Stand By Your Man: Will Kushner and Trump Stick Together?
The ties that bind are the ties that brand.GPO / Getty Politics Features Jared Kushner
Will Trump give Kushner up? I mean that hypothetically at this point, of course. The Trumps usually stick close together. But it seems obvious: if the course of human events continues in this manner, then the time will come when Trump will have to choose between himself and his relations. A Times article published on Memorial Day noted that:
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was looking for a direct line to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — a search that in mid-December found him in a room with a Russian banker whose financial institution was deeply intertwined with Russian intelligence, and remains under sanction by the United States. Federal and congressional investigators are now examining what exactly Mr. Kushner and the Russian banker, Sergey N. Gorkov, wanted from each other.
Constant comparisons with the Nixon White House do no favors to Trump: both were under the shadow of scandal, but Nixon’s Executive had a level of professionalism which this Orange Presidency can hardly wink at. Here too there are parallels.
KEEP THE FAITH
Richard Nixon never had a son, but the closest he ever got was his White House Chief of Staff, Harry Robbins Haldeman, who Nixon described as his “pluperfect son of a bitch.” That didn’t stop Nixon from throwing him to the wolves when it was time. He fired Haldeman and another aide, Ehrlichman, in a televised Oval Office speech on April 30, 1973. Then Nixon—probably drunk—called Bob Haldeman and said this:
RMN: But let me say you’re a strong man, Goddamnit, and I love you.
RMN: And, you know, I love John and all the rest, and, by God, keep the faith. Keep the faith. You’re going to win this son of a bitch.
Nixon didn’t pardon his adopted brother-son, so Haldeman, the former Lord High Executioner, went to prison for eighteen months, where he was a chemist in the sewage treatment plant in Lompoc Federal Prison. Nixon was pardoned. In a May 1, 1973 article in the Post, Stern and Johnson wrote that:
The dramatic news of the dismantling of the White House command staff that served Mr. Nixon through his first four years in the presidency was the most devastating impact that the Watergate scandal has yet made on the administration.
Trump has his own command staff. The President has other sons, but seems to spend special favor on his daughter’s husband. And so his son-in-law has come under fire for the Russia tie. According to an article in the Times:
Over the past week, Mr. Kushner, who at age 36 occupies an ill-defined role somewhere between princeling and President Trump’s shadow chief of staff, has seen his foothold on that invaluable real estate shrink amid revelations he is under scrutiny in a federal investigation into whether there was collusion with Russian officials during the presidential campaign. … What is less clear is how Mr. Kushner’s woes will affect his hard-won influence on a mercurial father-in-law who is eager to put distance between himself and a scandal that is swamping his agenda and, he believes, threatening his family.
Usually, this kind of speculation is senseless: who wants to pry in family affairs? Kushner’s Dad went to jail; imagine having yet another father figure thrown into the clink, and what that would do to you. In ordinary times, this would be irrelevant: who knows or cares what happens inside this one family? It’s hardly our business.
But the curiosity is worth indulging here, for a very simple reason: Trump’s strongest bonds, such as they are, are with family. The power of the Trump Executive is wired up according to the bonds of blood. Those ties have an immediate, discernible impact on my life, your life, and the life of the nation. Therefore, Trump’s relationship with his son-in-law is a subject worth publicly speculating about. They’ve made it our affair.
CAT’S IN THE CRADLE
The President runs his business and political empire in the manner of an antediluvian patriarch: assigning sub-units of his kingdom to people in the trusted bloodline, keeping outsiders at arm’s length, trusting nobody. There are two parallel power structures: the official one, governed by law, precept, and custom; and the unofficial one, governed by the family structure of Trump and all the people of Trumpland.
These ties are not governed by ability, but by genetics and proximity to Trump’s favor, like the House of Saud. There is good reason for D.C.’s opposition to Kushner: he shows no sign of being worthy of the powers vested in him. What has Jared done, except be born and marry right? He deserves no blame for them, nor any credit.
No wonder Congressman Schiff of California is angling to revoke Kushner’s various clearances. The lines of power are clear to any observer. The mojo flows from President to Aide, from Father to Son-in-Law, according to the whims of Donald Trump. And how is the President feeling about Mr. Kushner, in recent days? Here we may look, again, to the public record. The Times again:
But in recent weeks, the Trump-Kushner relationship, the most stable partnership in an often unstable West Wing, is showing unmistakable signs of strain.
