One of the most confounding predicaments of the Trump era is how everyone is supposed to keep treating fundamentally unserious people seriously. Case in point: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Why, for example, is Jared on the television screen again, this time to brief the nation about the coronavirus? Why do we have to listen to Ivanka laugh along as she accepts false credit from her father for creating 15 million jobs? Of course, these are stupid questions because we all know the answer. Nepotism, duh. And yet, nepotism doesn’t even begin to explain what’s so galling about their presence.
For far too long, most of the media has given Jared and Ivanka a free pass. Maybe reporters hoped Jared and Ivanka would provide a friendly access point to the White House. Maybe some commentators thought the couple would serve as a moderating force upon the president. Maybe longstanding journalistic norms about presidents’ “children” being off-limits to close media scrutiny are somehow being applied to this 39-year-old man and 38-year-old woman. For whatever reason, Jared and Ivanka still don’t get the full criticism they deserve—a fact they use to full advantage. Their carefully crafted calm and cool public images are cheap plaster over unbridled greed and arrogance that leads them to keep assuming positions they have no business taking.
It was reported late last month that Vice President Mike Pence asked Kushner to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on coronavirus test kits and ventilator availability. Standing at the White House podium, Kushner delivered a message that was directly contrary to the very purpose of the Strategic National Stockpile he is supposed to be managing.
“The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.” He was wrong, but someone covered for him: Language on the Strategic National Stockpile website was stealth-edited to make what he said seem less wrong. So whose stockpile is it really? If it’s not for the states, who is it for? The fact that Kushner is the arbiter of such questions shows just how much trouble we’re in.
In his role as senior advisor to the president, Kushner’s so-called “portfolio”—which is said to include Iraq, China, bringing peace to the Middle East, building the border wall, veterans affairs, criminal justice reform, opioid addiction, government technology, and “reinventing” the entire federal government to make it more efficient—means he spends his time on whatever President Trump wants him to do. Kushner has no “lane.” He dabbles in everything while being accountable for nothing at all.
Then there’s Ivanka, who Axios reports is busy lobbying banks for billions. She is playing “a key role in negotiating small-business provisions in the new rescue bill being planned by the Hill and the White House.” Last year, President Trump said he thought about appointing her to the United Nations and offered her the top position at the World Bank because she’s “good with numbers.” She declined; why would she leave the White House where she’s at the center of all the action?
While Ivanka has taken plenty of other turns play-acting as a policy leader, whether it was touring the DMZ or overplaying her hand at the G20 with world leaders, those incidents were merely embarrassing, not necessarily consequential. This time, she’s got her hand directly in the middle of policymaking, business, and money. For the power-hungry, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Recall, neither Ivanka nor Jared has ever been elected or confirmed to any position. Neither has prior government experience (aside from Jared’s brief internship in the Manhattan D.A.’s office). Neither has subject-matter expertise in the policy fields they have been involved in. Yet, they now have a say in who gets life-saving medical equipment and to whom and how billions of dollars will flow. If you’ve been waiting to get worried about their roles, now would be the time to start.
How did we get here? Well, the only reason Jared and Ivanka are in the White House today is that President Trump’s Office of Legal Counsel reversed opinions it had given previous presidents, declaring that federal anti-nepotism statutes don’t apply to jobs in the White House office. Special exceptions for Jared and Ivanka are so standard that it actually would be more helpful to find out what rules do apply to them rather than not.
Together the couple, who a White House spokesman said are “sacrificing in their service“ to the country, earned somewhere between $28.8 million and $135.1 million in outside income from their various investments while working as White House advisors in 2018 alone. Their supporters often point out how they forgo government salaries, but that’s easy to do when their combined assets are worth as much as $786 million. Especially when they never really gave up their day jobs to begin with.
In the past, White House officials would divest from their businesses or place them in a blind trust to avoid any potential appearances of conflict of interest. Not this family. Trump simply handed off ownership of his global empire to his two eldest sons. Kushner similarly transferred some of his assets to his brother and into a trust put in his mother’s name. By and large, Jared and Ivanka continue raking in profits from their outside ventures, such as the Trump International Hotel just five blocks from the White House. Political supporters, lobbyists, foreign nationals, and anyone else seeking favor from Donald Trump frequent the establishment. On her most recent financial-disclosure forms, Ivanka reported earning $4 million from the hotel. To help that happen, the General Services Administration made a special constitutional emoluments exception for the Trumps to accept foreign money through the hotel.
