It’s been a rough week in Washington for Jared Kushner.
Kushner – a senior advisor to his father-in-law, President Trump - has been formally downgraded from his Top Secret security clearance. As of the time of writing, he appears to be staying in the White House, ostensibly continuing work on his massive portfolio via a temporary clearance of a lesser level.
What is less clear is why Kushner is doing so – especially given the range of difficulties he’s experienced in little more than a year.
The Trump Administration’s struggle with security clearances extends far beyond Kushner, who has had to amend his list of foreign contacts an unprecedented number of times (to include his meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign, where he was seeking ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton).
The most recent scandal revolved around White House staff secretary Rob Porter’s access to sensitive material despite FBI flags on his history of domestic violence. That story then led to revelations that Kushner and Porter were far from alone in operating without proper vetting. The fact that all of this has largely lapsed out of the public conversation is a masterclass in the Trump White House’s tried and true strategy of weathering scandal by simply scrambling, lying, and stalling until the nation careens towards the next crisis.
In addition to his clearance woes, Kushner is burdened with a portfolio of issues that would be unmanageable for anyone, even if they had the appropriate education and life experience. What does an aspiring real estate magnate know about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the opioid crisis, U.S-Chinese relations, or criminal justice reform? And even if he had all of this knowledge, how could one advisor to be accountable for such a diverse gamut of massive challenges? It is painfully clear that Kushner’s single qualification is his familial connection to the president – which can lead to complicated situations, just as it did for his wife (and Trump’s daughter) Ivanka last week. Her playing the ‘daughter card’ to avoid commenting on the more than 20 women accusing the president of sexual assault was curious, given her position as a senior White House advisor who supposedly focuses on women’s issues and has spoken openly about others accused in the public discourse before.
And finally, on top of all this, Kushner also took heat this week for reports that at least four countries (Mexico, Israel, China, and the United Arab Emirates) have discussed using his rat’s nest of foreign business entanglements to “gain leverage over” him. The idea that a public figure with diverse business interests could be bribed or threatened by partners or adversaries abroad is not a new one in American politics, and to be sure there is plenty of shady quid-pro-quo happening within our domestic political and economic ecosystem that did not begin with the Trump Administration. Kushner’s particular accumulation of debt combined with the fact that he was engaging in conversations about his own business interests as late as the presidential transition, however, should give us all pause as particularly suspicious.
It’s tempting to think of Kushner as a singular problem – a case of someone elevated far beyond his skill level into unfamiliar terrain where he does not know (nor care to learn) the rules or details of his new realm. The larger issue, however, is that he is a symptom rather than the disease: his story of cutting corners on requirements, an utter lack of qualifications, and compromising business interests is a stand-in for the whole of this administration’s roster of goons, trolls, and charlatans – right on up to President Trump himself.
It is certainly a positive development that Kushner’s clearance has been downgraded from the most sensitive level. Unfortunately, he still has a temporary clearance, and the president, of course, can show him any level of classified intelligence whenever he pleases. So ultimately, as long as he remains in the White House, Kushner is occupying multiple spaces where qualified civil servants should be - and his shortcomings could well threaten the policy, if not the national security, of the United States.
But then again, we have an administration where the president himself is untroubled by rules, regulations, and norms, unable to learn the most basic tenets of any policy issue, and unwilling to disclose even the most basic financial information about himself (like those long-awaited tax returns).
So in such a chaotic, tainted environment, it’s hard to imagine how much of an impact – for better or for worse – someone like Jared Kushner really has.