Jared Kushner, the second-most-powerful man in the White House, is quite a bit smarter than the most powerful man, his father-in-law, the president. Donald Trump possesses a genius for the jugular, but he evinces few other signs of intelligence. He certainly displays no capacity, or predisposition, to learn. His son-in-law, by contrast, appears to have sufficient analytic acumen to comprehend that the country has been brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic. Kushner might not be the brightest public servant in American history—he is a Harvard graduate who is also a leading symbol of college-admissions corruption, and a businessman with a substantial record of failure—but he has shown flashes of effectiveness in his time at the White House. Because he projects a facsimile of capability and because he shows, at irregular intervals, a seemingly genuine interest in governing, he is also an exasperating mystery.
Like many Americans, I’ve been watching Kushner for four years now, and I’ve asked myself this question: Why does he enable his father-in-law’s worst impulses? The answer, I believe, is embedded in the core of his biography. I’ve spent months studying Kushner’s personal history. This story is built on more than two dozen interviews, with current and former White House officials who have worked intimately with Kushner, as well as outside advisers whose wisdom he has sought, business associates, and old family friends. (Kushner himself declined to comment.)
In the marriage of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Kushner is arguably the one with the more domineering father. From an early age, Jared learned how to accumulate influence by faithfully serving the interests of powerful, mercurial men. He grew adept at managing their outbursts, or rather, he learned how to avoid becoming their target. For all the power Kushner has amassed, his ascent required the submission of self and the stifling of principle.
This dangerous admixture of propulsive ambition and boundless self-abasement has now come to afflict the nation. Kushner’s foibles have exacerbated the administration’s disastrous response to its greatest crisis.
White House colleagues say that Kushner genuinely believes he has the capacity to handle any problem assigned to him. Wealthy, polished, and soft-spoken, his self-confidence is no mystery to anyone familiar with a certain type of Ivy League privilege, or with the hereditary rich, who know they possess more than enough capital to protect themselves from life’s material vicissitudes. With the ambiguous yet capacious title of “senior adviser,” Kushner set out, early in the Trump term, to resolve issues that had bedeviled previous administrations of both parties: immigration reform, mass incarceration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But perhaps none were as complicated or posed so immediate a threat as the responsibility added to his overflowing portfolio this spring.
When Kushner showed up for work on March 11, he was summoned by Mike Pence. The vice president had been designated by Trump to preside over the government’s response to the virus. With the economy on the verge of collapse, his efforts could hardly be characterized as a triumph. Now Pence dumped the problem on Kushner’s desk. As he grasped the magnitude of the challenge before him, Kushner is said to have felt an uncharacteristic jolt of anxiety; he wondered to himself whether he was up to the task. But it was what the president wanted, and he was determined not to let Trump down.
The next morning, Kushner texted an old friend, Adam Boehler, the head of the International Development Finance Corporation. Two decades earlier, they had roomed together in NYU dorms while interning at investment banks. Before entering the government, Boehler had sold a health-care company he’d founded. Like Kushner, he prides himself on pushing his bureaucratic deputies to move with entrepreneurial alacrity.
Boehler received Kushner’s text at breakfast. By that afternoon, they had summoned a group of officials to a West Wing office and begun to act on a plan they had hastily sketched. Aides were assigned to three different teams focused on resolving crucial shortages: One would ramp up testing; the others would procure ventilators and personal protective equipment, respectively. The teams were instructed to descend on FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services and act like management consultants, injecting unorthodox thinking and imposing a bias for action. In the days that followed, Kushner and Boehler supplemented the group with volunteers recruited from the private sector—from consulting firms, private equity, and the health-care industry. According to The New York Times, rivalrous bureaucrats referred to these recruits as the “Slim-Suit Crowd.”
Under pressure to reverse the perception of a flailing White House, Kushner’s group improvised wildly. The day after they were first assembled at the White House, they organized a Rose Garden event, where the president unveiled plans for a website that Google was said to be constructing. The site was billed as a hub for locating the drive-through testing centers that would soon populate the country. At the time, such plans were barely notional; Google, for one, was reportedly caught off guard by the announcement, which dramatically overstated the site’s ambitions and the company’s involvement. But the Slim Suits had little time to get their bearings, let alone meticulously design national policy.
