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Jared Kushner’s memoir is all about forgiveness — but he’s not asking for ours

‘Breaking History’ is a hefty airbrush of the Trump administration

Breaking History: A White House Memoir
By Jared Kushner
Broadside Books, 512 pages, $35

After reading his memoir, I almost feel bad for Jared Kushner.

I can almost get myself to buy into his excuses — the ones he makes for his father, his father-in-law, himself — and hang my head over his sad resignation that he is an “irresistible target” for public scorn just for wanting to improve his country. I can almost wince over his acute feeling that he was “trapped in a Franz Kafka novel, the victim of a bizarre, opaque, and irrational bureaucracy.”

And then I remember what he’s talking about. He predicted he’d be in the crosshairs for taking a leadership role in the government’s COVID-19 task force. His Kafkaesque ordeal? That was when the FBI had to redo his security clearance in the midst of a probe over Russian collusion during the Trump campaign. 

It would be easier to sympathize with Kushner if I took him at his word. Or, better yet, had Kushner been qualified for his fathomless West Wing portfolio and not, as a reader should remember while poring over the nearly 500 self-congratulatory pages of “Breaking History: A White House Memoir,” just there because his father-in-law was the president.

Kushner dismisses concerns of nepotism. In fact, he says that his son-in-law status was an advantage while dealing with similar political dynasties like the Erdoğans in Turkey and the Saudi royal family. Somehow he misses why these “family businesses” may not be the best model for the U.S., or maybe he just doesn’t care.

That’s because, above all else, Kushner is out to prove what he believes so many in the media missed or wilfully distorted: that the ostensible chaos, scandal and mismanagement of his father-in-law’s term was in fact an unconventional and effective way of doing business. (Anyone who says otherwise is a liar or leaker!)

Trump was a “calculated risk-taker and dealmaker who wanted to disrupt the ways of the past and change the world.” His “bombast on Twitter belied his cool and calm demeanor behind the scenes.” His many gaffes on the international stage were “classic impromptu remarks” designed to put other world leaders “off-balance.” 

While the president’s management style sometimes clashed with Kushner’s more deliberative way of working, the writer tells us that for both men the unorthodox was the friend of progress. Notably, Kushner’s challenge of the established assumptions about achieving peace in the Middle East (he handily provides us a chart of the decades-long process complete with graphics of doves and tanks) led to the Abraham Accords — and a rare “attaboy” from Trump. 

“Maybe in the future, more presidents will haze their sons-in-law with impossible problems,” Kushner writes. You can argue with the methods, but not with the results, he says, all the while seeking our approval, and that of his father figures.

Kushner’s long journey toward public service kicks off with a low point: the arrest of his father Charles, a billionaire real estate developer whose 2005 conviction upended his family’s lives and set his son up for a lifetime of feeling persecuted and instilled in him the value of forgiveness. 

The way Kushner tells it, Charles’ business partner brother and brother-in-law betrayed him by going to the government “alleging mismanagement and illegal avoidance of taxes.” In the understatement of the century, Charles “had gone too far in seeking revenge” when he hired a sex worker to seduce his uncle and provide his sister Esther with the tape of their encounter. For some reason, Kushner makes this “revenge” seem like the sum of Charles’ criminal activity. Which is kinda strange, because Charles also pleaded guilty to the “alleged” tax fraud and for lying to the Federal Election Commission about political contributions to Democratic candidates. (Perhaps that last detail was elided to address the younger Kushner’s anxiety about being labeled a “liberal.”)

While Kushner was “angry” at Charles, he nonetheless goes out of his way to paint his sentence as a grand injustice. The good news is that this experience led both to Kushner’s epiphany — while riding a 6 train all the way to the Bronx! — that “everyone has difficulties” and, with time, some meaningful criminal justice reform under the Trump administration. One might say that Kushner lacks some empathetic imagination, rallying most strongly for policy that impacted his life personally. That hunch is confirmed a few pages later, when Kushner tells us that “Kushner” was not always the family name.

His paternal grandparents, survivors of the Holocaust, applied to come to the U.S. using Kushner, his grandmother’s last name, since his grandfather Joseph Berkowitz “had a rap sheet from smuggling cigarettes” into a displaced persons camp “to provide for his family.”

A couple of chapters later, Kushner admits he was shocked that, when Trump announced his candidacy, people were appalled by his comments that Mexico sends “rapists” and “criminals,” to the U.S. Evidently, the “controversial line” was a paraphrase of a Customs and Border Protection officer’s characterization of the people pursued at the border. Kushner apparently didn’t stop to wonder how a customs agent in the 1940s might have characterized his own grandfather with a “rap sheet.”

But just in case you thought Kushner, whose refugee relations came to the U.S. for a better life, was some kind of hypocrite, he lets us know that immigration was outside of his and Ivanka’s purview when children were being separated from their parents under the “zero-tolerance” policy. As for Donald Trump, he wasn’t “getting the full picture from his leadership team” about this blot on his presidency. Once Ivanka raised it with him, we’re told, he signed an executive order. (What Kushner doesn’t say is that Trump blamed Congress and previous administrations for the policy, and subsequently separated hundreds more children from their families, citing convictions of parents for crimes as minor as the possession of a small amount of marijuana.)

Trump, by the way, is a victim like Charles Kushner. He is not a racist, Kushner insists as he breezes by the “out of context” remarks about there being fine people on “both sides” of the Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally (that episode is barely mentioned, ditto the Tree of Life shooting, and practically the only one accused of antisemitism in the book is Mahmoud Abbas). Trump did nothing wrong vis a vis Russia. And his call with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy? While Kushner doesn’t go as far to call it “perfect,” he pooh-poohs it as “Trump being Trump.” About that election challenge — well, Kushner says Giuliani made Trump pursue those 60-plus lawsuits. Jan. 6? We hardly get into it.

Kushner’s tendency to cover for Trump gels with a regular refrain of the book: a rather strained quality of mercy. After the “Access Hollywood” tape leak, Kushner says his experience with his father’s incarceration taught him “forgiveness means not defining people based solely on their past transgressions.” Kushner says he was ready to forgive Sudan for abetting al-Qaida in the past because “too often in diplomacy we allow sins from the past to prevent opportunities for change.” Later, before boarding the first commercial flight from Israel to the UAE, he says in a speech that “the future does not have to be predetermined by the past.” 

It makes you wonder, as the book ends with Ivanka and Jared handling last-minute presidential pardon calls, and as the publication date coincides with the former president’s increasing legal peril, if this line of thinking is wishful. Kushner’s airbrushed account of the recent past is both an attempt to move on and, in its insidious, smug way, to rewrite history.

But that also may be overthinking it. In the end, Kushner, despite his protestations, just wants credit. I’ll give him this much: he certainly stayed busy. Like his father-in-law, he changed the way politics operated. He may have even done some good and defied the skeptics. One thing he doesn’t ask for in this unapologetic slog is forgiveness for himself.

That would require him to admit he did something wrong, which — unlike peace in the Middle East, trade, criminal justice reform, COVID-19 response and more — is, at last, too much to ask.

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