Did James Comey’s passing mention of Jared Kushner at his gripping Senate hearing appearance speak volumes about the presidential son-in-law’s White House role?
Kushner has been trumpeted as a key moderating force on President Trump — but Comey’s testimony seemed to hint at a less-potent role.
The fired FBI director vividly described how Kushner seemed to linger after President Trump pointedly told everyone to leave the Oval Office so he could talk to Comey alone in a Valentine’s Day meeting.
Comey said he believed Kushner shared his trepidation that Trump might have been preparing to step over the line somehow.
“I don’t know Kushner well, but I think he picked up on the same thing,” Comey recalled as the nation watched on television. “So I knew something was about to happen.”
Indeed, after Kushner left the room, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump suggested to Comey that he should end the probe of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Comey said. That was perhaps the most damaging revelation for Trump to come out of the hearing that was billed as the most significant episode of political theater in years.
So why did Kushner not insist on staying in the room if he “picked up” on Trump about to step into a perilous legal and political position? The answer offers a fascinating glimpse into Kushner’s role.
It may be difficult to stand up to the president of the United States. Comey himself described in the hearing his regrets over not speaking out forcefully when Trump raised the issue of Flynn’s investigation with him.
“Maybe if I were stronger, I would have,” Comey said when questioned by Senator Diane Feinstein. “Maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance.”
As a family member and one the president’s closest confidants, to publicly signal dissent may be tricky. Kushner’s brand is built on loyalty to Trump and in order to maintain it, any dissent to the president apparently must be measured and limited.
Comey also dealt Kushner a separate blow when he trashed the White House adviser’s reported plan to set up a so-called “back channel” to Russia that American intelligence couldn’t monitor.
“You make it a whole lot easier for them to capture all of your conversations,” Comey said of the plan. “Then to use those to the benefit of Russia against the United States.”
The leaving Trump alone incident plays into an emerging pattern of difficulties and failures Kushner has encountered when trying to keep the president in line and maintain his own position as the moderating force in Trump’s White House.
As recent as last week, a plea by Kushner and Ivanka Trump to not drop out of the Paris climate accord fell on deaf ears. Trump deferred to opposite advise offered by senior strategist and Kushner’s main White House rival Steve Bannon.
It was Bannon’s populist America-centrist approached that prevailed again when Trump turned his back on NATO allies during his visit to Brussels and when he revived talk of issuing a travel ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries.
Kushner, according to reports, was a key player advocating the removal of controversial counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka from the White House. But here again he succumbed to a front led by Bannon convincing Trump to keep Gorka on staff.
And even more important, Kushner’s reported effort to keep Trump away from tweeting and to control the president’s public message, has also fallen flat.
Some had tried to argue that Trump was more prone to launching Twitter rants while Kushner is observing the Jewish Sabbath. But Trump has since stuck to his practice of speaking his mind on social media, despite repeated gaffes.
Regardless of any setbacks he might have experienced, Kushner has always stood up for the president even when his views or policy suggestion were rejected. When Trump announced the decision to withdraw from he Paris Accord, Kushner was there in the White House Rose Garden, showing his support to a decision he strongly opposed. (And walking to the White House after attending Shavuot services.)
“Since joining the White House, Kushner has never broken character in public,” wrote Trump’s biographer Michael D’Antonio at CNN. “He reveals no independent thoughts, feelings or voice.” Kushner, D’Antonio explained, is the symbol of loyalty to the president who made clear during the campaign that “family first” was his top priority and has since won the president’s confidence thanks to him being “a true Trump loyalist.”
Kushner’s standing in the White House is shaky at the moment. His designation as a “person of interest” in the Russian investigation has put him under pressure from both sides.
In far-right circles, pundits are singling Kushner out as the sole root of Trump’s problems. And on the left, Democrats are using Kushner’s investigation as a way to get at the president. American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC, released a digital ad coinciding with Comey’s testimony which focuses solely on Kushner and his ties with Russian officials, concluding with a call for an independent investigation commission.
As Comey’s testimony demonstrated, Kushner is not always the most powerful person surrounding the president and is clearly not one who can effectively stand up to him.
Ironically, it actually was Kushner’s advice that tilted the balance in one Trump decision: the fateful decision to fire Comey.
Kushner, according to reports, strongly supported the move and convinced Trump there would be no political consequences to the move. The Comey hearing may have definitively proved him wrong — in more ways than one.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman