In the family business that passes for this White House, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have acquired seats at the grown-ups’ table, with offices steps away from the Oval Office, portfolios that seem to grow by the day and unparalleled access to the levers of power.
To cite a recent New York Times story, they “have emerged as President Trump’s most important advisers, at least for now.”
And surely the most unqualified ones to ever hold such august positions.
But that last part doesn’t seem to matter. Because beyond everything else — the astonishing conflicts of interest and the continued, brazen self-enrichment — these two represent the end of any expectation that expertise is required for government work. Even in a Cabinet that is viewed as the most inexperienced in American history, the president’s daughter and son-in-law stand out for having neither the knowledge nor the experience to reasonably pursue any of the many missions they have been given.
They have never sought or held public office, never worked in the civic sphere, never served in the military, never helped craft policy, never made their own name or their own millions — never done anything, really, but follow in the footsteps of their rapacious fathers and build on what they were bequeathed.
It’s as if the long American attraction to anti-elitism has landed in a most unlikely place: the laps of two extremely privileged 30-somethings with Instagram-ready smiles and unparalleled family connections.
The fact that Trump and Kushner are arguably the most important Jews in America right now only makes this more cringe-worthy. The denigration of expertise they represent defies Jewish tradition that values learning and the wisdom that accrues with age and experience. The wealthy may call most of the shots in our community, but it’s the learned who remain revered.
That, however, is not how many other Americans feel. The Pew Research Center found that the public views elected officials as dishonest and selfish — and that was in 2015, before the dishonest and demonstrably selfish Trump administration rose to power.
“Most people do say the term ‘intelligent’ describes elected officials very or fairly well (67%),” the study concluded. “However, just as many view the typical American as intelligent. And when asked if elected officials or ordinary Americans could do a better job of solving the nation’s problems, 55% say ordinary Americans could do better.”
Of course, intelligence and expertise are no guarantee that government will act smartly and competently. After all, the country’s “best and brightest” brought us wasted wars in Vietnam and Iraq; repeated failed attempts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; no end to persistent poverty or to the epidemic of drug abuse.
But only an arrogant, uninformed leader would believe it wise to appoint people without specialized knowledge, people with questionable skills, to run major federal departments. Even worse, only such a leader would place a neophyte like Kushner in charge of negotiating Middle East peace, ending the opioid epidemic, mending ties with Mexico and China, reforming care for veterans and the criminal justice system. Oh, and reinventing the entire government.
And only a President Trump would allow someone like his daughter to navigate essential relationships with significant foreign leaders just because she has experience hiring people who hired people to produce her shoes in factories beyond America’s shores.
“Government is like any other profession — it requires expertise,” Norman Eisen, a former ambassador who worked on the Obama White House transition team, told The Huffington Post. “I don’t think you’d want that gang, if they had a similar lack of expertise in surgery, operating on you with that level of medical experiences. And the same is true in government.”
The result would be merely embarrassing if the stakes were not so high. A recent Vanity Fair article revealed that when Kushner was first asked to speak more substantively about China — one of his many portfolios — he had to hightail it to Amazon to find an expert, whom he then called out of the blue. He apparently did the same cold calling when asked about crafting tax policy.
Could that be why the president has flip-flopped on China and failed to produce a tax reform bill, as promised?
And there’s more from Vanity Fair: During the campaign, Kushner also tried his hand at speech writing: “Responding to criticism from the boss (‘Jared, this is terrible!’), Kushner said, according to a person familiar with the episode, ‘I’m not a f—king speechwriter. I am a real-estate guy.’”
Yet this real estate guy is, in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper, “in charge of the world, apparently.”
The irony is breathtaking. “What’s interesting here is that Trump painted experts as elites, as a rich and out of touch class that was ruining the lives of ordinary Americans. This is what really resonated with working-class voters,” Tom Nichols, who just published “The Death Of Expertise,” told the Forward by email. “And yet, he’s delegating a lot of policy to people like Kushner, who in any other context would be exactly the kind of hyper-privileged young man Trump voters would loathe.”
And those voters may loathe the couple someday. There are consequences for presidents who surround themselves with close relatives. A 1967 anti-nepotism law was enacted in response to President Kennedy’s appointment of his brother Bobby Kennedy as U.S. attorney general. And President Clinton paid a stiff political price for putting his wife in charge of health care reform.
But both Bobby Kennedy and Hillary Clinton were lawyers with extensive backgrounds in government. By contrast, Kushner and Trump know how to build and sell shiny objects, largely with other people’s money.
Yet here they are, federal employees, supposedly working on behalf of us all, in the strange and dangerous position of claiming expertise where none, in fact, exists.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.