• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Virginity or Perfidy: The Case Of Jared Kushner

June 2017

Jared Kushner is the Trump administration’s amaranthine boy-wonder. Always on the scene, he’s at once both omnipresent and unnoticed, conspicuous and laconic. In a gaggle of Goldman Sachs executives and military commanders, Kushner stands alone as the picture-perfect politician. He’s the unsullied white knight in a cabinet covered with soot. He’s the millennial who runs roughshod over his septuagenarian staff.

But it’s not just his aura that’s caused observers to take note. That same tall, lean, gracile frame that lends itself to magazine shoots looms large in the president’s eyes. That powerfully youthful, confident, toothless grin puts many a hostile actor at ease. He’s demure and disarming (perhaps disarming because he’s demure), but I warn you: do be careful when underestimating him—as you’re surely bound to do. Kushner, you see, is no fool. Each step along the path that’s ended in his father-in-law becoming president of the United States has enlarged his role. For Trump, Kushner’s become an indispensable advisor, a filial confidante, and a power-wielding plenipotentiary. How did he get there?

Democrats initially regarded Kushner—the son of a real estate mogul turned white-collar felon—to be an innocuous underling in the campaign. When President Trump took his office, this feeling largely remained the same. In some ways, Liberals saw themselves in him. Like looking in the mirror, they saw an urbane urbanite soaked in blue. Democrats were comforted in knowing where his wife and the president’s daughter Ivanka’s sympathies normally leaned. Her Liberal worldview was thought to inform if not conform with that of Kushner’s. This was a presumption, based on the fact that Kushner has been such a taciturn chap. No one really knew where he stood on the issues of the day. His history of recorded interviews or speeches is exceedingly sparse. For a man so well-endowed (his father’s business, Kushner Companies, was worth many millions of dollars, even after he was very publicly tried and imprisoned for tax evasion, witness tampering—which entailed him employing a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law—and illegal campaign contributions) this was an unusual thing. Democrats, therefore, were willing to give Jared the benefit of the doubt.

It seems though, that they gave Kushner this “benefit” in haste; their opinion of him has since soured as a more detailed picture of the statesman emerges. The Washington Post reported—and Fox News disputed—that in December of 2016, a short time before the inauguration occurred, Kushner met with the ambassador to Russia, Sergey Kislyak. Unlike Kushner, much is known of Kislyak and he needn’t an introduction (he’s the one who was captured chortling in the Oval Office with President Trump and holding undisclosed audiences with Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn—leading to the former’s recusal and the latter’s ouster). In talking with Kislyak, Kushner’s goal was to improve what had become the anemic communication lines between Washington and Moscow. While I agree that open dialogue and unfettered correspondence between the world’s leading nations is a worthwhile thing, Kushner went about it all wrong.

His proposal was to set up a clandestine, direct line connecting the two capitals east and west. Essentially, what he wanted to do was circumvent the normal and secure way in which America and her interlocutors (be they France, Russia, or Saudi Arabia) communicate. His idea was to construct a secret, unilateral line to link the two states. How does a line of communication come to be unilateral, you might ask? Kushner’s proposal was that any information sent from America to Russia would be inaccessible for review and hidden from oversight. In turn, responses coming from Russia to America would be open to the normal process of review.

To say the least, Kushner’s proposal seems a bit suspicious. To read it and think there’s nothing to hide requires a naiveté I’m unprepared to admit. An honest understanding of what Kushner’s after is this: his goal is to veil America’s output in secrecy and send what could be compromising or damning information to the Kremlin carte blanche. It’s a power-play without legs to stand on. In light of the ongoing investigation of his father-in-law’s potential indebtedness to Russia (financial or otherwise), this should be a major concern. It would be an inappropriate thing for any president to do, but for this one, especially so. Because of this, national security and honesty must take a seat behind the day’s more important political expediency.

The White House, for its part, was initially reluctant to respond to the story. It was published while President Trump was traveling abroad. His diplomatic discoursing demanded his time more than anything else. But since then, two surrogates—National Security Advisor McMaster and Homeland Security Chief Kelly—have spoken out in support of Kushner’s plan. Mind you, it’s a plan that both departments they head would consider unprecedented and subversive. McMaster said, “I am not concerned” (about the backchannel communication) and Kelly stated that this type of communication, “Doesn’t bother me” and “Is a good thing”. It’s difficult to imagine these Cold War hardened veterans saying such things.

We’re left now with two possibilities: the first is that Kushner’s attempt was one of political naiveté. Defenders of this position will say he doesn’t know the rules of the game. It’s that simple. Kushner comes from a world of concessions and deals to get things done where bureaucracy and precedents matter little. Understood as such, the defenders will condone him. Others, however, will assail him for being conniving and subversive, of knowing better but acting worse all the same. They’ll claim it’s not political virginity that guides his missteps, but a guileful perfidy. To them, Kushner is the epitome of a faux-naïf.

McMaster and Kelly’s comments have made the choice between these two verdicts harder. More than anyone else, they know the inter-workings of these processes and—more importantly—what how affective their employment can be. McMaster made the point that secret communication, albeit under much circumstances much different than those we’re discussing in regard to Trump, has been used to America’s advantage in the past. In what eventually culminated in the “Cuban Thaw” under President Obama, secret meetings between high-ranking American and Cuban representatives were held in Canada. As another example, the Obama administration conducted secret meetings with Iranian diplomats in the lead-up to the Iranian Deal in 2013.

Granted, whether or not you consider these negotiations (secret or not) to be “advantageous” is a matter of taste. One differentiation must be noted, though, when comparing Kushner’s backchannel to those of Obama. Obama covertly orchestrated these deals as the President of the United States and not as a private, unelected citizen advisor to the Commander-in-Chief. Even if Kushner acted under the full aegis of then president-elect Donald Trump, he still acted improperly as a private man.

The revelation of Kushner’s attempt has since piqued the FBI’s interest. The bureau will likely be investigating his meeting with Kislyak (a meeting he failed to disclose prior to Trump’s swearing-in) and an unconnected meeting he attended in 2014 with the head of a Russian-owned bank. Then as now, this bank was under American sanctions which would deem Kushner’s acquaintance with them potentially illicit.

Ever-ready with an excuse loaded at his lips like a bullet in a barrel, Kushner’s attorney dismissed all suggestions that his client acted mendaciously. He denied that Kushner intended to conceal his Russian meetings from the FBI and that the snafu was the result of an “administrative error”. Clerical errors undoubtedly abound, but at what point does their recurrence become disconcerting? Kushner is not alone in his failure to disclose his meetings with Russians. As I said, he’s among many, including Sessions, Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page, who also failed to disclose similar meetings.

That said, Kushner is now the newest person added to the FBI’s “Most-Wanted…Trump Administration Edition” list. In the coming months, investigators will learn if it really is just a coincidence of clerical errors and innocent mistakes or if there is something more nefarious beneath the surface. Is Jared Kushner the hapless product of political naiveté, or are his motivations mendacious? Is it statecraft virginity, or crafty and cunning perfidy? As is the case with Kushner, we simply don’t know.

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