This Is Still Happening is a feature in which Slate will attempt to offer an update on senior-level administration corruption, what could be done to bring the officials to account, and what Democrats are doing in response (generally, nothing). The ninth installment is about Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner.
The Official: Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser
What Is Still Happening: It’s depressing and infuriating to contemplate the amount of influence over all of our lives that has been handed to Kushner, whose greatest accomplishments prior to joining the White House were buying a $1.8 billion money pit with his family fortune and marrying Ivanka Trump.
Kushner’s ever-shifting and ever-expanding portfolios—solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! Serving as supply chain czar!—have become a running joke. Having a second buffoonish real estate princeling draining government resources to play make-believe world leader, though, is less “Ha ha” funny and more “This is fine” funny. As with Donald Trump himself, it’s difficult to summarize all of the damage that Kushner has done to U.S. institutions, constitutional democracy, and global alliances through the sheer distance between his limited capacities and the immense responsibility he holds.
It’s easier to list some of the times that Kushner has used his office for personal gain to the detriment of the country, or otherwise botched very important specific tasks that he was handed because he happens to be married to Donald Trump’s daughter.
• Let’s start with COVID-19. It has been widely reported that Kushner has been placed in the role of shadow pandemic czar. His czarship has not been going so great. Multiple publications have reported that Kushner initially was a skeptic that COVID-19 was as bad as the scientists were saying, and that he encouraged the president to downplay the crisis to the public in its earlier days, rather than act. Last month, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Kushner advised Trump to hold off on declaring a national emergency in early March for fear that it would tank the markets, according to one source. (“A person close to Kushner” denied this.) Last month, the New York Times reported that “Kushner early on agreed with his father-in-law that the news media was hyping the coronavirus to attack the president, according to several officials.” (“[P]eople close to” Kushner denied this.) Earlier this month, the Financial Times reported that Kushner had argued to the president “that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it,” according to a Trump confidant.
Ultimately, the stock market crashed anyway and the rapid spread of the disease forced state governments to order almost nationwide shelter-at-home measures. Had Trump and Kushner not spent all of February and much of March treating the pandemic like fake news from a hostile media, and instead ordered testing to learn the scope of the problem and earlier shelter-in-place measures to get ahead of the problem, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.
Last week, Columbia University researchers projected that if social distancing measures had begun one week earlier, 36,000 fewer people would have died, and had it begun two weeks earlier, 54,000 fewer people would have died. (The death toll in the United States—which is almost certainly an undercount—is around 100,000.) For perspective, the lives that were lost due to early inaction are more than 12 times the number of American combat deaths in the entirety of the Iraq war, 18 times the number of deaths that happened on 9/11, and 30 times the number of deaths attributed to Hurricane Katrina. But at least the March stock market crash that eventually did come was slightly delayed.
• Kushner was eventually put in charge of key elements of the response, particularly surrounding the medical supply chain. Those efforts have proved mostly disastrous. Last month, Politico reported that Kushner had taken over the medical and testing supply chain apparatus from FEMA with the help of “his former roommate and a suite of McKinsey consultants.” One senior official described the team to the New York Times as a “ ‘frat party’ that descended from a U.F.O. and invaded the federal government.” Politico described a chaotic approach where “one team often has little idea what others are doing” and reported that Kushner’s working group “duplicated existing federal teams.” Kushner was responsible for Trump’s major announcement in March that his government was developing a public national testing site database with Google, which turned out to be a complete lie. (The website was not Google’s, but rather a project of a health care company founded by Kushner’s brother, and it only operated in four California counties and not nationwide.)