And indeed, for a fleeting moment, Kushner’s group did better than its critics would admit. In the face of emotional governors clamoring for the shipment of ventilators to their states, the Slim Suits devised a formula for anticipating demand for the equipment, which helped the United States avoid the rationing of machinery that plagued Italian hospitals. They imported PPE from abroad and opened dozens of drive-through testing sites in a matter of days. By April, Kushner was publicly congratulating the administration on its “great success story.” He prophesied that by July, the country could be “really rocking again.”
But by July, the nation was manifestly not rocking. Kushner had expanded testing, but, according to recent reporting by Vanity Fair, he also seems to have stifled the development of infrastructure that could have matched the scale of the problem. The Slim Suits had conceived an intricate blueprint for a robust testing and contact-tracing regime—a set of policies that likely would have helped slow the spread of the virus across the nation. But instead of executing those plans, Kushner appears to have permitted them to wither. And as the president claimed the virus would miraculously disappear, politicized the wearing of masks, and held an indoor campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that contravened the administration’s own recommendations, Kushner offered no public words of contradiction or caution.
Despite his initial anxieties, Kushner had demonstrated the technocratic skill to take on the pandemic. In the end, what he lacked wasn’t competence, but the courage to challenge his father-in-law’s fantasies. He seemed to have adopted Trump’s delusions as his own. Privately, Kushner blamed Democratic governors for stoking hysteria about the virus for the sake of wounding the president. “There’s only so much we can do here. They’ll keep on blaming us,” he told one public-health expert. “I’m done.”
Kushner now shifted attention to the question of police reform, an issue brought to the fore by the killing of George Floyd. By late June, he believed he was making good progress. He had helped develop an executive order to encourage police departments to better train officers and track misconduct. He was convinced that he could lead the nation to a sensible middle ground that would help mend its rifts.
He felt like the spirit of his efforts was captured by a White House event where the families of victims of police violence had the chance to recount their suffering to top law-enforcement representatives. The civil-rights lawyer Lee Merritt, who is representing Ahmaud Arbery’s family, attended the event with his clients. He described it as the spiritual equivalent of a “funeral.” Tears flowed; a sheriff wrapped his arms around a grieving mother. Kushner considered this the healing moment that the nation deserved.
The moment, however, quickly dissipated. A police-reform bill he supported was roundly rejected by Democrats. The executive order he had touted merely incentivized police departments to adopt suggested reforms. And although Kushner may have enjoyed observing a moment of healing at the White House, he certainly hadn’t impressed the value of healing on the president; Trump spent the next month dismissing the Black Lives Matter movement as a “symbol of hate” and defending the Confederate flag.
This is the essence of Jared Kushner’s legacy: the gap between his adamant faith in his own good intentions and the grim reality of the administration he helps run. Once again, the imperative to faithfully serve his surrogate father triumphed over any other competing impulse.
As an adolescent, Jared Kushner attended a Jewish day school in New Jersey. Jared’s father, Charlie, endowed the school, naming it the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in homage to his own father. Jared grew up in a world that venerated his grandparents. Their portrait was an omnipresent reminder of the family’s trajectory from catastrophe. It hovered in the conference room in the family’s Fifth Avenue office tower. When Jared moved into the West Wing, their photo was the only artifact that he brought with him.
Joseph Kushner died when Jared was 4, but his grandmother Rae was a molding force in his life. She brought him along to card games and imparted folk wisdom: To this day, Jared wears a bracelet threaded with red, a color his grandmother believed warded off evil.
