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Meet Donald Trump’s ultimate fixer: his son-in-law

Jared Kushner, who married Trump’s daughter Ivanka in 2009, is now a powerful figure in US politics.

In October 2016, the New York Observer asked a panel of real-estate moguls, including the paper’s proprietor, Jared Kushner, a simple question: Hillary or Donald? Kushner, who had married Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka in 2009, responded with just two words – “Family first.” Now he has been named as a senior adviser to Trump, the incoming president of the United States.

As the candidate’s son-in-law, Kushner was a rare constant presence in the Trump campaign. On election night, after it became clear that Hillary Clinton would not win the White House, it was Kushner who took over his father-in-law’s mobile phone to screen the calls coming in for the new president-elect.

Jared Kushner was born in 1981 in New Jersey, the son of the real-estate developer and Democratic Party donor Charles Kushner. He went on to get a degree in sociology from Harvard in 2003. The investigative journalist Daniel Golden, in his 2006 book The Price of Admission, links a $2.5m donation that Charles Kushner made to Harvard University in 1998 with the acceptance of his son there the following year. Golden quotes a former official from Kushner’s school saying that his grades weren’t good enough for the Ivy League institution. (A spokeswoman for Kushner has denied this allegation.)

While at Harvard, Kushner made money buying and selling buildings, supported by his family’s fortune. His net worth is estimated at $200m. When he was 25, he bought the New York Observer for $10m, a move that helped him forge friendships with the likes of Rupert Murdoch. The paper’s print edition ceased production in November 2016.

In 2005, Charles Kushner was convicted on 18 counts of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering. He served part of his two-year sentence in a federal prison in Montgomery, Alabama, where his wife and son visited him every week.

Jared Kushner’s favourite book is Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the hero takes revenge on the enemies who wrongfully imprisoned him. For Kushner, it was the New Jersey governor Chris Christie whom he had in his sights. As a state attorney, Christie had prosecuted Kushner’s father. In December 2016, Christie was ousted as head of Trump’s transition team, reportedly at Kushner’s instigation.

Kushner practises Orthodox Judaism, and Ivanka Trump converted before their wedding. His grandparents escaped the Nazis, and his grandmother Rae was a founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Kushner and his wife, who have three children, keep the Sabbath, although Kushner broke this during the campaign, attending a crisis meeting at Trump Tower on a Saturday when an audio tape emerged of Trump boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy”.

Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, has been accused of allowing the website to run anti-Semitic articles. After allegations of anti-Semitism were made against Trump, Kushner wrote that his father-in-law was “an incredibly loving and tolerant person who has embraced my family and our Judaism since I began dating my wife”.

This support for Trump has come at a personal cost to Kushner. Friends from his liberal New York set have turned against him. In an interview with Forbes in December, he called this process an “exfoliation”. Kushner has said that going to rallies and meeting “ordinary Americans” helped him see Donald Trump’s appeal. At one rally, Trump spoke of his son-in-law’s new-found enthusiasm: “I actually think he likes politics more than he likes real estate.”

“Soft-spoken” is how Kushner is usually described, although a New York magazine profile claims that “his voice is just literally soft”, and sources say that his whispering conceals an aggressive manner. He is pale, slight and tall – a 2015 Vogue article said that both Kushner and his wife have “a kind of otherworldly, almost alien attractiveness, as if they’ve come from the future”.

In one sense, Kushner is the future. He is now a powerful figure in US politics, having met Boris Johnson, opened lines of communication with Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel and been instrumental in several Wall Street appointments to Trump’s cabinet.

Kushner and Ivanka are moving with their children to a $5.6m mansion in Washington, DC, so that he can work at the White House. It has been suggested that his new role contravenes a 1967 US federal law against nepotism in public appointments, but Kushner has said he will forgo a salary and is “committed to complying with federal ethics law”. Whether or not this law – originally passed in part because John F Kennedy nominated his brother Robert as attorney general – will prove to be an impediment remains to be seen.

What is certain is that Kushner’s fortune is built on his family’s real-estate empire, and now he has a job serving his father-in-law. Nepotism or not, his rise is a triumph of “family first”. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear