When the Trump team arrived at the White House last year, many liberals and moderates – though you’d be hard-pressed to get them to admit it now – took some comfort in knowing that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump would be close by the new president’s side.
It wasn’t simply about politics, either. Yes, Ivanka was expected, for whatever reason, to act as some kind of check on her father’s cruder instincts. And sure, Kushner is the son of a once prominent Democratic donor. But their underlying promise, like a boardroom pitch, was something harder to pin down. It was more of a look, that modicum of composure. It was something like … competence.
Whether one considered the pair successful on the merits is beside the point. Both had emerged from troubled but rich families to establish, it seemed, functioning businesses of their own. Ivanka’s lifestyle brand was a mainstay online and in some large department stores, while Kushner had taken over his father’s real estate business – the root of his most pressing current concerns – after the latter was jailed years ago. As President Trump himself might have put it, they looked the part.
These were thin reeds to grasp, of course, but they were gripped all the same.
Some 13 months later, as Kushner’s standing in the White House corkscrews and the notion of Ivanka’s moderating influence over the President is all but evaporated, those sunny hopes – and they belonged, in fairness, to anxious establishment Republicans too – have given way to still more clouds over Trump era Washington.
Kushner’s troubles began, though we didn’t know it at the time, before Trump took office, when he saw fit to attend the now infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who claimed to peddle dirt on Hillary Clinton. After arriving in Washington, and being handed an almost comically large policy platter, his background check didn’t check out and he’s been working ever since with an interim clearance. When chief of staff John Kelly launched a security clearance crackdown in the midst (or is it the aftermath, now?) of the scandal surrounding former staff secretary Rob Porter, Kushner came into his crosshairs.
Last week, Kelly busted Kushner down from a “top secret/sensitive compartmented information” interim clearance to a merely “secret” one. Now a source tells CNN that Kushner is feeling at sea, a marked man confused by his diminished role. His question for colleagues: “Why is John Kelly doing this?”
Perhaps it’s a rhetorical point. Who knows. His repeated failures to fully and accurately fill out a security clearance form couldn’t have helped his cause. His lawyer says he’s gone above and beyond at this point. Nor did Kushner’s initial explanation – that a trigger-happy assistant accidentally submitted unfinished documents – inspire a ton of confidence in his management skills. Nor has the administration’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem done much to advance his big Middle East peace project.
His disappearance, along with Ivanka Trump and the family, at critical (or embarrassing) moments at the outset of Trump’s presidency also helped replace the ideal of the couple with a kind of slapstick. As an early Obamacare repeal effort sputtered on Capitol Hill, they turned up in the mountains, quite literally, of Aspen, Colorado, on a ski trip. They were away too, in Vermont, when Trump imploded following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The list goes on.
Add that slow burn to the much more serious news, reported by the Washington Post on Tuesday, that four foreign governments have been chatting, independently and idly so far as we know, about how they might take advantage of Kushner’s combination of complicated business interests, financial troubles and political naivete, and it’s hard to imagine any imminent reversal of fortune. Rather than a shrewd, well-manicured hand to guide Trump’s operation, Kushner is now more widely viewed as a legal liability. Those concerns were compounded on Wednesday, when the New York Times revealed that the family real estate firm had secured a couple of mega-loans after Kushner took White House meeting with lenders. (A spokesman for his lawyer and another, for Kushner Companies, denied any connection between the talks and subsequent deals.)
Ivanka Trump’s troubles have been less serious and less public, but perhaps more surprising. Throughout the 2016 campaign, and for years before that, she presented as the conscience and class of the Trump family brand. Not everyone bought in. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum was among those spotted out the cracks early on, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland that summer, when she wrote about the future first daughter’s “weaponized graciousness.”
As if to prove Nussbaum’s point, Trump said at the time, “Look, if I have kids that like me that much, how bad could I be, right? And they love their daddy.”
But the reality of Ivanka Trump’s current position, nebulous though it may be, has been more complicated. She helped Sen. Marco Rubio make the case for adding a modest child tax credit to the GOP’s 2017 tax plan. But when came time decide the future of the Paris agreement, she was sidelined. Alas, she has emerged as a walking, talking reminder of why nepotism is generally considered a bad thing. More to the point, her efforts to parry questions that get at the underlying problem have fallen consistently flat.
Asked in April 2017 about a Saturday Night Live sketch that labeled her “complicit” in the White House’s policy and operations, Ivanka pleaded ignorance. Not simply to the administration’s troubled launch, but the word itself.
“If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit,” she told CBS News. “I don’t know that the critics who may say that of me, if they found themselves in this very unique and unprecedented situation that I am now in, would do any differently than I’m doing.”
In some other time, in some other job or position, the conversation might have ended there. But her proximity to power, and the promise of her moderating influence, made the line go viral. Nearly a year on, Ivanka Trump is still trying (and failing) to wall herself off from her father’s most controversial behavior – and alleged actions.
In an interview this past week, she cried foul at a question from NBC News about the women who have accused Donald Trump of sexual misconduct.
“I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter, if she believes the accusers of her father, when he’s affirmatively stated that there’s no truth to it,” she said, smilingly indignant. “I don’t think that’s a question you would ask many other daughters.”
It was a plainly cynical dodge – one that might have worked back in 2016, but came across as especially ham-handed given the way, in an ironic turn, Donald Trump as a candidate and then in his political battles as President, so eagerly mocked that kind of pearl-clutching.
For both Ivanka Trump and Kushner, what once made them appealing, at least to some, is only a few steps removed from what’s turned so many potential allies against them now. The couple’s inability, or refusal, to passably navigate the challenges implicit to their immense privilege has undermined any claim to some unique competency – even in a White House where the standards are so impossibly low.