As BuzzFeed reported earlier this month, this chaotic process has resulted in government contracts worth tens of millions of dollars going quickly to people with no experience who have been unable to deliver critical infrastructure. As the New York Times reported, Kushner’s team was “told to prioritize tips from political allies and associates of President Trump, tracked on a spreadsheet called ‘V.I.P. Update.’ ” The Times continued: “Among them were leads from Republican members of Congress, the Trump youth activist Charlie Kirk and a former “Apprentice” contestant who serves as the campaign chair of Women for Trump. … Few of the leads, V.I.P. or otherwise, panned out, according to a whistle-blower memo written by one volunteer and sent to the House Oversight Committee. … Some associates of Mr. Trump sought special treatment from FEMA. In one case, Jeanine Pirro, the Trump stalwart and Fox host, repeatedly contacted task force members and FEMA officials until 100,000 masks were sent to a hospital she favored.” Finally, Kushner was responsible for a plan to partner with national pharmacy and retail chains to set up nationwide drive-in testing. As my Slate colleague Julia Craven reported, months later many of those promised test sites still do not exist.
• In running his shadow coronavirus response team, Kushner has continued his longtime habit of skirting governmental ethics and transparency rules. Politico reported that team members conducted government business “on unsecured personal cell phones and emails,” while the Times reported that team members “demonstrated a lax attitude to policy discussions, at one point using the website FreeConferenceCall.com to arrange high-level meetings.”
• During a press conference last month, Kushner downplayed complaints from governors about federal supply chain woes, saying “the notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile—it’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.” At the time Kushner made that statement, the Department of Health and Human Services officially described the stockpile as being for “[w]hen state, local, tribal, and territorial responders request federal assistance to support their response efforts.” Afterward, someone changed the department’s description of the stockpile on the department’s website so that it would more closely match Kushner’s description.
• Kushner recently described the administration’s response, which has led to joblessness on par with the Great Depression and numbers of deaths unrivaled in recent history, as “a great success story.”
• Prior to mangling the government’s response to a once-in-a-century pandemic in a way that has cost tens of thousands of lives, Kushner was corrupting government in ways large and small. As a small example, taxpayers have had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for lodging and sometimes ski lift access for security details for his and Ivanka’s luxury trips to the Dominican Republic, Vermont, Canada, and Aspen.
• More dangerous is Kushner’s handling of his vague and unmonitored Middle East portfolio. As the New York Times reported in 2018, Kushner repeatedly dismissed State Department protocol around private communications in befriending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After U.S. intelligence determined that MBS ordered the murder of dissident Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Kushner remained one of the kingdom’s biggest boosters.
• In backing Khashoggi’s murderer, Kushner also turned away from another American ally, Qatar. Against the advice of the administration’s own top State Department and national security officials, Kushner and Trump supported an unprecedented Saudi-led blockade of their Gulf State neighbor. Kushner’s support for the blockade came shortly after Qatar reportedly backed out of a deal to bail out the Kushner family’s distressed investment in the Manhattan office building 666 Fifth Ave. that Jared had purchased for $1.8 billion in 2007, at the height of the real estate bubble. Kushner’s father continued to meet with the Qataris, though, and later that year, a Qatari-backed group gave the Kushners a $184 million loan to keep the property afloat. Less than a year later, a different Qatari-linked investment firm bailed out the Kushners right before large loan repayments were set to come due, signing a 99-year lease on the property for $1.1 billion. The blockade continued, but lo and behold, the official U.S. position on it shifted at around the time word of this deal was made public. In a carefully worded public statement, the Qataris denied any “involvement in the 666 Fifth Avenue development” by Brookfield Property Partners, even though the nation is the second-largest investor in the group and the deal was publicly reported months before it was formally announced.
• Kushner had to repeatedly revise his ethics disclosure forms over the course of his first two years on the job, because he had left out information about his investments and his contacts with Russian officials. That missing information included a 2016 meeting set up by Donald Trump Jr. as part of a Russian offer “to provide the Trump Campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Special counsel Robert Mueller, though, declined to charge Trump Jr. and Kushner for a possible campaign finance crime related to the 2016 meeting.
• During the presidential transition after the 2016 election, according to Mueller, “Kushner asked [the Russian ambassador] if they could communicate using secure facilities at the Russian Embassy.”
• Kushner has consistently used WhatsApp in his official communications in apparent violation of federal record-keeping laws.
