War Stories

The Most Ridiculous Part of Jared Kushner’s New White House Memoir

Kushner stares into the distance, standing by Ivanka.
Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, wait for the casket of her mother Ivana Trump to be brought into St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church during her funeral July 20 in New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

I’ll make this claim for Jared Kushner’s memoir, Breaking History: It’s not quite as bad as Dwight Garner says. Garner, the New York Times’ book critic, merrily pulverized the tome in a widely quoted pre-pub review, trashing the author’s “earnest and soulless” prose, his “thoroughgoing lack of awareness,” and his persistent, absolute fealty to Donald Trump, whom Kushner served as the nation’s first-ever White House adviser-cum-son in law. “Reading this book,” Garner mused, “reminded me of watching a cat lick a dog’s eye goo.”

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For roughly half of its pages, Garner is spot on: The book is at best annoying, at worst repellent. Another third is merely a slog, like so many other self-serving White House tick-tocks (“First I did this…then I did that…then some really important people told me how clever I was”). But roughly one-fifth of it—amounting to roughly 90 of its 469 pages—is genuinely interesting.

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But first, let’s follow in Garner’s claw prints. When Kushner writes “Donald Trump arguably accomplished more than any other president in my lifetime,” a charitable reader might regard that broad modified, “arguably,” as a nudge and a wink. But Kushner also tells us, with no caveats, that Trump was “careful and deliberate” in making foreign-policy decisions; that “the president didn’t take himself too seriously;” and that, as a result of Trump’s bold stances and brilliant policies, “our enemies feared us, our partners respected us, and our allies could once again count on us.” One can only wonder whether Kushner suffers from alarming delusions or flagrant mendacity. (My guess: both.)

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After all, as documented in every account of Trump’s time in the White House, even those that aren’t entirely critical, his style of decision-making was sheer chaos. His pose was as defensively imperious as any president since Richard Nixon. None of our enemies (certainly not Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea) cowered before him, and almost all of our allies were alienated to the point of terror because Trump told them explicitly that they shouldn’t count on us.

“Part of what ultimately made Trump successful in his foreign policy objectives,” Kushner boasts, “was that leaders found him unpredictable”—a claim that he doesn’t back up with examples, because there aren’t any.

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Still, Kushner dismisses all of Trump’s critics as “Beltway insiders” who “resented his disruption of the system they had grown used to.” Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, was such a mismatch, Kushner writes, because he “wanted to manage the world’s problems,” whereas Trump “wanted to disrupt the ways of the past and change the world.” He doesn’t consider the possibility that managing problems, a hard enough feat, is as much as any leader can do these days.

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But Tillerson’s main sin, in this book’s telling, is that he was forever plotting to block Kushner and his wife, the president’s daughter, Ivanka, from playing any role in foreign policy. Tillerson was a lousy secretary of state, for several reasons, but he certainly had a point in wanting to guard the nation’s security from the tinkerings of two neophytes who wouldn’t have qualified for the lowliest slots in the West Wing, had it not been for the most eye-blinking act of nepotism in American political history. (One unwittingly hilarious sentence in the book has Kushner “coming to Washington amid claims of nepotism.” Italics added.)

In fact, this is the one common sin committed by all the members of White House staff that Kushner denounces—Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Don McGahn, and John Kelly: they all conspired to get Jared and Ivanka fired. These people were dreadfully unsuited for their jobs, and, in the passages detailing their antics, Kushner shows he knows how to dish (though he never wonders why Trump hired them in the first place if they were so clearly awful). Kushner also won his fights: Trump wound up firing all of his son-in-law’s nemeses, except for those who fled the bedlam on their own. But, as with Tillerson, they were all properly doubtful that the kids had any business being in the room where anything happened.

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It’s Kushner, in the end, who displays no reliable judgment of character. He claims that Robert Lighthizer’s “reputation as a tough [trade] negotiator intimidated” the Chinese—when, in fact, his stiff tariffs only inflated American prices and hardened Beijing’s behavior. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a longtime close friend of Kushner’s father, a fact that he underplays, saying only that Bibi stayed at his parents’ house once for a couple of days—is said to be a brilliant statesman who “spent years laying the groundwork with the Arab world to create the conditions for peace.” Whatever one’s view of Netanyahu’s politics, this description is preposterous.