In 1941, when Rae was a teenager, the Nazis stormed her village in northern Poland. Through a window, she witnessed the execution of her own mother. Rather than accept inevitable death, Rae and the remaining Jews in the village deployed wooden spoons and other improvised shovels to burrow a 600-foot underground passage out of the ghetto and into the forest, where they joined a group of armed partisans. As the Holocaust faded into history, her escape became a foundational narrative for the Kushner family, ritualistically incanted. When the Kushners self-published a book about Rae and Joseph, they called it The Miracle of Life.
The miracle wasn’t just survival, but the redemption that followed. When one of Rae and Joseph’s daughters married in the 1960s, the engagement was covered in The New York Times and the wedding was held in Manhattan’s Biltmore Hotel. By that time, the Kushners were part of a cohort of survivor families, clustered near Elizabeth, New Jersey, known as the Refugee Builders. Having survived the Holocaust’s horrors, they took risks that other builders wouldn’t abide. Emerging from the ghettos and camps, they erected the suburban sprawl that extended down the New Jersey Turnpike. The Kushners alone would come to own 22,000 apartment units.
Growing up as a Kushner was by turns empowering and crimping. Charlie was a sartorial stickler, excoriating colleagues who failed to wear a tie to the office. He abhorred blue jeans, which he referred to as dungarees, and didn’t like his kids to wear them. Charlie was self-consciously grooming his sons, and not just to have impeccable manners. “He wanted to be the father of masters of the universe,” a friend of the family told me. As the eldest son, Jared bore the weight of these expectations.
When politicians came to pay tribute to Charlie at his home and office, he used the occasions to provide a stage for his teenage son. He assigned Jared to introduce Vice President Al Gore at a fundraiser. When Benjamin Netanyahu came to stay with the Kushners, he bunked in Jared’s room, while Jared decamped to the basement. It became the stuff of lore that the two shot baskets together in the Kushners’ driveway.
A common experience of second- and third-generation descendants of the Holocaust is a manic desire to stuff their life with achievements, to reassure their parents and grandparents that their suffering has been redeemed. They feel the burden of supplying a happy ending to a horrific tale.
It wasn’t enough, therefore, for Jared to go to college. Charlie wanted him at Harvard, and threw himself into making it happen. In 1998, when Jared was beginning to apply to colleges, Charlie pledged $2.5 million to the university. (A Kushner Companies spokesperson has denied that Jared’s admission was related to the donation pledge.) A source close to the family told the investigative journalist Daniel Golden that Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, a longtime recipient of Charlie’s largesse, attempted to enlist Ted Kennedy to lobby Harvard on Jared’s behalf. Kennedy denied that he ever lifted the phone for Jared. But it was a typical Charlie Kushner scheme, a bit audacious for its own good.
In 2006, the whole story would come out thanks to Golden’s book The Price of Admission. That Jared received a place at Harvard was held up as a symbol of Ivy League corruption. In painful detail, Golden quoted administrators at Jared’s high school recounting his academic mediocrity. Not for the last time, Jared faced public scrutiny for having secured privilege he didn’t deserve.
A friend of Jared’s told me that Kushner quickly submerged the humiliating revelation—he never griped about it or permitted it to dent his self-confidence. He was the heir to a narrative that bolstered a relentlessly sunny attitude: Life was a miracle, after all, and anything was possible. So Jared launched himself forward, accumulating responsibilities beyond his years, and sometimes beyond his competence. To fulfill the expectations of his father and to sate history’s burden, he set out to assume his rightful place at the apex of American society.
Over the past three years, Jared Kushner has achieved the power his father desired for him and then some. He has assumed direct control of the most important assignments and installed like-minded allies in nearly every crucial position in the White House. He tends to dispense his advice to the president privately, out of earshot of other aides.
What has he done with that power? The press has focused on the bungled acts of commission, but the acts of omission have been far more significant. Although he likes to think of himself as a moderating presence, a business-minded voice of reason, Kushner’s record in power suggests the opposite.
In earlier phases of his presidency, Trump gestured toward the conventions of the White House. He surrounded himself with former generals who maintained a sense of allegiance to the nation (John Kelly) and Republican apparatchiks with a strong sense of allegiance to the party (Reince Priebus). These weren’t avatars of courage or effective governance. But they were sources of friction.
