When Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, touched down in Iraq on Monday, his visit to the critical Middle East country preceded more traditional trips by either the President’s secretary of state or his national security adviser.
Kushner's unusual journey to Baghdad – including a break with standard security protocol by the White House – also underscores the singular role he occupies within the West Wing.
In an administration riven by competing factions and led by a president who demands absolute loyalty, Kushner’s position – elevated and so far nearly untouchable – emanates from his familial relationship with the President, whom Kushner often refers to as “Donald”.
Kushner's portfolio has already grown to encompass slices of foreign policy (Mexico, the Middle East) and domestic issues (opioid addiction, veterans affairs), in addition to serving as the in-house mediator for the various feuding camps within the West Wing (the ideologues, the Wall Street guys).
As the key conduit of influence to his mercurial father-in-law, Kushner's position has also given him the freedom to act as a shadow secretary of state, setting up his own channels of communication with world leaders. Kushner will head back from Iraq, for instance, in time to join Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for two days of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which he helped facilitate.
But Kushner's outsize role has led to larger-than-life sniping and resentments, with rivals whispering that he has little depth and lacks the self-awareness to know what he doesn't know, and allies arguing that he has hired a team of top deputies, many from outside government. His entrepreneurial background, they say, is exactly what Trump meant when he promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington.
Kushner also comes with financial entanglements, with new disclosures showing that he and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have property and investment holdings worth as much as $740m (£593.70m). In perhaps the clearest sign of Kushner's penchant for multitasking, he had to resign from 260 boards and business entities simply to take a job in the White House.
Simply put: Kushner’s role and relationship with the President – neither chief of staff nor regular political adviser – come with no precedents.
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, compared the Trump-Kushner dynamic to “a mob family operation”.
“It’s as if Trump is the don and he only trusts his close family members,” Mann said. “There's no indication that experience in the real estate business prepares one for the tasks at hand. It’s the hubris of a businessman imagining he can run government just because he's a businessman. I don't know if Jared Kushner shares the hubris of his father-in-law, but he’s certainly willing to say, ‘Yes, sir.’”
Doug Wilson, a former assistant secretary of defence for public affairs in the Obama administration, seconded the notion that Trump's reliance on Kushner stems from the reality that “the group of people Trump trusts is really small.”
The trip to Iraq, at the invitation of Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is yet another example of Kushner’s mushrooming portfolio of ostensible responsibilities. Less than 100 days into Trump's presidency, the list includes Canada, China and Mexico; brokering a peace deal in the Middle East; helming a new office devoted to overhauling the federal bureaucracy; and serving as the unofficial West Wing therapist and Trump whisperer.
But the visit to a crucial country of US interest that Kushner had never visited before also serves to illustrate just how little foreign policy and governing experience the 36-year-old real estate heir has.
In a breach of protocol, senior White House officials confirmed Kushner’s trip to Iraq before he landed, raising concerns from the Pentagon. US military officials usually provide information about trips by senior officials under the condition, for security reasons, that the media not report them until the officials already have touched down in a country.
During his daily briefing with reporters Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer found himself insisting that Kushner had not, in fact, also added Iraq to his purview.
“I don't think to, sort of, then translate it into he's overseeing Iraq is an accurate assessment,” Spicer said.
Spicer said Kushner's role is in part one of delegation. “He has a team that he oversees,” Spicer said. “There is a team, depending on the subject, that is working with him. And he is providing oversight and direction.”
During the campaign, Kushner began quietly amassing power, acting as a jack-of-all-trades troubleshooter who, by the end, was basically the de facto campaign manager.
He also served as the primary point of contact with presidents, ministers and ambassadors from more than two dozen countries and quickly emerged as the phantom chief diplomat within the administration. In one remarkable moment in January, Kushner ushered the foreign minister of Mexico into the Oval Office, where the two men huddled with Trump to rework a speech the president was giving on US-Mexico relations later that day.
And late last month, the president announced that Kushner would lead a new White House Office of American Innovation, a team dedicated to streamlining the federal bureaucracy.
All of which has raised a somewhat uncomfortable question for the White House: If Kushner's wife, Ivanka, is perhaps the Trumpian embodiment of women having it all (three kids, a West Wing office, a polished public persona), can her husband actually do it all?
“He’s taken on a portfolio that is unprecedented in White House history,” said Paul Light, a professor at New York University who studies the presidency. “My experience is that somebody who has this much in his or her portfolio is not doing anything particularly well. They're going to flit in and out.”
It is, he added, “remarkable, unprecedented and unwise”.
Dennis Ross, a counsellor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former American envoy to the Middle East, said achieving peace in the Middle East – one of Kushner's many tasks – has bedevilled diplomats for decades.
“Given the reality of the state of relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the gaps between them psychologically have never been so great,” he said. “It will take a lot of diplomatic effort and done quietly.”
But, Ross added, in an arena where trust and relationships loom large, Kushner's direct line to the president is a valuable asset. He sees Kushner positioning himself more as a traditional secretary of state rather than a day-to-day negotiator.
“If he were to be the envoy, he has too many other things to do to fulfill that role,” Ross said. “But if his role is to be someone who intervenes at certain strategic moments, that's probably much more manageable, given all he needs to be doing.”
Nonetheless, Kushner’s ballooning portfolio has become something of a media punchline. After the innovation office was announced, the Huffington Post ran a story that imagined Kushner’s daily schedule under the cheeky headline: “White House Announces Jared Kushner Is Now Responsible For Everything.”
But White House aides and congressional staffers mock Kushner at their own peril, and some refuse to even speak about him. Kushner was instrumental in pushing out Corey Lewandowski, Trump's first campaign manager, and he also signed off on the ouster of Paul Manafort, Lewandowski's replacement.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said the best parallel he could think of was John SD Eisenhower, the son of President Dwight D Eisenhower, who served as a national security adviser during his father’s presidency.
“He was very helpful to the president in teeing up issues,” Naftali said.
But, he added, the comparison has its limits. “John Eisenhower had had a career in the US military and was an amateur historian, so he had some relevant background,” Naftali said.
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