Almost everybody advised Jared Kushner not to take the inside job. As a family member, he would command extraordinary influence from a position that no one could challenge. As an insider, a staffer, not only could his experience be challenged, but while the President himself might not yet be exposed, a family member on staff would be where enemies and critics might quite effectively start chipping from. Besides, inside Trump's West Wing, if you had a title — that is, other than son-in-law — people would surely want to take it from you.
Both Jared and Ivanka Trump listened to this advice — but both, balancing risk against reward, ignored it. Trump himself variously encouraged his son-in-law and his daughter in their new ambitions and, as their excitement mounted, tried to express his scepticism — while at the same time telling others that he was helpless to stop them.
For Jared and Ivanka, as really for everybody else in the new administration, quite including the President, this was a random and crazy turn of history such that how could you not seize it? It was a joint decision by the couple, and, in some sense, a joint job. Jared and Ivanka had made an earnest deal between themselves: if some time in the future the time came, she'd be the one to run for president (or the first one of them to take the shot). The first woman president, Ivanka entertained, would not be Hillary Clinton, it would be Ivanka Trump.
Bannon, who had coined the Jarvanka conflation now in ever greater use, was horrified when the couple's deal was reported to him. "They didn't say that? Stop. Oh come on. They didn't actually say that? Please don't tell me that. Oh my God."
And the truth was that at least by then Ivanka would have more experience than almost anybody else now serving in the White House. She and Jared — or Jared, but by inference she, too — were in effect the real chief of staff — or certainly as much a chief of staff as Priebus or Bannon, all of them reporting directly to the President. Even more to the organisational point, Jared and Ivanka had a wholly independent standing inside the West Wing. A super status.
Even as Priebus and Bannon tried, however diplomatically, to remind the couple of staff procedures and propriety, they would in turn remind the West Wing leadership of their overriding First Family prerogatives. In addition, the President had immediately handed Jared the Middle East portfolio, making him one of the significant international players in the administration — indeed, in the world. In the first weeks, this brief extended out to virtually every other international issue, about which nothing in Jared's previous background would have prepared him for.
Jared's most cogent reason for entering the White House was "leverage", by which he meant proximity. Quite beyond the status of being inside the family circle, anyone who had proximity to the President had leverage, the more proximity, the more leverage. Trump himself you could see as a sort of Delphic oracle, sitting in place and throwing out pronouncements that had to be interpreted. Or as an energetic child, and whoever could placate or distract him became his favourite. Or as the Sun God (which is effectively how he saw himself), the absolute centre of attention, dispensing favour and delegating power, which could, at any moment, be withdrawn. The added dimension was that this Sun God had little calculation. His inspiration existed in the moment, hence all the more reason to be there with him in the moment. Bannon, for one, joined Trump for dinner every night, or at least made himself available — one bachelor there for the effective other bachelor. (Priebus would observe that in the beginning everyone would try to be part of these dinners, but within a few months, they had become a torturous duty to be avoided.)
Part of Jared and Ivanka's calculation about the relative power and influence of a formal job in the West Wing versus an outside advisory role was the knowledge that influencing Trump required you to be all-in.
From phone call to phone call — and his day, beyond organised meetings, was almost entirely phone calls — you could lose him. The subtleties here were immense, because while he was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone. So it was not so much the force of an individual argument or petition that moved him, but rather more just someone's presence, the connection of what was going through his mind — and although he was a person of many obsessions, much of what was on his mind had no fixed view—to whomever he was with and their views.
Ultimately Trump may not be that different in his fundamental solipsism from anyone of great wealth who has lived most of his life in a highly controlled environment. But one clear difference was that he had acquired almost no formal sort of social discipline — he could not even attempt to imitate decorum. He could not really converse, for instance, not in the sense of sharing information, or of a balanced back-and-forth conversation. He neither particularly listened to what was said to him, nor particularly considered what he said in response (one reason he was so repetitive). Nor did he treat anyone with any sort of basic or reliable courtesy. If he wanted something, his focus might be sharp and attention lavish, but if someone wanted something from him, he tended to become irritable and quickly lost interest. He demanded you pay him attention, then decided you were weak for grovelling. In a sense, he was like an instinctive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his attention and performance—and to do this without making him angry or petulant.
The payoff was his enthusiasm, quickness, spontaneity, and — if he departed for a moment from the non-stop focus on himself — an often incisive sense of the weaknesses of his opponents and a sense of their deepest desires. Politics was handicapped by incrementalism, of people knowing too much who were defeated by all the complexities and conflicting interests before they began. Trump, knowing little, might, Trumpers tried to believe, give a kooky new hope to the system.
