This article was originally published in Politico Magazine.
When Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, made a surprise trip to Iraq earlier this week, the ensuing freak-out was all premised on one glaring rhetorical question: Is the Trump White House being run like a family business?
Less asked, though no less important, is a follow-up: Would that be a bad thing?
I do not know Kushner, and have met Ivanka Trump only twice in passing, years ago while in Trump Tower visiting her father. But I’ve known Donald Trump since 2004, when he called me on the phone after seeing my criticisms of The Apprentice’s depictions of corporate leadership. In the years since, we’ve remained in touch.
In late December, when I talked with then-President-elect Trump, he reflected great pride in the loyalty of his presidential transition team. I, perhaps unwisely, was the skunk at the lawn party, breaking his cheerful spirit and cautioning him that as they migrated into the White House, some of the members of his team were importing mixed motives which were not always in alignment with his priorities. Some of these people were opportunists driven largely by their own agendas and cozied up to him in sycophantic ways. I suggested something he surely already knew: The people on his team he could most trust were his family members.
Sure, family businesses have role conflicts, succession struggles, and sibling rivalries—and the world’s most admired democracy and economy is hardly a mom-and-pop operation. At the same time, we’ve welcomed multiple Bushes, Roosevelts, and Adamses in the White House without acting out the pathologies of All in the Family.
Yet there is skepticism. According to a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult survey, only 40 percent of Americans approve of Ivanka Trump working as a special assistant to the president. Though the announcement that she’ll occupy an official federal employee role was met with some outrage, it pales in comparison to the scorn that has been lobbed over the kaleidoscope of vital responsibilities forked over to her husband, adviser Jared Kushner.
Without doubt, Kushner is the busiest person in Washington. His daunting portfolio includes huge chunks of both foreign policy and domestic policy: diplomatic relations with Mexico and Canada, strife in the Middle East, key trade deals, government efficiency, overhauling the Veterans Administration, combating opioid abuse, and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, among other formidable responsibilities.
It’s an astoundingly wide assortment—one that has, accordingly, been met with derision by comedians, pundits and journalists alike. It’s been a busy time for President Trump, late-night comedian Stephen Colbert recently quipped: “Every day, he gets to work, rolls up his sleeves, and gives a new job to Jared Kushner.” “Dennis Rodman has more foreign policy experience than Jared Kushner,” snarked Jimmy Kimmel.
The family affair in the Trump White House is mocked by political pundits and comedians who complain that it’s a sharp departure from the U.S. system and American values. But it’s a more familiar model than is appreciated—and one with some promising elements.
By virtue of their close relationship with the president, Jared and Ivanka are able to speak truth to power without fear of suspect motives. This is a major advantage of family enterprises. The great merchant banking families were able to cover the globe, operating in distant seaports, with primitive communication and painfully slow transportation by dispatching family members as their emissaries in these far off lands. With shared values, deeper bonds of trust, greater respect for risk taking, and longer time frames, family dynastic wealth has been a huge force in the success of global enterprises. Today, companies like Ford, Wal-Mart, Mars Inc., and Campbell Soup still benefit from large family stakes and faith in the mission of the enterprise.
In the Trump White House, the blowback from the failure of health care reform, the immigration visa ban and other such mishaps did not escape follow-up scrutiny from the family, even as other staff members may try to elude their own roles and responsibilities. It is no coincidence that on Monday, Kushner flew to Iraq with General Joseph Dunford, one of the most respected uniformed officers to ever lead the Pentagon, despite Kushner’s pressing need to prepare for the Chinese delegation arriving in the U.S. days later. Kushner and President Trump knew that they needed to learn from this brilliant, honest, objective military superstar. The subsequent and immediate reformulation of the National Security Council restored the full membership of Dunford, CIA chief Mike Pompeo and the National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, while nixing the controversial role of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
The Kushner influence was on display this week, just as it was when it came time to change out the roles of top campaign advisers Roger Stone, Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort, or national security adviser Michael Flynn—let alone the selection of Mike Pence as Trump’s running mate over Chris Christie (who as a U.S. Attorney years earlier, had prosecuted Kushner’s father). The Trump White House is being managed like a family business, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
This is not to say that family business management dynamics do not often suffer from complex role conflicts. In Kushner/Trump case, these conflicts include potential ethical conflicts of interest, as well as tensions between professional duties and family roles.
