation.”