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Kushner was famously instrumental in bringing Netanyahu into the Oval Office, where he swayed Trump’s views in many noxious ways. The book’s brief condemnation of the Iran nuclear deal—which President Barack Obama signed in 2014, along with six other world leaders, and which Trump scuttled in 2018—is even less accurate than most critical accounts. (He touts Trump’s subsequent policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, without noting that it did nothing to deter Iran’s geopolitical ambitions and has brought the Islamic Republic much closer to building a nuclear bomb.)

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His dealings with Netanyahu do lead to the book’s one interesting, even somewhat valuable, section—its account of the build-up to the Abraham Accords, in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (soon followed by Sudan and Morocco, all with tacit permission from Saudi Arabia), “normalized” relations with Israel.

Kushner overstates the importance of these accords. They did not constitute a “peace treaty,” as he repeatedly calls it, since Israel was never at war with those countries. He also exaggerates his own role in instigating the diplomacy: Bahrain and the UAE had furtively begun the process already; it was propelled not by Kushner’s brilliance but by a common interest in countering Iran; and it began by accident, as an incentive offered by the Arab partners to get Netanyahu to put off annexing the West Bank. But it was a big deal; it wouldn’t have happened quite so rapidly or fully without U.S. involvement, and Kushner was the lead U.S. player. It is also the one tale where the book’s title, Breaking History, makes sense. Conventional wisdom had held that Israeli-Arab accords could be struck only after, and through, an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Kushner realized that the two issues were in fact separate and that, for decades, Arab leaders had exploited Palestine—allying with its discontents without really helping its people—as a way of distracting attention from their own domestic difficulties. He is wrong in claiming unique insight on this score. A number of American specialists have long hit on this theme, starting with Malcolm Kerr in his 1967 book The Arab Cold War; and Egypt and Jordan signed real peace treaties with Israel without redressing Palestinian grievances (though Egypt’s Anwar Sadat paid with his life for doing so). Still, he is right that many U.S. diplomats had tried to link the two disputes—and wasted time in doing so.

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The bigger surprise is that Kushner gleaned this insight from the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, one night in talks that began two hours later than scheduled, continued over a 30-course dinner that lasted another four hours, and would have climaxed in a 4 a.m. tour of the sultan’s enormous collection of classic cars, except that Kushner’s staff, who had to fly to Bahrain four hours later, were too exhausted. At one point in his private history lecture, which is so different from what Arab leaders had declaimed publicly, Kushner quotes the Sultan as saying, “I feel badly for the Palestinian people,” who “carry with them the burden of the Muslim world.” It’s a remarkable story, and well told too. (Hats off to whichever of the book’s three ghostwriters, who are thanked in the acknowledgments, is responsible!)

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Even here, though, Kushner tarnishes the tale with what may be the book’s most disgusting passage. He describes meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—known as MBS—shortly after the American journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Kushner writes:

When we discussed the murder of Khashoggi, the crown prince took responsibility for the fact that it happened on his watch, though he said he was not personally involved. He said that he was conducting a thorough investigation and planned to address the murder publicly as soon as it was complete.

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And that’s all that Kushner says about the matter, even though Trump’s own director of national intelligence concluded that MBS had ordered the assassination. Kushner could have struggled with the dilemmas between a nation’s base interests and its basic moral principles (President Joe Biden has done a bit of that since). But Kushner just leaves things there and proceeds to chronicle the chummy friendship struck up between the president’s son-in-law and the king’s son.

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Kushner shrugs off every political-moral quandary. He dismisses Trump’s quid-pro-quo phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—which prompted his impeachment—as no big deal, just “Trump being Trump.” He cites Attorney General William Barr’s preemptive summary of the Mueller Report as if it confirmed the whole probe was a “witch hunt,” ignoring that Barr grossly distorted the report’s findings. He cites Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen, without commenting on it, one way or the other. As for the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, Kushner was just getting back from the Middle East that day, so wasn’t involved at all, though he writes, “What is clear to me is that no one in the White House expected violence that day”—a claim that the Jan. 6 committee’s hearings definitively rebutted.

Breaking History is best understood as an appeal by an ambitious young man to stay in the good graces of his father-in-law and (at least some of) the people who support him. In a Fox News interview, Kushner said he gave the book to Trump, who has started reading it. “He’s given me some compliments on it so far,” the son-in-law said. “And again, I hope he’s proud of it.”

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