Jared Kushner’s surprise visit to Iraq yesterday, breaking with Pentagon safety protocol by being announced before he’d even landed and usurping a job traditionally performed by the secretary of state, was further proof of his outsized role in his father-in-law’s White House. Kushner is President Donald Trump’s Mr. Fix-It, the youthful prodigy tasked with all the hard assignments, foreign and domestic. Kushner’s towering workload has even become a standing joke. An Onion story mocking Kushner for his heavy workload—“Jared Kushner Quietly Transfers ‘Solve Middle East Crisis’ To Next Week’s To-Do List”—was “passed along” by White House staffers and other political allies, according to Politico.
Speaking on CNN last night, Daniel Drezner, a political scientist at the Fletcher School and Washington Post contributor, became exasperated as he listed off Kushner’s absurdly long to-do list. “I’m just assuming that Jared Kushner stayed at the best Holiday Inn Express imaginable last night,” Drezner quipped on CNN, referring to the famous ad campaign. “Because that’s the only explanation I have for why anyone would have the kind of hubris to think that you can solve U.S. relations with Mexico, U.S. relations with Canada, U.S relations with China, bring peace to the Middle East, solve the opioid crisis, solve the V.A. problem and, by the way, I believe reform all of the federal government...His one qualification is that he married well.”
Other observers consider Kushner’s vast power not only absurd, but terrifying. After all, tin-pot dictators—not U.S. presidents—centralize power in the hands of unqualified family members. “I don’t think we’ve seen a family member with so much power and influence in the White House in a very long time,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state and NATO ambassador, told CBS News. “You do see this in foreign countries, you see it in monarchies, you see it in authoritarian countries where the brother or the son or the uncle of the leader has influence because of the relationship.”
Henry F. Carey, a political scientist at Georgia State University, worried in January that Trump’s fusing of his family and business with the operations of the state could lead to a system comparable to the “Sultanism” of pre-modern Turkey. “So what might happen in a presidential democracy, where the leader or those working for the leader are motivated by absolute personal or family loyalty and ignore legal requirements and procedural traditions?” Carey wrote at The Conversation. His answer: “The U.S. presidency has always been prone to sultantistic tendencies, but under a Trump presidency what were once isolated incidents could become a way of governing...Instead of a “team of rivals” under the rule of law, the Trump presidency may be akin to medieval monarchy, with decisions made by court politics, not legal procedures.”
It’s been an ongoing question whether the Trump administration will be ruthlessly authoritarian or just corruptly incompetent. But Carey’s essay is a reminder that it’s not an either/or question. The authoritarian tendency to concentrate power in the hands of family members will often lead to incompetent and corrupt decisions.
Kushner is a prime example: He’s woefully unqualified, with much too responsibility, and he hasn’t done enough to separate himself from his business empire (neither has his wife, Ivanka, who now has a formal White House role). But it’s not just that Kushner isn’t just in over his head; he doesn’t even have the proper support to attempt his monumental assignments. Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy advisor for President Ronald Reagan, noted in The New York Times on Monday that “Kushner is not head of any White House office” and “does not appear to have any staff members of his own. As a practical matter, in a bureaucracy staff is power.” Kushner could staff up, “but I am not sure if President Trump or Mr. Kushner have yet grasped the necessity of staff for the fulfillment of his responsibilities. Without it, Mr. Kushner is just a dilettante meddling in matters he lacks the depth or the resources to grasp.”
There’s no doubt that Kushner “lacks the depth or the resources” to solve the opioid crisis, let along bring peace to the Middle East, but Bartlett’s undersells Kushner’s power. Yes, in a typical bureaucracy, staff is power—but the Trump administration is anything but typical. “Simply put: Kushner’s role and relationship with the president—neither chief of staff nor regular political adviser—come with no precedents,” The Washington Post reported on Monday. “Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, compared the Trump-Kushner dynamic to ‘a mob family operation.’”
Kushner might have no hope of achieving most (or any) of his daunting assignments, but the fact that Trump entrusted Kushner with them is a signal to others of Kushner’s importance; merely having such responsibility in the White House, regardless of qualifications or resources, confers great power. No wonder various entities seeking influence in the White House, from the Chinese government to the Pentagon, use Kushner as a pipeline to the president. The New York Times noted on Sunday that the Chinese ambassador “has established a busy back channel” to Kushner, adding, “China’s courtship of Mr. Kushner, which has coincided with the marginalization of the State Department in the Trump administration, reflects a Chinese comfort with dynastic links.” A defense official said to BuzzFeed, about Kushner’s central role, “You have to understand where the levers are. You don’t have to like it, but that is where they are.”
The fact that the second most important person in the White House is Trump’s son-in-law is ultimately a sign of the weakness of Trumpism. Consequential presidents lead ideological movements that are broad enough to help them fill their government with staffers who share an agenda. In recent decades, this is normally done through think tanks, with Republicans relying on the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute while Democrats turn to the Center for American Progress. Trump, as a political buccaneer, has no think tanks to rely on. He’s been forced to use Heritage but he clearly has little regard for movement conservatives or Republican partisans. Trump’s main trust is in his own family and very few trusted cronies, like the attorney Michael Cohen.
Cohen once told the Jewish Chronicle that “to those of us who are close to Mr Trump, he is more than our boss. He is our patriarch.” Trump’s favorite child, Ivanka, is now the special advisor to the president. Her husband was welcomed into this charmed circle, as senior advisor to the president, perhaps in part because of his proven history of family loyalty. Kushner visited his father Charlie Kushner every week when he was in jail for tax fraud. In October, when asked whether he would support Trump or Hillary Clinton, he replied, “Family first.” That might work as an ethos for a private company like the Trump Organization, but no American family is large or qualified enough to effectively run the federal government. Trumpism, despite the best efforts of senior advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, is proving not to be a coherent ideology but a personality cult—just like the namesake family business on which the Trump White House is modeled.