There has been no rallying the troops in the White House, and no open acknowledgment from President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that he has transformed from behind-the-scenes West Wing power broker to its lead distracting story.
Kushner led three meetings in the West Wing on Tuesday — and never once acknowledged the stories about him that have dominated cable news since last week, when it was reported that during the campaign he discussed setting up a secret communications back channel to Moscow.
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For the first five months of Trump’s administration, Kushner has managed to stay out of Trump’s line of fire, even as every other top West Wing aide has taken a turn on the outs with the president. As Trump has sought input from outside advisers on whom he should keep and whom he should can, Kushner seems to operate as a faculty member with tenure in an otherwise insecure work environment.
With his wife, Ivanka Trump, according to multiple White House sources, Kushner emerged from the holiday weekend intent on dismissing his increased public scrutiny in connection with the FBI’s ongoing Russia probe as nothing more than a public relations problem that will blow over.
On his first full day back after the holiday weekend, Kushner led a meeting on veterans affairs, a meeting with his Office of American Innovation and a planning meeting on a “Tech Day” at the White House next month, when he hopes to gather tech leaders in Washington to discuss modernizing government services. Kushner also conducted a series of follow-up phone calls about Trump’s just-concluded overseas trip, a White House official said.
Ivanka Trump, White House sources said, was also working out of her West Wing office on Tuesday, conducting business as usual — which includes a weekly communications meeting in her office. (Kushner and his wife, who both serve as official government employees, have chosen to run their own press shop as a separate entity from the Sean Spicer-led operation down the hall, relying on their own aides to handle queries from reporters.)
The New York Times reported Sunday that Kushner and Ivanka Trump were battened down at the Trump golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, as aides explained that Kushner has not been contacted by the FBI to discuss his role in allegedly trying to set up a back channel with the Russians. His attorney, Jamie Gorelick, reiterated her client’s interest in sharing with Congress any information he has about his meetings with Russian officials. But on Tuesday, they were back to work.
At Thrive Capital, the venture capital firm co-founded by Kushner’s younger brother, Josh, employees have sometimes, over the years, been greeted with motivational Post-It notes on their computer monitors, reminding them to keep their “heads down. Stay focused. Ignore the noise,” even when confronted with good news.
If Kushner wanted to communicate to concerned White House officials that the game plan was to tune out the noise and keep on working, he was far less explicit about it.
That left some unease in the White House about who, exactly, was in charge. Early Tuesday, after weeks of rumors about a shakeup in the White House press shop, communications director Michael Dubke made his resignation public. But staff members believe a bigger staff shakeup is looming — The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Trump associates were discussing shipping off chief of staff Reince Priebus to serve as ambassador to Greece.
In his first press briefing in over a week, press secretary Sean Spicer did not deny that Kushner had tried to set up a back channel with the Russians. “Mr. Kushner’s attorney has said that Mr. Kushner has volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings,” Spicer said. “And he will do the same if he’s contacted in or — and connected with any other inquiry.”
When asked point blank whether the White House disputed the back channel reports, Spicer said that the question, posed by The Washington Post’s Phil Rucker, “presupposed facts that have not been confirmed.”
On Tuesday, Trump retweeted a Fox News story that downplayed Kushner’s relationship with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and reported that a permanent back channel was never discussed. That was the extent to which Trump himself has moved to defend his son-in-law, who was responsible for planning Trump’s successful visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel last week.
But the juxtaposition between his biggest hurdle arriving on the heels of his first measurable success in the White House isn’t new to Kushner. In his former office at 666 Fifth Avenue, the headquarters of his family real estate company, Kushner kept a framed photograph of the first page of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” according to a 2008 profile of Kushner published in the now-defunct Portfolio Magazine.
“But when you think of this, you think, ‘It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times,’” he said in the rare interview, referring to the first line of the Victorian novel. “But I love how we bought this building literally right after my father came out of prison, probably five, six months after. And the thought that I had was, ‘It’s kind of like the juxtaposition of going from the worst of times to the best of times.’”