Jared Kushner is not the first presidential son-in-law to have held high office. President Woodrow Wilson leaned heavily on his talented and experienced Treasury Secretary, William McAdoo, who just happened to be his daughter’s husband.
Jared Kushner: Breaking History: A White House Memoir (Harper Collins)
McAdoo, however, was a skilled politician, and his appointment had to be ratified by the US Senate. Kushner, who spent much of Donald Trump’s period in office as a senior advisor, and even at times a de facto chief of staff, was previously a real estate developer.
Kushner’s marriage to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, was facilitated by Rupert Murdoch and his former wife. But that friendship had its limits, as Jared would discover when Rupert refused to override the call made by Fox News in its coverage of the 2020 elections that gave Arizona to Trump’s adversary, Joe Biden.
Kushner was one of Trump’s inner circle, with a wide-ranging set of briefs that appeared to cut across half a dozen departments. Breaking History reads rather like a dutiful student’s account of “what I did on my summer holidays”, except in this case Jared actually influenced US policies in a number of areas.
While making sure to properly acknowledge the pater familias, Kushner claims some big personal achievements:
Across four years, I helped negotiate the largest trade deal in history, pass bipartisan criminal justice reform, and launch Operation Warp Speed to deliver a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine in record time … In what has become known as the Abraham Accords, five Muslim-majority countries signed peace agreements with Israel.
Some of these claims are justified. In particular, the Trump administration did support some relaxing of the draconian penal restrictions that mean the US leads the world in incarcerations. Kushner’s account of building a bipartisan movement to modify some of these laws is important, even as it reminds us of the barbarity of much of the US justice system.
Kushner spent considerable time working with selected gulf states to develop what became the Abraham Accords, which saw four Arab states recognise Israel. His insight was that the various royal despots would ultimately collaborate in abandoning the Palestinians in the greater interest of building an anti-Iranian alliance, where they shared common concerns with Israel. It seems Kushner never met a ruler he didn’t like, nor one whose record on human rights was worth questioning.
Kushner seems blithely oblivious to the fact his close ties to Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which go back to childhood, and his own strong support for Israeli ambitions, might have restrained Palestinian enthusiasm for his peacemaking efforts.
In this he reminds one of his father-in-law, who never let sentiment get in the way of enthusiasm for making a deal. Remember how well that went with Kim Jong-un – and, yes, Jared and Ivanka were there when the two presidents met at the Demilitarised Military Zone between the two Koreas, but tactfully no more is said about the beautiful friendship Trump claimed was established.
Telling silences and a magic touch
After the outbreak of COVID, Kushner became a central player, along with Vice-President Mike Pence, in organising the national response. As with his account of the Abraham negotiations, there is a great deal of fascinating detail obscured by his need to be centre-stage.
That the US suffered among the highest COVID death rates within rich countries
is apparently not worth mentioning beside the achievements of our hero in mobilising the private sector and pharmaceutical giants.
In Kushner’s world everyone is at fault, except the Trump family. President Trump, it seems, was constantly let down by his advisers, the Republican establishment, foreign leaders – by everyone, in fact, but Jared and Ivanka. Donald’s wife and sons barely appear (thankfully Melania, Eric and Donald Jr were hardly noted for their interest in policy).
Nor, one might note, do either of the Australian prime ministers who dealt with Trump rate a mention. Kushner seems largely uninterested in democratically elected governments, although he does tell us of his friendship with former UK prime minister Boris Johnson. It seems that for four years, only the steady hand of President Trump, supported by his daughter and son-in-law, steered the US through perilous waters.
Breaking History suggests there were few areas of government where Jared’s magic touch was not required. As he says, when the president calls, you answer, even if it means missing sleep and meals. He notes the rapid turnover of officials in the administration, and has little praise for most of the cabinet, other than former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and treasurer Steven Mnuchin.
But sycophancy has its limits. One of the most revealing lines in the book comes in a reflection on the days after the 2020 elections: “Like millions of Americans, I was disappointed by the outcome of the election.”
Kushner makes no attempt to support claims the election was stolen, and passes over the attack on the Capitol by Trump’s supporters, which he acknowledges was “wrong and unlawful”. His claim that had Trump anticipated violence he would have prevented it from happening has been essentially disproved in the recent hearings into the January 6 attack.
Analysing a morally corrupt presidency
Donald Trump is known to be a lazy reader, although Kushner claimed last month his father-in-law had started reading his book. Will he wade through the 400 or so pages of praise that come before the admission of electoral defeat?
One wonders whom else the book might attract. The prose is flat but grammatical, far removed from the overblown rhetoric and denunciations so beloved of the MAGA crowd. The book has been predictably panned by the New York Times and Washington Post, and largely ignored by Trump’s true believers, who far prefer the fiery speeches of Don Junior. But it would be wrong to ignore the insights into Washington and Middle Eastern policy-making that Kushner provides.
Even a morally corrupt presidency leaves a mark on the world that needs to be analysed. The plethora of books that have already appeared around the Trump presidency bear out Kushner’s claim to have been a key player across a number of crucial portfolios.
Indeed, the only other person to remain in “the room where it happened” through the entire four years was Pence, until his final break with Trump over the results of the 2020 elections. Now there’s a story Lin Manuel Miranda might consider as a follow-up to Hamilton.