Jared, in quite a short period of time — rather less than a year — had crossed over from the standard Democratic view in which he was raised, to an acolyte of Trumpism, bewildering many friends and, as well, his own brother, whose insurance company, Oscar, funded with Kushner family money, was destined to be dealt a blow by a repeal of Obamacare.
This seeming conversion was partly the result of Bannon's insistent and charismatic tutoring—a kind of real-life engagement with world-bending ideas that had escaped Jared even at Harvard. And it was helped by his own resentments toward the liberal elites whom he had tried to court with his purchase of the New York Observer, an effort that had backfired terribly. And it was, once he ventured on to the campaign trail, about having to convince himself that close up to the absurd everything made sense—that Trumpism was a kind of unsentimental realpolitik that would show everybody in the end. But most of all, it was that they had won. And he was determined not to look a gift horse in the mouth. And, everything that was bad about Trumpism, he had convinced himself, he could help fix.
As much as it might have surprised him — for many years, he had humoured Trump more than embraced him — Jared was in fact rather like his father-in-law.
Jared's father, Charlie, bore an eerie resemblance to Donald's father, Fred. Both men dominated their children, and they did this so completely that their children, despite their demands, became devoted to them. In both instances, this was extreme stuff: belligerent, uncompromising, ruthless men creating long-suffering offspring who were driven to achieve their father's approval. (Trump's older brother, Freddy, failing in this effort, and, by many reports, gay, drank himself to death; he died in 1981, aged 43.)
In business meetings, observers would be nonplussed that Charlie and Jared Kushner invariably greeted each other with a kiss and that the adult Jared called his father Daddy.
Neither Donald nor Jared, no matter their domineering fathers, went into the world with humility. Insecurity was soothed by entitlement. Both out-of-towners who were eager to prove themselves or lay rightful claim in Manhattan (Kushner from New Jersey, Trump from Queens), they were largely seen as overweening, smug, and arrogant. Each cultivated a smooth affect, which could appear more comical than graceful.
Neither, by choice nor awareness, could seem to escape his privilege. "Some people who are very privileged are aware of it and put it away; Jared not only seemed in every gesture and word to emphasise his privilege, but also not to be aware of it," said one New York media executive who dealt with him. Both men were never out of their circle of privilege. The main challenge they set for themselves was to enter further into the privileged circle. Social climbing was their work.
The fact that Trump and his son-in-law had many things in common did not mean they operated on a common playing field. Jared, no matter how close to Trump, was yet a member of the Trump entourage, with no more ultimate control of his father-in-law than anybody else now in the business of trying to control Trump.
Still, the difficulty of controlling him had been part of Jared's self-justification or rationalisation for stepping beyond his family role and taking a senior White House job: to exercise restraint on his father-in-law and even — a considerable stretch for the inexperienced young man — to help lend him some gravitas.
If Bannon was going to pursue as his first signature White House statement the travel ban, then Jared was going to pursue as his first leadership mark a meeting with the Mexican President, whom his father-in-law had threatened and insulted throughout the campaign.
Jared called up the 93-year-old Henry Kissinger for advice.
This was both to flatter the old man and to be able to drop his name, but it was also actually for real advice. Trump had done nothing but cause problems for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. To bring him to the White House would be, despite Bannon's no-pivot policy from the campaign's harshness, a truly meaningful pivot, for which Jared would be able to claim credit.
It was what Jared believed he should be doing: quietly following behind the President and with added nuance and subtlety, clarifying his real intentions, if not recasting them entirely.
The negotiation to bring Pena Nieto to the White House had begun during the transition period. Kushner saw the chance to convert the issue of the wall into a bilateral agreement addressing immigration — hence a tour de force of Trumpian politics. The negotiations surrounding the visit reached their apogee on the Wednesday after the inaugural, with a high-level Mexican delegation — the first visit by any foreign leader to the Trump White House — meeting with Jared and Reince Priebus. Jared's message to his father-in-law that afternoon was that Pena Nieto had signed on to a White House meeting and planning for the visit could go forward.
The next day Trump tweeted: "The US has a $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of Nafta, with massive numbers ..." And he continued in the next tweet, "... of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting." At which point Pena Nieto did just that, leaving Jared's negotiation and statecraft as so much scrap on the floor.
On Friday, February 3, at breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown, an epicentre of the swamp, Ivanka, flustered, came down the stairs and entered the dining room, talking loudly on her cellphone: "Things are so messed up and I don't know how to fix it."
The week had been overwhelmed by continuing fall-out from the immigration order—the administration was in court and headed to a brutal ruling against it — and more embarrassing leaks of two theoretically make-nice phone calls, one with Pena Nieto ("bad hombres") and the other with the Australian Prime Minister ("my worst call by far"). What's more, the day before, Nordstrom had announced that it was dropping Ivanka Trump's clothing line.
