Elections

Who Runs the White House?

President Trump is enabling Jared Kushner to drive his chariot dangerously close to the sun. And if Kushner crashes, he will take Trump’s administration with him.

It is a grand thing to rise in the world,” said Anthony Trollope, an English novelist of the Victorian era. “The ambition to do so is the very salt of the earth.” But sometimes ambition is the mother of monsters.

A recent article in The Hill cited “multiple reports” and two mega-donor Koch network groups—Americans for Prosperity and the LIBRE Initiative—as evidence to paint Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, as an immigration hawk. It was a portrait to make him look as if he were about to swoop down and pluck worker visas from the leafage.

Jared Kushner is many things, but “immigration hawk” is not one of them.

On at least three occasions, Kushner undermined the president’s plans to restrict worker visa programs: once in 2017 and twice this year, when President Trump announced he would temporarily suspend immigration to the United States, and then again when the ban was revised.

Kushner was also working on an amnesty deal for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, intending to get it done before the November election. The Supreme Court’s decision to protect the program forestalls the need for such a deal, for now

It’s likely that interested parties—including Kushner’s perceived allies in the technology sector and the Republican business establishment—seeded the Hill’s story to ensure Kushner does not flinch in the face of growing criticism from voters. The private sector coalition utilized by Kushner to push his preferred policies intends to extract its pound of flesh. 

Wings of Feather and Wax

The president’s son-in-law rose from a quasi-campaign manager to transition team confidant and finally to senior advisor on Icarian wings.

Early on, Kushner swept Chris Christie from the helm of the transition team and purged anyone connected to the New Jersey governor from the nascent administration. Many believe the ouster was the result of an extended family fued. Christie was involved in the prosecution of Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, who pleaded guilty to 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal campaign donations. That Kushner’s father is a felon reportedly drives the son to pursue criminal justice reform. 

More important to Trump’s supporters should be that on issues ranging from immigration to criminal justice reform, Christie and Kushner did not see eye-to-eye. Christie’s exit naturally strengthened Kushner’s hand.

Kushner’s views are markedly different from the president’s; the former tends along the left-hand path while the latter harkens back to a kind of hard-boiled Americanism. Kushner, besides being a policy neophyte, sincerely believes that the progressive way is best. So, he had a vehicle created to drive the administration in that direction: the Office of American Innovation (OAI), established by Trump in March 2017 with Kushner behind the wheel.

The OAI appears redundant at first. The Domestic Policy Council (DPC), the Council of Economic Advisors, the National Economic Council, and other executive institutions perform the same functions. On paper, the organization merely solicits policy input from the private sector and “external thought leaders.”

The real purpose of the OAI, however, is not to complement other institutions but to outmaneuver them in pursuit of Kushner’s preferred policies. The government, he said, “should be run like a great American company.” The office is the vehicle with which he can “achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.”

To that end, Kushner uses the OAI to bring to bear a constellation of donors, activists, and private-sector all-stars who understand that the way to a lawmaker’s heart is through his wallet.

Chief among these groups is the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a think tank that receives significant funding from the Koch brothers and organizations they fund. Brooke Rollins was president and CEO of TPPF until joining the administration. First part of the OAI, she was later promoted to head of the Domestic Policy Council (DPC)—the principal forum used by the president for considering domestic policy matters.

The Koch family had little love for Trump during the 2016 campaign, but all that changed after a meeting between the two tribes in April 2017. The following year, Koch network groups such as TPPF, LIBRE, and others enjoyed direct access to the White House for various initiatives.

Leaving Populism Behind

TPPF and Kushner began work on what became the First Step Act through the OAI in early 2018 with the support of Right on Crime, a project of TPPF. Americans for Prosperity lauded him by name every step of the way.

The month following OAI’s first “listening session” on prison reform, Rollins left TPPF and joined the administration as a member of Kushner’s policy shop. Shortly after coming aboard, an administration source said Rollins worked with Kushner in the OAI to channel private sector pressure against Trump, forcing him to perform a reversal on his “zero-tolerance” policy border, a move that LIBRE advocated just days before Trump’s decision.

By late 2018, LIBRE was meeting in the White House with Rollins, Kushner, TPPF, and Koch Industries to discuss immigration reform. TPPF houses Right on Immigration—a group created to promote amnesty, so the partnership came easy. 

Just days after the Supreme Court’s DACA decision, a joint TPPF-Right on Immigration press release called for an amnesty deal that effectively would be a repeat of the failed 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Trump then disastrously gaffed during a July 10 press conference, claiming he would soon sign an immigration order that would “have a road to citizenship” for DACA beneficiaries. The administration ran damage control and attempted to explain away the comment—but this is an indicator of where the president’s mind is and of what is being discussed within the palace walls for the second term, the driving force of which is Kushner.

Naturally, LIBRE Initiative President Daniel Garza has lavished praise on Kushner for his immigration reform efforts. In one meeting with representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens, LIBRE, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Kushner pitched legal status for DREAM Act beneficiaries as a compromise to end the 2018-2019 government shutdown.