Where the likes of Kelly and Priebus set out to play the doomed role of superego, Kushner has let the president’s id run wild. More than anyone, Kushner seems to have created the permissive atmosphere in which Trump has turned the presidency into a vehicle for his grudges and bizarre theories. At the height of Kushner’s power, the president has set about purging the government of inspectors general who investigate abuses of power, removed a prosecutor looking into the misdeeds of his allies, and implored foreign leaders to investigate his political enemies. He has urged the treatment of disease with unproven medicine and threatened to deploy federal troops to clamp down on protesters.
Kushner likes to cast himself as an adviser, but that’s a taxonomic mistake. He’s family. More than just another obsequious aide, Kushner approaches his work with a tribal ferocity and a deep yearning to win the praise of the clan’s chief. On the campaign, his mantra was “A happy candidate is a winning candidate”; he considered it his job to please his father-in-law. He plays the same role at the White House. Kushner knows how to navigate the president’s eruptions, although he can’t entirely avoid being walloped by them; he knows when self-preservation demands capitulation; he is a student of how not to push too hard.
His survival strategy can be seen on his face. Nearly every other top Trump aide has been captured wincing at their boss. Even in private, Kushner never evinces any such unease. Each time I interviewed one of his friends or colleagues, I asked if they had ever heard him express anger or even irritation with the president. None witnessed him display agitation beyond shrugging and saying, “Oh well, you know Donald …”
In a White House where everything eventually leaks, there are no known accounts of Kushner disparaging the president. To create such distance would be inimical to him. At the very center of his identity, Kushner is a Good Son. He’s run the country in a spirit of filial devotion to an implacable father. It’s a role that he thrives at playing, because he’s spent his whole life rehearsing for it.
There’s one significant instance of Jared Kushner staking his own path, a moment when he set out to bend the White House and the Republican Party to his own desires. He devoted himself to the passage of the First Step Act, a bill reforming the federal criminal-justice system. He willed the bill into existence despite the reluctance of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the objections of other Senate Republicans, who said it was too lenient on violent criminals. It was a process that required him to assuage the anxieties of Trump, who, more than a year after the bill’s passage, still grumbles about having acceded to his son-in-law’s passion project.
Kushner expended his political capital because he considered the legislation a tribute to his father and all he had suffered. Charlie Kushner’s troubles began when the family business that Rae and Joseph built descended into fraternal warfare. In the midst of the feud, members of Charlie’s family cooperated with a federal investigation into his campaign donations. Enraged at their betrayal, Charlie hatched a scheme to punish his sister. He hired a prostitute to seduce her husband, Billy, at a diner he frequented. Charlie arranged to have a hidden camera planted in the motel room where she lured Billy. Just before her son’s engagement party, his sister received the video of her husband’s infidelity in the mail.
Charlie’s rage destroyed him. His sister drove the tape to the U.S. attorney’s office. A pugnacious prosecutor named Chris Christie charged Charlie with witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and the promotion of interstate prostitution. (The morning Jared learned of his father’s arrest, he was interning at the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau. He had entertained the idea of becoming a prosecutor himself, but Charlie’s arrest soured him on that career.) Charlie pleaded guilty (to tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal campaign donations) and consigned himself to what would be a 14-month stint at the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama.
Jared had every reason to be furious with his father. According to Andrea Bernstein’s meticulously reported book, American Oligarchs, Charlie hadn’t hired a random prostitute. He allegedly had frequented her himself, using the pseudonym John Hess. (Charlie’s lawyer at the time denied the allegations.) But instead of blaming his dad for betraying his mother, entrapping his uncle, and embarrassing the entire family, Jared hugged him even tighter. He railed against the disloyalty of family members who snitched to the feds, synchronizing his views with his father’s. Most weekends, he dutifully boarded a plane to Alabama. In the moment of crisis, the Good Son assumed his appointed role with vigor.