But that’s not Ivanka’s only play. She was also nabbing Chinese trademarks as the Trump administration planned trade negotiations with the country. One of them was for a charitable organization—which is remarkable considering that the Trump family charity, of which Ivanka was a board member until 2017, was shuttered in 2018 after the New York attorney general launched an investigation into its improper activities. The attorney general said she found “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation—including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more. . . . This amounted to the Trump Foundation functioning as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.” The Trumps never apologized for their misdeeds. They simply shut it down, paid a $2 million court-ordered fine, and moved along like they always do.
And it’s not like their disregard for ethics stops with their accountants.
Despite the 2016 Trump campaign’s chants of “lock her up,” aimed at Hillary Clinton because she had conducted official work over personal email during her tenure as secretary of state, Kushner has done the exact same thing. And whatever happened to those secret WhatsApp messages he shared with his Saudi buddy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman anyway? You remember MBS: He’s the guy whom intelligence officials believe directed the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Kushner’s foreign-policy freelancing makes his wife’s Hatch Act violations and gaudy merchandise peddling seem trivial. But, there doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by where Ivanka isn’t flaunting some kind of privilege. She recently posted a video of herself asking Americans to follow social-distancing guidelines and stay home to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Do as Ivanka says, not as she does, though: She, Jared, and their kids violated Washington’s stay-at-home orders and went to the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey to celebrate Passover.
The human mind sometimes has a way of protecting itself from fully realizing how bad things are. “It isn’t such a big deal that they went to a family hotel for Passover, is it? Why should they have to give up their businesses? It makes sense that heirs like Jared and MBS would be friends!” Rationalize it all away. Part of the problem is that there are so many individual transgressions, big and small, that it’s impossible to keep track of everything without making it your full-time job. It’s easier to just put it all out of your mind. Maybe we don’t want to confront the brazenly unethical and illegal nature of these acts because it would mean our fundamental beliefs about fairness in America are slipping away.
However, it’s worth asking, as uncomfortable as it is, if our tacit acceptance of Jared and Ivanka’s blatant nepotism is paving the way for something worse.
In her new book American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power, journalist Andrea Bernstein argues that Jared and Ivanka are the products of multi-generational grift. She traces how both families have a long history of abusing the various tax, immigration, political, and legal systems to get ahead. But neither Jared nor Ivanka seems quite wealthy enough, competent enough, or capable of wielding enough political influence outside of Trumpland to properly earn the title of “oligarch.” That doesn’t mean they aren’t using their time in the White House to toy with the idea, though.
The defining feature of their joint operation involves putting on a nice face while Dad shoves and smashes all manner of norms. They’re Dr. Jekyll. He’s Mr. Hyde. But they’re all running the same game, and they’re all taking the winnings.
Before Trump, Jared did it for his father Charlie, who, like Trump, built a real estate empire and mired himself in various controversies along the way. The elder Kushner got rich—and he got sent to prison for tax evasion, making illegal campaign contributions, and witness tampering in a scandal that implicated the highest levels of the New Jersey government. When he got out of prison, Jared was there as the doting son to take over the management of his father’s company and rehab its image. And, with his father’s wealth, Kushner bought Observer Media and then, at the age of only 26, New York’s 666 5th Avenue building, valued at $1.8 billion.
Not that there’s anything wrong with having a rich father. The question is whether one’s rich father deserves quite the kind of loyalty and fealty that Jared and Ivanka give their fathers, when their wealth comes from dodging taxes, greasing the political system, seeking political favors, and flouting the rule of law.
Really, it’s no wonder why Jared and Ivanka fell in love, given their willingness to accommodate and cash in on so much wrongdoing from their fathers. They’re a match that could only be made in the New York City tabloids. It would be much better if they stayed had there. How they help Dad and how Dad helps them may be their business, but it shouldn’t be the country’s. Not unless, that is, we are willing to accept a government of, by, and for the Trumps.
Does anyone think Jared and Ivanka are going away once Trump leaves office—whether that’s after 2020 or 2024?