Partially this is the fault of the Comey ouster, which Kushner argued for, and because Jared clamors for the beheading of Bannon and Spicer. There are other stingrays in the deep waters:
It has been duly noted in the White House that Mr. Trump, who feels that he has been ill served by his staff, has increasingly included Mr. Kushner when he dresses down aides and officials, a rarity earlier in his administration and during the campaign. The most serious point of contention between the president and his son-in-law, two people familiar with the interactions said, was a video clip this month of Mr. Kushner’s sister Nicole Meyer pitching potential investors in Beijing … [This violated two rules:] Politically, it undercut his immigration crackdown, and in a personal sense, it smacked of profiteering off Mr. Trump — one of the sins that warrants expulsion from his orbit.
The unforgivable and unthinkable is now possible: a nice motto for the age of Trump. Given Kushner’s talent set, this was also inevitable. Nixon, who was also paranoid and willing to save his own skin, could still pick and choose talent from the vast sea of humanity. Until the end, his shrewdness excelled his paranoia. This is a marked difference from the current Leader of the Free World. Trump has stuck to his own family in most of the important matters, regardless of their talent. Again, if this was a normal man or a slightly normal President, this speculation about family powers would be needless, baseless—another chapter in the big angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin book of unanswerable thinking.
But as we’ve seen, these are not normal times. The Donald combines two features which rarely keep company: his circle of affection is ridiculously cloistered around his family tree, and he shows an astonishing predilection to throw others in the way of harm. Seen in this light, his family-centered staff looks less like a beloved father giving understandable preference to his own brood, and more like a man who prefers to see some version of his own face and name staring back at him from every mirror of power.
AS LONG AS HE NEEDS ME
Yet Trump’s loyalty is famously a one-way street. So far, he’s never had to put his family’s loyalty against his feckless, notoriously fickle fidelity to his staff. The two loyalties have not come in conflict.
As the Times story points out, Kushner is different from his father-in-law; the young heir is muted and preppy, but he shares the President’s love for doing business according to the precepts he learned in the semi-legal twilight of the New York real estate market. This may explain why “Jared Island” (to use the phrase inside the West Wing) has so many vague and huge projects thrown his way—Middle East peace and weapon sales being two of the most notable.
The most likely answer is that one of them will break first. Jared will move away from the center of power, and Trump will remain. Jared is not sworn to defend the Constitution, and is not confined to a small manor in the District. Trump is. Kushner can have a life away from the maelstrom. Trump is stuck in D.C. until he leaves. Pretend you are Jared Kushner. If you were wealthy, powerful, and famous, and had to answer to the public (half of whom hated you) and to the law (who say you may be colluding with Russia) and to the press (who have publicized your name to every American), what would you do? If you were used to another kind of life, would you bear this attention for a year, two years, eight years? Even if it meant huge powers and global influence? Would it still be worth it?
Kushner’s trajectory is not the same thing as an ordinary politician being lifted into power—a Clinton, a Reagan, a Carter: people who came from (relatively) nowhere to a larger destiny. Kushner and Trump would have imperial sway even without the drafty residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. Even the most influential governor of the most influential state still has a life circumscribed in a way that a lifetime billionaire does not. A pol can be removed from power by an election or an impeachment. Except for bankruptcy, capital goes on forever. If you’d had an easy life before, and then you fell into the thorn nest, and were hissed by people you’d never met—would you stay there, if you didn’t have to? Jared will not.
In a Guardian column on May 29. Walter Shapiro argued that Kushner was inherently doomed. Too many projects, too much notoriety in a scandal-prone Presidency, and now an investigation: ” his life in the coming months and maybe years will be a study in misery. He will probably spend more time with his personal lawyer, Clinton justice department veteran Jamie Gorelick, than with Ivanka or his children.” That is one fate. Return to New York, and you’re sort of out of danger but away from power; stay in Washington, and accelerate your own doom.
And as always, the family factor, the same vector which lifted Kushner to power, complicates matters beyond the dreams of Rubik. Shapiro wrote of Trump: “Trapped in the trappings of a White House that he can’t demolish to build something grander, Trump is surrounded by aides like Reince Priebus and HR McMaster whom he neither fully trusts nor feels comfortable with.” Who can Trump trust in the end? The ties that bind are the ties worth having, but only when those ties go both ways, when both parties must abide under a code of loyalty. Donald Trump’s idea of worth lives and dies under the light of his brand, which is the extension of a name—a joint-stock company which he and Jared and Ivanka and all the other brood of Trumps share ownership of. How does he handle that business? What will the man do when he meets the one employee he can never fire?