In her memoir of her stint as press secretary during the Trump administration, Stephanie Grisham revealed that the White House staff had a nickname for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump: “the interns.” Kushner in particular, she wrote, had a propensity for poking his nose into other, more qualified officials’ bailiwicks, wreaking havoc with the chain of command while knowing that his status as the president’s son-in-law would protect him from the consequences. “Javanka,” as Grisham referred to the couple, were also regarded in the office as “obnoxious, entitled know-it-alls” who sought the spotlight on ceremonial occasions, even when protocol dictated that they be excluded—most famously when, barred from Trump’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, they had themselves photographed overlooking the occasion from a window of Buckingham Palace, an inadvertently creepy image that inspired comparisons to horror movies, haunted dolls, and VC Andrews novels.
The nickname seems a bit unfair to interns, but Kushner’s new memoir, Breaking History, does read like one long résumé. Kushner has a way of assuring the reader of his accomplishments that makes you doubt everything he says. Grisham (who, like her former boss, has a knack for nicknames), also called him “the Slim Reaper,” for his adeptness at eluding responsibility for the messes he made, as well as for his penchant for scooping up the credit for any successes. He wants readers to know that during the campaign, he turned MAGA hats into a profit center and introduced daily Facebook videos, for which he was given “a budget of $400,000, but only spent $160,000.” Good job, Jared!
As Trump administration memoirs go—and I’ve read a ton of them—this one is pretty dull, with dashes of the obligatory score-settling and self-justification but precious little color. Kushner gets his digs in when covering such fallen rivals as Steve Bannon, John Kelly, and Rex Tillerson (who understandably complained that there should only be one secretary of state). But he has no eye for character or flair for dish, and his whole schtick was that when the going got crazy, he was off in Dubai, or sucking up to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi prince who according to the CIA ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (and this spring invested $2 billion in Kushner’s fledgling private equity firm, a deal currently under investigation by the House Oversight Committee).
Kushner’s dilemma is the same as Trump’s. Both are sons of rich, unprincipled self-made men and are desperate to prove what can never be proven: that they, too, would have made successes of themselves even without Daddy’s help. Kushner’s marriage to Ivanka Trump compounded his problem. Obviously, he would never have had a shot at Mideast diplomacy and negotiating trade agreements if he hadn’t been Trump’s son-in-law. He was entirely unqualified to do any of it. The purpose of Breaking History is to argue that it was nevertheless America’s good luck that such a can-do fellow happened into the position to solve so many of the nation’s problems. Like Trump, Kushner is a businessman—although a businessman who started out with the massive advantage of his father’s money and connections. Like Trump, he claimed that his expertise at business brought much needed know-how and hard-headedness to government, a notion that mulishly ignores the fact that government is not a business and by necessity has a different set of norms and goals.
Is it any wonder, then, that Kushner seems most at home with the crown princes of the Arab kingdoms, men who enjoy an untroubled sense of entitlement to not only their wealth but also to their sovereignty over their people? In another shrewd assessment, Grisham concluded that Javanka’s shenanigans during Trump’s visit to the queen betrayed their belief that they were the royal family of America. At the same time, Kushner has also fully absorbed the language and narratives of American entrepreneurial narratives, portraying himself as the governmental equivalent of a technology “disruptor,” whose creative imagination busts through the calcified restrictions of custom and habit to provide bold new solutions.
In a chapter recounting Kushner’s involvement in the negotiations of a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, Breaking History even reproduces a slip of paper on which the Mexican foreign secretary had scrawled a rather cryptic diagram, which to judge by Kushner’s description mostly just illustrates the bargaining over what percentage parts a car assembled in Mexico needed to be American-made to avoid the car being taxed when imported to the U.S. Kushner, who in a state of great excitement carried this drawing to the U.S. trade representative, seems to think the slip is destined to become some kind of historical talisman, like the garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple.
If this sounds a bit pathetic, it is. Breaking History features the many confident pronouncements of someone who can never quite convince you that he actually possesses any true confidence. Business self-help books often urge their readers to fake it till they make it, and this is advice that Kushner has taken to heart. Although he participated in some genuinely praiseworthy initiatives—most notably the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill—Kushner’s dishonesty about so much of the history of the Trump administration casts a shadow over the accomplishments he claims. This is primarily a dishonesty of omission. Whenever Trump or his minions screwed up or behaved badly—by, say, minimizing the threat of the coronavirus, or attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election—he simply fails to discuss it. In classic Slim Reaper style, Kushner extracts himself from Trump’s shadiest activities, claiming that he was off somewhere else working on something more important.
This strategy blew up in Kushner’s face during the Jan. 6 hearings. The committee televised videotape of him testifying that he’d paid little attention to Pat Cipollone and other White House lawyers when they threatened to quit over Trump’s illegal schemes to overturn the election, dismissing their objections as “whining.” For this, Kushner—who despite his self-portrayal as maverick innovator, clearly wants to retain credibility among mainstream business leaders and officials—earned a scolding from Liz Cheney, who portrayed him as indifferent to the fragility of American democracy. “People in positions of public trust,” she said, “are duty-bound to defend it, to step forward when action is required.”
This is another thing that Kushner has in common with Trump: a moral blind spot when it comes to the distinction between the values of business and the values of democratic governance. He shrugs off Trump’s notorious phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, the impetus for the president’s first impeachment, as “Trump being Trump.” When the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, gave a press briefing in which he stated that, as Kushner puts it, “presidents regularly leverage foreign aid to extract concessions from their foreign partners,” Kushner admits that this was a “disaster,” but only because the president was under attack by Democrats and it was a “high-stakes moment where our messaging needed to be tight.” Otherwise, he observes, Mulvaney’s point was “fundamentally valid.” He doesn’t seem to understand that the actions of the president as an elected representative should never be used to benefit the president as a political candidate—that to do so is in fact fundamentally corrupt.
For this reason, despite his efforts to pass himself off as a statesman, Kushner remained a businessman dabbling in foreign relations. As a businessman—and especially as a New York real estate developer—he regards the rule of law as an impediment, not a sacred trust. For all his talk of “service,” Kushner sees the good he did the way rich people do, as philanthropy, in which he made some minor sacrifice to help the disadvantaged, a sacrifice for which he expects to receive their gratitude and plenty of praise and glory. That attorneys, elected officials, and career public servants often see themselves as committed to democratic institutions and ethical frameworks that transcend the imperatives of “success,” self-interest, or good PR never seems to occur to him. They’re just whining. He’s here to disrupt all that nonsense.
And of course, Kushner can’t bite the hand that has fed all his delusions of grandeur. An early news item about Breaking History reported that Kushner took one of MasterClass’s online courses on how to write a book, one taught by James Patterson. I haven’t taken the class myself, but I’ve read enough Patterson thrillers to know that they have at least one rule of thumb: That in opposition to the noble, hardworking hero, there’s always an arrogant, dangerous sociopath who plays the villain. The obvious candidate for that part in Kushner’s story was ready at hand—as the candidate himself might have put it, he was “central casting.” But that is the one golden opportunity Kushner will never seize, because it’s the one thing he can’t afford.