The president empowered his son-in-law because he doesn't trust the foreign-policy establishment. But the establishment has a way of winning in the end.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Jared Kushner’s role in the Donald Trump White House has provoked heated criticism from Democrats and skepticism from an array of pundits. It has also given late-night comics, satirists, and the Twitterati plenty of free material. And at one level their responses are understandable: Not only does Kushner’s role reek of good old-fashioned nepotism, but it is frankly absurd to think a young real estate developer can possibly perform all the miracles his loving father-in-law has asked him to produce.
At last count, Kushner’s assignments include solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leading a “SWAT team” of private consultants that will reorganize and streamline the federal government, and serving as an informal presidential envoy to China, Iraq, and anywhere else Trump decides to send him. He also seems to have acquired the job of keeping Steve Bannon in check (or maybe getting rid of him entirely). Kushner hasn’t made his situation any easier by coming across like a spoiled rich kid who’d rather go skiing than govern. But he’d have his work cut out for him even if he combined the cunning of a Henry Kissinger and the political skills of a Lyndon Johnson.
Nonetheless, focusing on Kushner’s role strikes me as misplaced, because it’s not really about him. Rather, the real issue is what his outsized position tells you about the president he serves and about the nature of political life in Washington, D.C.
Let’s start by remembering something important about Donald J. Trump: He’s old. A 70-year-old man is not going to learn a lot of new management tricks or adopt a new leadership style at this late stage of life. By most accounts, Trump’s management approach has long relied on promoting rivalries among subordinates and demanding intense loyalty from a circle of trusted insiders (such as his sons and now his son-in-law). Given the success of his highly unorthodox presidential campaign, why expect Trump to operate differently now?
Furthermore, all presidents rely on the advice of intimate associates or advisors with whom they have close personal rapport (and, in some cases, family connections). Woodrow Wilson depended on his personal friend Edward House for advice on foreign affairs, even though House had no particular expertise in that area; indeed, for a time House had his own private living quarters in the White House. Franklin D. Roosevelt had Harry Hopkins, John F. Kennedy put his brother Bobby inside the Cabinet as attorney general, and Barack Obama relied on an inner circle that included Valerie Jarrett, Ben Rhodes, and several others with scant training or background in foreign affairs. Kushner may be unusually inexperienced, but he’s hardly the first person to achieve a position of political, and even diplomatic, prominence largely because of personal ties to a president.
Indeed, the “All in the Family” nature of the Trump White House has merely taken a long-standing trend to its logical conclusion. Presidential power has been growing steadily for decades now, and both Democratic and Republican presidents have tried to tame the federal bureaucracy by confining big decisions to a White House inner circle. This trend is especially true in foreign policy: the National Security Council has grown from a couple dozen people in the 1950s to more than 400 under Obama, thereby allowing the president’s inner circle to operate independently of other departments. Which makes it even more important to have loyal and reliable people in the inner circle.
The premium placed on loyalty is easy to understand when you think about how Washington works. As Mark Leibovich put it in This Town, his entertaining exposé of life inside the Beltway: “Everyone is now, in effect, a special interest, a free agent, performing any number of services, in any number of settings.” Because nearly everyone in D.C. is mostly looking out for themselves, presidents cannot even count on their own appointees to have their backs when the chips are down or when other opportunities beckon.
Just look at what happened to Obama. He retained Robert Gates as secretary of defense in 2009 and showered him with praise at his retirement two years later. What’s the first thing Gates does once he’s out of office? He writes a memoir taking Obama to task for his handling of key national security issues; I don’t recall George Marshall, Dean Acheson, or Brent Scowcroft doing that to the presidents they served. And after Obama appoints longtime Democratic Party insider Leon Panetta to head the CIA and the Defense Department, Panetta does exactly the same thing. He does his time, retires, signs a book contract, and sticks the knife in the back of the president who appointed him not once but twice. There’s gratitude for you.
My point is not that these criticisms of Obama were misplaced; my point is that in a culture where everyone is out for themselves, every president will place a very high premium on loyalty. This concern has to be even greater for Trump, because he’s a neophyte politician who has been scorned by most of the foreign-policy establishment — and especially by Republicans — and has no standing in the GOP and no network of political supporters. Under those circumstances, it is entirely understandable that he has fallen back on people whose loyalty is unquestioned.
Moreover, Trump’s entire campaign was based on the idea that existing governmental institutions were corrupt and ineffective and the mainstream politicians and government officials were all idiots (or worse). Well, if you believe that experienced officials are all corrupt and incompetent, then you might also believe a young real estate developer who happened to marry your daughter could do no worse. In other words, Kushner’s outsized role is also a direct reflection of Trump’s deep contempt for the U.S. government itself.
Indeed, Kushner’s role in the White House actually reveals a deeper problem: Trump doesn’t actually care if his policies work or not. He doesn’t care if health care is ever fixed, if the climate warms up and millions of people die, if coal miners or autoworkers get new and better jobs, if the Islamic State is ever defeated, or if U.S. infrastructure is rebuilt. All he cares about is whether he can convince people that he’s responsible for anything good that happens and persuade them that adverse developments are someone else’s fault. It has been apparent from day one that Trump cares first and foremost about himself, his family, and his fortune. Full stop. Doing the people’s business — that is, actually governing — is hard work, and it really cuts into the time you can spend on the golf course.
Not caring about getting anything done is also liberating: It means you can hire whomever you want, give them a thousand impossible things to do before breakfast, and then get back to correcting your slice. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Jared Kushner has a job in the White House that no one could possibly perform.
It’s also why you don’t see him devoting much time or effort to trying to resist the Washington foreign-policy establishment his father-in-law once so vociferously maligned, as evidenced by the recent humanitarian intervention in Syria and discussion of sending tens of thousands of ground troops there. It is entirely predictable that Kushner, and Trump, would abdicate to the Blob, since their stated political beliefs, even when they contained a glimmer of insight, were never moored by practical knowledge. The Trump family’s essential interest in the jobs they’ve acquired is personal vanity; they’re happy — indeed, obliged — to outsource those jobs’ other aspects.
But the fault ultimately lies not with Kushner (though a smarter person might have turned down the offer and concentrated on saving his own family’s business). The fault lies in the man from Mar-a-Lago.
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