In April of this year, Kushner protected visa worker programs from Trump’s immigration ban. “Tim Cook won’t like this, Mr. President,” said Derek Lyons, one of Kushner’s confidants and the White House staff secretary, a position his former boss and mentor Brett Kavanaugh held during the George W. Bush Administration. Lyons received a promotion to counselor to the president while keeping his job as Staff Secretary. Rollins, too, was subsequently promoted to her post as director of the Domestic Policy Council. 

More recently, Kushner and his OAI ally, Chris Liddell, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination, protected the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. 

The OPT is a component of the F-1 visa program, enabling foreign nationals to study as full-time students in the United States. In practice, the program creates a pool of cheap labor that particularly harms the job prospects and wages of young Americans. More than a dozen college student organizations recently sent a letter to the president, imploring him to end the program because it undercuts their ability to find work even before they graduate. Liddell and Kushner successfully ensured OPT would remain untouched. 

“An administration official did not deny Kushner’s involvement and defended Liddell’s intervention,” Amber Athey reported in Spectator USA.

Friends and Foes

Rollins, Lyons, and Liddell are close allies of Kushner’s. The promotions of the former two were seen as consolidative efforts by Trump’s son-in-law, with Lyons in particular elevated as a check on Kellyanne Conway—someone Kushner dislikes and has been trying to oust for years. 

Kushner has been extremely effective at pursuing his goals through the OAI and its partners while neutralizing roadblocks. He recently urged the president to heap scorn on Jeff Sessions and endorse his opponent for the Republican Senate nomination in Alabama. Kushner reportedly hates no one more than Sessions, and the rub goes back to Sessions’ opposition to what became the First Step Act during his time in the administration. 

Just before Trump made nice with the Koch brothers, Mark Holden, the former senior vice president of Koch Industries, criticized then-Attorney General Sessions’ call for tougher crime sentencing. Not long after the initial Koch meeting, in what the Washington Post called “a departure from the administration’s focus on more punitive crime-fighting measures,” Kushner had Holden in the White House as part of a federal prison reform roundtable. 

Holden, who was open about his disagreement with Sessions, found common cause with Kushner in his push against the former attorney general. He praised Kushner for doing “an amazing job of leading” progressive reforms.

Neither Kushner nor his allies want Sessions in the Senate to push back on the second term agenda, and Trump appears willing to go along. The president was scheduled to hold a rally for Tommy Tuberville, Sessions’ opponent, in the stadium where the former attorney general joined Trump on stage in 2015 after being the first senator to endorse him. 

Tuberville is an establishmentarian’s dream. Taking aim at Tuberville’s media consultant, Rob Jesmer, Sessions explained in Alabama Today

I know Rob Jesmer well, he works at FWD.us. As far as I’m concerned, the Trumpian agenda has no greater opponent . . . than FWD.us. That’s the Mark Zuckerberg group that the President is complaining about today, rightly, that’s suppressing and manipulating free speech on the internet. It’s also the group that was the leading advocate to try and get Republicans to support the amnesty bills that I succeeded in blocking.

Though the rally was subsequently canceled due to concerns about the coronavirus, Trump has continued to attack Sessions and elevate his opponent in the days leading up to Tuesday’s Alabama primary.

The escalated feud with Sessions marks yet another win for Kushner. Still, it only drives the wedge deeper between him and Trump’s supporters who are willing to overlook Sessions’ time in the administration for his record on immigration and crime.

The administration must now grapple with discontent among voters who find Trump’s top personnel consistently opposed to the populist platform on which Trump campaigned. These criticisms from the base pose concerns for the administration as the election nears.

In 2015, the political scientist Lee Drutman of New America, a left-leaning think tank, calculated that in the United States, “populists”—defined as those in favor of maintaining or increasing Social Security spending, while maintaining or decreasing immigration—made up 40.3 percent of the electorate. Though he tapped into this bipartisanly neglected electorate to score an upset, Trump has allowed Kushner to move the administration away from its populist roots.

Kushner is beholden to the tech CEOs with whom Trump himself frequently rows. Whereas Trump promised not to touch Social Security, Kushner and his associates are champing at the bit to attack the program. Trump campaigned on reducing immigration, while Kushner advocates increasing levels of legal immigration. 

It was Kushner and his allies in the OAI who urged the president, against his instincts, not to deploy the military to aid police responding to the violence that ripped through American cities after George Floyd’s death, despite some 58 percent of registered voters being in favor of such a move—including pluralities of self-identified “liberals” and African American voters. 

Prospects for 2020

Although Trump reportedly regrets heeding Kushner’s advice about that, he continues to empower Kushner, who is now expected to play “an even more active role” in the president’s campaign, Politico reports

So long as Kushner holds sway in the administration, Trump’s supporters have no guarantee that tough rhetoric on the reelection trail will translate into a better second term—what substantial small victories have been scored on immigration, for example, have occurred only in the months leading up to November, effectively to placate an increasingly unhappy electorate until the election is over.

The base needs to prepare for a second term in which Kushner, perceived as the “genius” who secured the president’s reelection, will have even more clout to wind the sails of his ambition in the White House.

There is a myth about a father catastrophically indulging his son’s hubris, retold by Critias in Plato’s Timaeus. Once upon a time, “Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.” 

As November approaches, President Trump is enabling Kushner to drive his chariot dangerously close to the sun. If Kushner crashes, he will take Trump’s administration with him, and even if he doesn’t, the 2016 mandate may be dead on arrival after November.