The 35-year-old was a harried figure, a businesswoman who had had to abruptly shift control of her business. She was also quite overwhelmed by the effort of having just moved her three children into a new house in a new city — and having to do this largely on her own. Asked how his children were adjusting to their new school several weeks after the move, Jared said that yes, they were indeed in school — but he could not immediately identify where.
Still, in another sense, Ivanka was landing on her feet. Breakfast at the Four Seasons was a natural place for her. She was among everyone who was anyone. In the restaurant that morning: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi; Washington fixture, lobbyist, and Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan; labour secretary nominee Wilbur Ross; Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith; Washington Post national reporter Mark Berman; and a table full of women lobbyists and fixers.
In some sense — putting aside both her father's presence in the White House and his tirades against draining the swamp, which might otherwise include most everyone here, this was the type of room Ivanka had worked hard to be in.
Following the route of her father, she was crafting her name and herself into a multifaceted, multiproduct brand; she was also transitioning from her father's aspirational male golf and business types to aspirational female mum and business types. She had, well before her father's presidency could have remotely been predicted, sold a book, Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, for $1 million.
In many ways, it had been an unexpected journey, requiring more discipline than you might expect from a contented, distracted, run-of- the- mill socialite. As a 21-year-old, she appeared in a film made by her then boyfriend, Jamie Johnson, a Johnson & Johnson heir. It's a curious, even somewhat unsettling film, in which Johnson corrals his set of rich-kid friends into openly sharing their dissatisfactions, general lack of ambition, and contempt for their families. (One of his friends would engage in long litigation with him over the portrayal.) Ivanka, speaking with something like a Valley Girl accent —which would transform in the years ahead into something like a Disney princess voice — seems no more ambitious or even employed than anyone else, but she is notably less angry with her parents.
She treated her father with some lightness, even irony, and in at least one television interview she made fun of his comb-over.
She often described the mechanics behind it to friends: an absolutely clean pate — a contained island after scalp reduction surgery — surrounded by a furry circle of hair around the sides and front, from which all ends are drawn up to meet in the centre and then swept back and secured by a stiffening spray. The colour, she would point out to comical effect, was from a product called Just for Men — the longer it was left on, the darker it got. Impatience resulted in Trump's orange-blond hair colour.
Father and daughter got along almost peculiarly well. She was the real mini-Trump (a title that many people now seemed to aspire to). She accepted him. She was a helper not just in his business dealings, but in his marital realignments. She facilitated entrances and exits. If you have a douchebag dad, and if everyone is open about it, then maybe it becomes fun and life a romantic comedy — sort of.
Reasonably, she ought to be much angrier. She grew up not just in the middle of a troubled family but in one that was at all times immersed in bad press. But she was able to bifurcate reality and live only in the uppermost part of it, where the Trump name, no matter how often tarnished, nevertheless had come to be an affectionately tolerated presence. She resided in a bubble of other wealthy people who thrived on their relationship with one another — at first among private school and Upper East Side of Manhattan friends, then among social, fashion, and media contacts.
What's more, she tended to find protection as well as status in her boyfriends' families, aggressively bonding with a series of wealthy suitors' families — including Johnson's before the Kushners — over her own.
The Ivanka-Jared relationship was shepherded by Wendi Murdoch, herself a curious social example (to nobody so much as to her then husband, Rupert). The effort among a new generation of wealthy women was to recast life as a socialite, turning a certain model of whimsy and noblesse oblige into a new status as a power woman, a kind of post-feminist socialite.
In this, you worked at knowing other rich people, the best rich people, and of being an integral and valuable part of a network of the rich, and of having your name itself evoke, well ... riches. You weren't satisfied with what you had, you wanted more. This required quite a level of indefatigability.
You were marketing a product: yourself.You were your own start-up.
This was what her father had always done. This, more than real estate, was the family business.
She and Jared then united as a power couple, consciously recasting themselves as figures of ultimate attainment, ambition, and satisfaction in the new global world and as representatives of a new eco-philanthropic-art sensibility.
For Ivanka, this included her friendship with Wendi Murdoch and with Dasha Zhukova, the then wife of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, a fixture in the international art world and, just a few months before the election, attending a Deepak Chopra seminar on mediation with Jared. She was searching for meaning — and finding it. This transformation was further expressed not just in ancillary clothing, jewellery, and footwear lines, as well as reality TV projects, but in a careful social media presence. She became a superbly co-ordinated "everymom", who would, with her father's selection, recast herself again, this time as royal family.
And yet, the larger truth was that Ivanka's relationship with her father was in no way a conventional family relationship. If it wasn't pure opportunism, it was certainly transactional. It was business. Building the brand, the presidential campaign, and now the White House — it was all business.
Edited extract from FIRE AND FURY: Inside Trump's White House, © 2018 by Michael Wolff (Hachette New Zealand, $38).