If Jared had sincerely entertained charting his own career, he now found his professional life bound to his father. After Charlie finished serving his term in 2006, father and son set out to leave New Jersey behind and to conquer Manhattan on a scale that would dwarf the tabloid headlines. Lenders were wary of Charlie’s criminal record, so it was Jared who officially purchased the 41-story building at 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion. And although it was Jared who came to own The New York Observer, according to a former editor, it was Charlie who once quietly pressed the paper to run a hit job on a business rival. (My attempts to reach Charlie for comment were unsuccessful.)
This wasn’t a grudging accommodation, but a devoted partnership. Charlie and Jared would kiss each time they met; they planned charity events for an organization supporting young men who have become entangled in the justice system. Even now, with Jared in the White House, they speak nearly every day.
Charlie Kushner possessed a personality that veered between extremes. According to those who have worked with him, if Charlie liked you, he showered you with soft-spoken charm and outsize generosity. But he could also be a Vesuvius of anger, ripping employees whose work he considered subpar. Although Charlie never trained his anger on his son, it could be terrifying to witness him inflicting it on others. Jared became adept at navigating Charlie’s ferocious moods. At the Observer, he often avoided uncomfortable conversations with his father, outsourcing them to an underling. He learned how to soothe Charlie, talking him down from his tantrums.
Jared didn’t inherit his father’s temper. But he will break from this placid character to protect his father’s reputation and to earn his approval. At first, Jared seemed to reluctantly accept the presence of his family’s old nemesis, Chris Christie, in the Trump campaign orbit. Really, he was waiting for an opportune moment to destroy him. He didn’t just argue against Trump picking the New Jersey governor as his vice president—according to one of Kushner’s friends, he asked to eavesdrop as campaign chair Paul Manafort informed Christie that he wasn’t the pick, and then boasted of how good it felt to witness it. Christie was assigned the role of running the transition team, but just after the election, Trump fired him from the job. “The kid’s been taking an ax to your head,” Steve Bannon told Christie at the time. Christie ascribed blame for his demise entirely to Kushner’s vendetta.
Throughout his adult life, Kushner has courted the advice and the friendship of older men, master-of-the-universe types such as Rupert Murdoch, Ron Perelman, and Henry Kissinger. With his smooth face and deferential style, he excels at playing the high-achieving young man who sops up wisdom. This is the role that defines him, that seems to provide him with the greatest comfort. There was, however, one older man who greeted him with skepticism.
On the path to becoming Donald Trump’s favorite, Kushner suffered his father-in-law’s sadistic jibes. The president liked to joke about how he considered Kushner an inadequate spouse for his daughter. He would muse about how he wished Ivanka had married the quarterback Tom Brady. (“I love Jared, but he can’t throw a 70-yard spiral rolling to his left.”) There was often the implication that Jared was somehow insufficiently manly. Impersonating Jared, he liked to break into a sniveling, high-pitched voice. He would mimic how Jared would ask him to call a donor. “Oh, Mr. Trump, can you please call him, Mr. Trump? He will give you so much money, Mr. Trump.” After the TV host Joe Scarborough heard Trump’s imitation, he related the moment to Kushner. Instead of reacting with anger, Kushner merely told Scarborough that he never called his father-in-law “Mr. Trump.”
A lifetime with Charlie Kushner had prepared Jared for the indignities of dealing with a difficult man. Thriving in their presence requires a sort of realism. These aren’t men who can be reformed or easily pushed from deeply held beliefs. Their anger is something to work around; at best, it can be managed and minimized.
With the father figure that is Donald Trump, Kushner advises to please. Close observers inside the administration say that Kushner believes he has a good understanding of what irritates Trump, and an equally good understanding of how to calibrate his counsel to never trip those wires. If Trump has a fixation, Jared will sometimes provide him with the countervailing evidence. Kushner succeeded, for instance, in diverting Trump from his obsession with lifting the coronavirus quarantine before Easter. But if the fixation sticks, well, he is the president. If the president believes that hydroxychloroquine is a magical elixir, then who is Jared to disagree? He will quickly bury whatever dissenting thoughts he might have. And he will never walk away.
