For months, the joke about Jared Kushner is that he’s somehow managed to end up at the center of everything: Middle East peace, reimagining government, Iraq, criminal-justice reform, relations with Mexico, and probably a half-dozen more issues forgotten even by the White House senior adviser himself.
But the president’s son-in-law is also directly in the center of things in a more troublesome way. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that White House lawyers felt that Kushner’s multiple entanglements with Russia made him too great a liability and wanted him to leave the president’s staff:
After some members of the legal team aired their concerns to Mr. Trump in June, including in at least one meeting in the White House, press aides to the legal team began to prepare for the possibility that Mr. Kushner would step down, drafting a statement explaining his departure, said people familiar with the matter.
President Trump rejected the idea, saying he believed Kushner had done nothing wrong, and Kushner remains in the administration. But Kushner’s complicated web of contacts hasn’t gotten any simpler as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation moves forward.
There are several reasons why Mueller, as well as some of the other investigations considering Russian interference in the election, might look closely at Kushner, 36, who is married to Ivanka Trump and, until joining the White House, led his family’s real-estate business.
Kushner was present at the June 9, 2016, meeting that Donald Trump Jr. set up in which he expected to receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin-tied source. (Trump Jr. says no such information was actually provided.) Later, after the election, he reportedly spoke with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about establishing a back channel between the Trump transition team and the Russian government. Curiously, the channel would have involved Trump officials using Russian diplomatic posts to communicate with Moscow, a method that would seem mostly to elude any American intelligence awareness of the conversations.
Kushner also met with the head of Vnesheconombank, a Russian state financial institution, in December, during the presidential transition. The conversation is curious not only because it represents a top Trump official secretly meeting with an arm of the Russian government, but also because accounts of the meeting differ in important ways. Kushner says he attended the meeting in his capacity as an adviser to President-elect Trump. But VEB says that the meeting concerned Kushner’s family real-estate business.
The Kushner Companies have been in the spotlight in other unflattering ways. The real-estate firm is seeking investments to defray huge debt on 666 Fifth Avenue, its flagship tower in New York City. The Kushner Companies have sought investment from multiple foreign countries, including ones with important diplomatic interests involving the U.S. government, including Qatar and China. Although Jared Kushner has officially left the company, the company has used his name in business pitches since the inauguration.
Whatever the substance of Kushner’s meetings with VEB and Kislyak, he was tardy and sloppy in disclosing them. Kushner’s SF-86 form, required for security clearance, was badly incomplete, and he has since updated it to add more than 100 names of foreign officials with whom he met but whose names he did not initially disclose. Amending the SF-86 is not uncommon, but national-security experts were boggled by the scale of Kushner’s additions, the fact that it took months to produce them, and his excuse that he had simply hit the “send” button prematurely, an explanation that doesn’t make sense for the form. It was from the updated SF-86 that the Trump legal team learned of the June 2016 meeting, which also included then-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.
There’s a broad range of scenarios that can be fitted to these facts. At one extreme, it’s possible to speculate that every conspiracy theory is right, the Trump campaign was always in league with the Russians, and Jared was at the heart of it all, from the June 2016 meeting (if not earlier—after all, emails released by Donald Trump Jr. referred to the Kremlin’s support for his father as an already-established fact) to the Kislyak back channel. A second is that Kushner (and perhaps everyone else at the White House) did nothing wrong with regards to the Russians, but that Mueller may chance upon some sort of tangential financial impropriety related to the family business and Kushner ends up in trouble over that. A third is closest to Kushner’s own account of the matter: He is entirely innocent, there was no misconduct with the Russians, all of the business dealings are entirely above board, and Kushner is simply an innocent man dragged into the matter by his proximity to the president.
At the moment, however, Kushner’s proximity to Trump looks like a greater liability for Trump than for Kushner. Because Kushner has so many points of contact with Russia, his presence encourages the public impression of untoward connections between the White House and Kremlin. And inside the White House, his sprawling portfolio meant he could inadvertently drag any number of colleagues into Mueller’s sights, the Journal said:
Some of Mr. Trump’s attorneys worried that Mr. Kushner’s continued employment carried risks that could possibly involve other White House officials, a person familiar with the matter said. If, for example, Mr. Kushner mentioned the probe—even casually in a meeting—aides who heard his remarks could face inquiries from Mr. Mueller’s agents. Some lawyers were also concerned that Mr. Kushner might discuss the probe with the president without a lawyer present.
When Trump chose Kushner for his role as senior adviser, it raised hackles among ethics experts. Typically, anti-nepotism rules—enacted after John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as attorney general—prevent presidents from naming close relatives to top posts, so as to avoid the bestowing of favors and money at taxpayer expense on family members, especially un- or under-qualified ones. Kushner has no experience that would lead one to believe he has the chops to reorganize the government or solve the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example.
Trump skirted those rules in Kushner’s case because Kushner was a West Wing, rather than agency, appointee, and because he waived his paycheck. But the threat that Kushner’s tangled connections on Russia pose to the president now suggests that the anti-nepotism law doesn’t just protect the public but can protect the president as well. After months of acrimony, Trump has summoned the strength to fire members of his administration who cause complications, from Steve Bannon to Anthony Scaramucci to Sebastian Gorka, but some staffers are easier to push out than others. No matter how much his presence threatens your administration, it’s pretty tough to fire your own son-in-law.