• Perhaps because of concerns around his conflicts of interests, his inability to document those conflicts accurately, and his secrecy in violation of record-keeping laws, as described above, career officials refused to approve Kushner’s top-level security clearance for months. The office’s director, Carl Kline, eventually intervened to give Kushner his clearance anyway, as part of an unprecedented spate of overrulings. (Multiple news outlets have reported that the president himself ordered Kushner be granted the security clearance, but Kline has reportedly testified privately before Congress that the White House had not approached him to adjudicate a single case.)
How Long It Has Been Going On: Kushner’s work in his father-in-law’s administration is his first foray into government. Because of his status as the scion of a New Jersey real estate fortune and husband of a minor celebrity, however, his incompetence and mismanagement in other areas of life have been highly visible for a while. Kushner’s father, Charles—whose own political influence–hunting includes being a major patron of disgraced New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, and who went to prison for a sexual blackmail witness-tampering scheme against other members of his family—famously gave Harvard a $2.5 million contribution shortly before his son applied and was accepted to the Ivy League school. “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at Kushner’s high school told ProPublica. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it.” Not long after graduating from Harvard, Kushner purchased beloved New York media institution the New York Observer. As former Slate and Observer writer Leon Neyfakh observed in 2016, Kushner destroyed that paper’s reputation. He also reportedly used his ownership perch to have stories about his friends removed from the paper’s website.
Kushner’s sins as a landlord are far worse than those as a newspaper owner. Last year, the Maryland attorney general sued the Kushner company for its management of a building where residents complained of extortionary fees, shoddy maintenance, and “rodent infestations so severe that they have rodents living and dying in walls and kitchen appliances; damaging carpeting; chewing holes in drywall and screen doors; and leaving droppings on floors, counter tops, and furniture.” Before Kushner left real estate to work on Trump’s campaign and in his administration, his company reportedly used regular renovations in its buildings to force out tenants so that it could turn units into luxury apartments, filing false paperwork with New York City claiming that it had no rent-controlled tenants when in reality it had hundreds.
Last month, the Intercept reported that Kushner property companies were ignoring state moratoriums on evictions and filing lawsuits seeking to remove tenants in the middle of the pandemic.
What Would Normally Happen: Presidents have given prominent portfolios to relatives before, but usually to those with more relevant background and experience. Politicians have also faced scandals surrounding mishandling of public records before, but usually with far greater consequences (such as politically debilitating FBI investigations). What’s unprecedented about Kushner—and Trump for that matter—is the astounding number of conflicts of interests he has taken with him into public life and how it is basically impossible to tell where his private interests end and his government “work” begins. Similarly unprecedented are his difficulties getting security clearance and the lengths to which the administration reportedly went to overrule career officials to secure those clearances.
What Democrats Have Done: Last year, Axios reported that then–House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings and House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters were discussing how to investigate Kushner’s conflicts with Qatar and the leasing of 666 Fifth Ave. Cummings also held hearings over Kushner’s security clearance, but the White House blocked a key witness from answering specific questions and refused to turn over key documents. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, who replaced Cummings as chair of that committee after he passed away last year, and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson have also sought documents from the administration surrounding Kushner’s shadow supply chain campaign.
But in the wake of the administration’s unprecedented obstruction of House subpoenas during the Ukraine impeachment saga, these would-be House investigators have all but acknowledged they don’t expect to hear anything back. Because Jared Kushner is not a Senate-confirmed appointee, the House can’t impeach him. Conceivably, House Democrats could be doing more to subpoena the information they need to oversee the pandemic response and all of these other issues, but it would likely then get tied up in court possibly for months or years.
What Is Likely to Be Done: I reached out on Thursday to ask the communications team on the Oversight and Financial Services committees whether the Kushner-Qatar property deal and security clearance issues would be further investigated. They hadn’t responded as of Friday. The House game plan at this point appears to be to wait for the election and hope for the best, rather than even attempt oversight of this insanely corrupt family and administration. We’ll see how that goes.
How Removable This Stuff Is: In a country governed by basic law and ethics, Jared Kushner’s job could not even exist. He is the living repudiation of the idea of democratic self-government. 10 out of 10.