For all the power that Jared has carved for himself, there’s a powerlessness to his relationship with Trump. Other than the push for criminal-justice reform, which he justified to the president as consonant with Trump’s championing of “forgotten people,” he seems to have largely adopted a position of submission. As much as he craves power, what he seems to covet is approval.
Although Kushner is not Tom Brady, Trump has always enjoyed the fact that his son-in-law looks the part of the Harvard graduate. He likes the way Kushner briefs him on issues, which makes him feel that he is hearing both sides of an argument, not the slanted pitch of a bamboozler. (Kushner believes that when Trump suspects information is being withheld from him, the president will then seek that information on his own.) And in a White House where every aide is a likely leaker, Trump believes that he can count on Kushner’s discretion.
Still, Trump is such a fickle dispenser of praise that Kushner clearly revels in it when it arrives. In June, a week after federal forces cleared Lafayette Square of protesters, a small group of law-enforcement officials gathered in the White House. As the president introduced his guests, he asked Kushner to say a few words. His brief remarks domesticated the president’s fulminations into well-mannered, if vacuous, slogans: “Law enforcement can be a leader in coming together.”
The rhetoric hardly soared, but Kushner succeeded in stirring something in Trump. As the president thanked his son-in-law for his presentation, he unexpectedly broke from character. His voice went tender and he cooed, “My star.” For a flicker, Kushner tried to choke the swell of pride, but he couldn’t suppress a broad smile of filial joy.
There’s a classic work of mid-century sociology by Edward C. Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, that helps explain Jared Kushner. In the 1950s, Banfield immersed himself in the life of an isolated white-stone town in southern Italy. He wanted to understand why it remained so mired in poverty.
Banfield theorized that one of the town’s seeming sources of strength was actually its essential malady: devotion to family. Villagers were fixated on maximizing advantages for their own clans. Nepotism was the moral code, and it bred an atmosphere of distrust, envy, and lawlessness. His subjects’ single-minded fixation on family rendered them incapable of conceptualizing the common good. Banfield coined a term to extrapolate what he observed: amoral familism.
The past four years have been an education in corruption. Both the Kushner and the Trump families have tried to turn the White House into a vehicle for self-enrichment. (Even Trump was upset with Jared after his sister pitched investors in China by highlighting her ties to the White House and claimed that the deal “means a lot to me and my entire family.”) Graft and bribery, however, are not the only categories of corruption. It is no less grave when the president abuses the machinery of state for self-interested ends. Trump has capriciously exploited his power to punish his enemies and to stave off the punishment of his convicted friends. He has stripped away the institutional impediments designed to prevent him from imposing his delusions on the American people. He has attempted to turn foreign policy into a tool of his reelection.
Banfield argued that amoral familism inhibits good decision making; it’s the enemy of efficiency and progress. The pandemic has graphically illustrated this. The country has performed woefully compared with the nations it once regarded as peers. It has become the national version of the stunted village that Banfield studied, ruled by a father and his callow princeling, unable to govern in the name of the common good, because they can see no further than the interests of the clan.
The question now is whether nepotism will also be the undoing of Trump’s political fortunes. From his office in the West Wing, Kushner has overseen Trump’s reelection campaign. He takes pleasure in running through PowerPoint slides describing the apparatus he has constructed. It’s a presentation filled with descriptions of how the 2020 campaign will deploy geo-targeting and data showing, among other things, how Trump can double his share of the Black vote.
Kushner may take pride in the plan he devised, but current poll numbers suggest he shouldn’t. He has demonstrated little ability to stand up to his surrogate father—who has, at the very least, frustrated Kushner’s plan for bolstering the incumbent’s share of the Black vote. And although Trump may enjoy the frictionless ability to do whatever he pleases, he has entrusted his political future to an overconfident young man who believes he has all the answers. In politics, as in governing, Trump is trapped by kinship, forced to live the reality predicted by the maxim about the perils of mixing business and family. And if the president loses in November, it won’t be himself he will blame.