Jared Kushner and the politics of nepotism

Matthew Dallek
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner arrives to speak to the media outside the West Wing on July 24, 2017. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s trusted senior aide and son-in-law, will be questioned Tuesday by the House Intelligence Committee, following his Monday appearance before its Senate counterpart, in the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Kushner’s emergence as a key figure in the Russia scandal reveals an uncomfortable truth that has been made more manifest since Trump’s inauguration six months ago: The president’s son-in-law has become the unlikely vessel for at least some of the outrage with the political system that helped fuel Trump’s campaign.

Kushner, a 36-year-old political novice, can justifiably claim to be an “outsider” not steeped in the culture of the nation’s capital. But clearly his family connections have opened the doors for him to achieve extraordinary power, fame and wealth. Kushner’s vast fortune (together with his wife, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, he is said to be worth well north of $700 million), and his influential White House role, combined with his almost total lack of relevant government experience, have made him a toxic symbol of the rigged system that Trump railed against during the 2016 election.

Kushner pretty much owes his fortune and real estate empire and White House job to nepotism in business and politics. He inherited his real estate empire from his father, Charles Kushner, a convicted felon who served 14 months in prison in a blackmail scheme directed against his own brother-in-law.

In taking the reins of his father’s real estate empire, Jared Kushner inked multimillion-dollar real estate deals and bought the New York Observer for $10 million shortly after his father pleaded guilty. Far from having pulled himself up by his own mythical bootstraps, Kushner comes off as the opposite of a Horatio Alger hero, a symbol of widening inequities in America’s economic structure and social system. Even his admission to Harvard University was the subject of controversy: A ProPublica reporter found that Kushner’s parents donated $2.5 million to Harvard shortly before Kushner applied and that his high school’s administrators thought he was unlikely to be accepted based on his record.

Donald Trump appointed him to a role as influential as any first lady or chief of staff in modern times, although it’s hard to find any qualifications — other than his family ties and Trumpian loyalty — to justify his expansive White House portfolio. Former first lady Hillary Clinton entered the White House with an extensive background in policy on family and children’s issues, health care and poverty. Karl Rove, “Bush’s Brain,” was the architect of George W. Bush’s political victories in Texas and the 2000 presidential election. Obama friend and White House aide Valerie Jarrett had years of senior experience in Chicago’s City Hall and knew urban development, transit policy, health care debates and other fields.

Of course, relatives of politicians who run for office often enjoy some built-in advantages — including name ID, access to donors and ready-made loyalists. Still, family members seeking elective office must appeal to the voters and make their case to the public that they are best suited for the job. Their support is earned by enlisting the electorate’s support. From Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush to Jerry Brown and Elizabeth Dole, the family ties don’t guarantee success or failure. Political appointees are another matter entirely: Bobby Kennedy had a mixed record as attorney general, especially on civil rights, and Hillary Clinton’s time as chair of the health care task force backfired despite her obvious qualifications. Americans have tended to chafe at the practice of big White House roles being handed to family members of the president.

President Trump at the White House with daughter Ivanka Trump; her husband, senior adviser Jared Kushner; and their children, Arabella and Joseph. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Jared Kushner — with his utter lack of relevant experience and policy knowledge — is far worse than these prior appointments. In a Trump White House beset by internal chaos, media scrutiny and a special counsel investigation, Kushner enjoys a direct line to the president and oversees a sprawling portfolio that has no relation to his interests and experience since his graduation from Harvard in 2003.

Trump has put him in charge of helping to negotiate a peace accord in the Middle East, reinventing the federal government (Vice President Al Gore’s task in Clinton’s White House), leading the Office of American Innovation and solving the epidemic of opioid addiction. His achievements in these roles have yet to be made manifest. He is reportedly an influential voice in staffing decisions and has appeared in photographs touring war zones in Iraq and meeting with foreign heads of state.

Prior to Trump’s presidential campaign, Kushner had dabbled in philanthropic efforts such as donating to the New York City Police Foundation. But the pre-White House focus of his life was to build up his real estate empire and ascend the ladder of New York society. Although he notched some achievements in real estate, his time owning the Observer was marked by a scorched-earth campaign against his enemies and by what one former editor described as Kushner’s view of the paper as “another vanity object.”

If one were looking for evidence that the “system” is somehow “rigged” against average Americans, Kushner would be Exhibit A. He embodies a society in which wealth begets more wealth, where the rich intermarry and grow richer, where financial elites are walled off from less-wealthy citizens, and where money and family connections buy access to education, political influence and positions in government that have much power over the lives of Americans.

Nepotism is not, ipso facto, inimical to American politics; some politicians’ relatives have served the country admirably. But when family members are handed vast power over people’s lives with scant preparation, knowledge or skills applicable to their assigned roles, the public grows more cynical about government — understandably. Ironically, it is almost as if Kushner’s White House roles affirm his father-in-law’s anti-Washington inaugural message that for years “the establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”

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Matthew Dallek, associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security.

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