As the son-in-law of Trump, Kushner—with his own and his wife’s business empire of $740 million in real estate, retail jewelry, hotels, etc.—is under significant scrutiny. Just like other federal employees, both Jared and Ivanka are required by law to abide by transparency and ethics rules, and thus prohibited by taking any actions which enrich their personal financial situation. Kushner’s wide range of involvement in trade policies, tax reform and financial regulations could easily impact their real estate holdings and other interests.
While Jared and Ivanka have divested from many of their most easily conflicted investments and enterprises, there are endless potential triggers. For example, Kushner’s past involvement with any Chinese state-owned enterprises is complicated by the reality that he now works with top Chinese leaders with influence over those enterprises. This will require close guidance with the Office of White House Counsel, the Office of Government Ethics, and outside counsel. Wisely, Jared and Ivanka have already hired Jamie Gorelick, a Clinton administration deputy attorney general and expert on legal ethics, to help guide them through the thicket of conflict-of-interest laws.
As with a family business, guidance on how to handle the conflicts between professional duties and family roles is less easy. Jared and Ivanka are observant Jews and do not work on the Sabbath, spending the time with their family instead. In a 24/7 decision-making environment, this leaves the stretch from Friday evening through Saturday evening without their voices—even during times of crisis or when world leaders are visiting. Even family vacations are fraught, as was apparently the case when Jared and Ivanka took their children on a ski trip to Aspen during the closing days of the negotiations over health care reform. The trip was rumored to trigger Trump’s frustration and the resentment of Kushner’s White House colleagues.
The resentment of other aides is likely to only mount should there be a major strategic disagreement or personality clash with other senior Trump administration officials, and there is a risk of unrest over charges of favoritism winning out over merit in key internal debates. Family businesses often struggle with the “blood is thicker than water” loyalty dilemmas.
Similarly, termination, severance and other exits are hard concepts in family work setting because unless there are divorces or people are disowned, it is hard to be fired by the family. The long, unsavory battles between Jared’s father and uncle are a reminder just how emotional family disputes can be with irrational spillover to other settings making problem resolution and moving on to other topics more difficult. Should Jared want to quit, that may not be easy, given his father-in-law’s reliance upon him. And should there be tension in the Jared/Ivanka marriage, it would have pronounced consequences for Jared’s role in the Trump White House.
In the New York Times earlier this week, columnist Frank Bruni warned that Kushner’s White House influence “exemplifies the degree to which Trump not only prizes the fresh eyes of people from outside of politics, which is sensible, but downright fetishizes them, which isn’t.”
Now wait, haven’t we heard this resentment of outsiders before? It’s a charge that almost every new president faces. Bringing aboard youthful leaders with fresh, outsider perspectives as trusted top presidential advisers may have a mixed history of success, but critics may not realize that Kushner is not younger or less experienced than many prominent presidential advisers throughout history.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton’s senior adviser Rahm Emanuel, communications director George Stephanopoulos, and press secretary Dee Dee Myers were very talented. But they were also incredibly young—just 33, 32 and 31, respectively—a bit younger than the 36-year-old Kushner, and similarly lacked executive-branch experience. Mack McLarty, Clinton’s chief of staff, was somewhat older at 46, but had never worked in Washington—his professional background was in the truck-leasing business—and got his coveted White House position largely because he was a friend of Clinton’s dating back to kindergarten.
During the early days of the Clinton administration, William Safire of the New York Times complained about this kiddie crusade of unknown youngsters in the White House—staffers who dressed casually with pizza boxes strewn around as they worked on policy, dismissively referring to Stephanopoulos as “George Stuffing Envelopes.” The Agenda, Bob Woodward’s chronicle of Bill Clinton’s first term, likened the administration’s overlapping duties and decision-making roles to a bunch of schoolchildren all chasing a soccer ball down the field. It’s not exactly an endorsement of the setup, but at least a reminder that the disorganization of a young presidency isn’t an altogether new phenomenon.
Prior to Clinton, the last Democrat to inhabit the White House was Jimmy Carter, whose close-knit set of campaign aides—dubbed the “Georgia Mafia”—moved into high positions in his administration without any experience in national politics. Hamilton Jordan was 33 when he served as Carter’s chief of staff, as was Jody Powell when he began his tenure as a senior adviser and press secretary to the president. And yet, despite their lack of experience, both wielded influence and broad portfolios that overshadowed the members of Carter’s Cabinet.
Nor is it unprecedented for a president’s top aides to form a bubble around the Oval Office, as some have charged Trump’s aides with doing. Such was the case with President Richard Nixon’s inner circle of advisers, especially chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and chief domestic adviser John Ehrlichman, whom fellow White House staffers jointly referred to as “The Berlin Wall,” given their German names and predilection for isolating Nixon from outside influence. Even President Nixon, a man who had served eight years as vice president and six years in Congress, had inexperienced outsiders as aides: Ehrlichman was a land-use attorney who had never worked in government prior to becoming White House counsel in 1969, nor had 30-year-old Pat Buchanan nor 39-year-old William Safire, both Nixon advisers and speechwriters.
Some complain about the breadth and ambiguity or Kushner’s roles. The Washington Post labeled Kushner a “shadow secretary of state,” quoting career diplomats complaining that his broad portfolio is unprecedented in U.S. history. Of Kushner’s status at the helm of American efforts in the Middle East, Henry Kissinger told POLITICO’s Annie Karni in February, “It’s not clear to me in what way he’s in charge of it, whether he’s in charge of it with supervision from the White House, or whether he’s supposed to be the actual negotiator. Nor has it been defined what they’re negotiating about.”
Who would have thought we would need to remind the renowned Henry Kissinger, as he approaches 94, that he too was, in some ways, a minister without a portfolio during the Nixon administration, launching historic initiatives as varied as opening relations with the People’s Republic of China, ending the war in Vietnam, and detente with the Soviet Union before he was even secretary of state. Nixon’s actual secretary of state, the suave, connected William Rogers, was frozen out of such key policy arenas and left in the dark, completely eclipsed by Kissinger until eventually Nixon asked him to resign.
Perhaps even more astounding is the model of Harry Hopkins, a top adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who actually lived in a bedroom in the second floor of the White House, which would certainly rival Jared and Ivanka for proximity to power. Hopkins, a onetime social worker who organized New York relief programs, was given a professional portfolio easily as broad as that of Kushner. Without any formal congressionally approved roles, Hopkins supervised the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civil Works Administration, the massive Works Progress Administration, and the vital Lend-Lease program, through which the U.S. supported its wartime European allies with food, oil and material in exchange for land for military bases the U.S. still holds today. In the 1940s, he forged new relations with the Soviet Union and China in the early 1940s, and FDR enlisted Hopkins’ support in meetings with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in Cairo, Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta. It was widely accepted that Hopkins, like Kissinger, had more sweeping power than the entire bureaucracy of the U.S. State Department.
It is also worth remembering that, as in business, the wisdom of experienced advisers and scholarly experts can be dangerously overstated as well. In 2001, when President George W. Bush named Donald Rumsfeld secretary of defense, Rumsfeld was perhaps the most experienced man in Washington—a former congressman who became an adviser to President Nixon, ambassador to NATO, chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, and Ford’s secretary of defense. But his distorted and arrogant style alienated virtually everyone in the Pentagon and many of his Cabinet peers, until he was dismissed after the mishandling of the Iraq War and its aftermath. David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest brilliantly documents the misguided foreign policy forged by academic experts in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the catastrophic consequences of those policies in the ill-fated Vietnam War. Likewise, Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision and Irving Janis’ GroupThink reveal the disastrous tunnel vision thinking of career State Department officials leading up to the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
This is not to diminish the work of experts, nor to suggest that they should be ignored. Rather, perhaps it is time for nostalgia for the clubbiness of the best and the brightest to be left in the library shelves and not the corridors of the White House.
Perhaps, too, it is time to stop the needless bomb-hurling at Kushner, a trustworthy, objective, smart, fresh voice working in the national interest, who unlike some of his colleagues in the White House, appears to work effectively and quietly with real facts and analysis rather than with public pronouncements, tweets, “alternative facts,” or threats.
Thus far, Kushner has not squandered his trust with bravado or recklessness—a temptation that a senior adviser to an earlier head of state spoke to quite eloquently. Trust is as fragile as a liquid cupped in your hands, warned Thomas More, adviser to King Henry VIII: Once you separate the fingers, it is forever gone.