WASHINGTON — At a senior staff meeting early in President Donald Trump’s tenure, Reince Priebus, then White House chief of staff, posed a simple question to Jared Kushner: What would his newly created Office of American Innovation do?
Kushner brushed him off, according to people privy to the exchange. Given that he and his top lieutenants were paid little or nothing, Kushner asked, “What do you care?” He emphasized his point with an expletive.
“OK,” Priebus replied. “You do whatever you want.”
Few in the opening days of the Trump administration dared to challenge Kushner’s power to design his job or steer the direction of the White House as he saw fit. But 10 months after being given free rein to tackle everything from the federal government’s outdated technology to peace in the Middle East, the do-whatever-you-want stage of Kushner’s tenure is over.
Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who had been in seemingly every meeting and every photograph, has lately disappeared from public view and, according to some colleagues, taken on a more limited role behind the scenes. He is still forging ahead on a plan to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a goal that has eluded presidents and diplomats for generations, and he has been credited with focusing attention on the government’s technological needs. But he is no longer seen as the primary presidential consigliere with the limitless portfolio.
The new White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, has proved less permissive than his predecessor. A retired four-star general who has imposed more order on a chaotic White House since taking over in July, Kelly has made clear that Kushner must fit within a chain of command. “Jared works for me,” he has told associates. According to three advisers to the president, Kelly has even discussed the possibility of Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, departing the West Wing by the end of the year.
Kelly disputed that in an interview Friday. “There was honestly never a time when I contemplated getting rid of Jared and Ivanka,” Kelly said. He also said the Office of American Innovation, run by Kushner, had demonstrated its value, noting that he had recently sent some members of its team to Puerto Rico to report back on conditions on the hurricane-ravaged island.
And in an email forwarded by the White House, the president said Friday that he still relied on Kushner. “Jared is working very hard on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and the last thing I would ever do is get in the way of that possibility,” Donald Trump said. “Jared has been very effective since the earliest days of the campaign and the same is true today. He understood the movement then and has been helpful implementing the agenda the American people voted for since.”
Determining anyone’s place in Trump’s orbit, of course, is a hazardous exercise. The president’s affections are fickle, and he tends to keep relationships open even if they are strained. At one point, Trump is said to depend less on Kushner, and the next he checks in with his son-in-law about the Roy Moore Senate race in Alabama to gauge his own potential reactions, according to one person familiar with the conversations.
But even Kushner’s supporters acknowledged that his role had evolved. In their view, that reflected his success, not failure. By helping to push out Priebus and Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and acerbic nationalist infighter, they said, Kushner helped stabilize the White House, allowing him to focus on his own projects rather than feeling compelled to weigh in on so many different issues.
In the first months of the administration, Kushner typically would spend five or six hours a day with the president in what his advocates described as playing defense, making sure others were not gaming the system by persuading Trump to make decisions without consulting others who had interest in the issues. Now under a less freewheeling system, Kushner and other aides are expected to stay in their own lanes.
Critics take a less generous view. Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist, said the “magical powers” ascribed to Kushner early on seemed to have faded. “As long as Jared was seen and not heard, he was able to play the role of wonder boy,” he said. “But now he is no longer seen, and we are only left to wonder about the boy whose father-in-law placed the hope of unraveling the world’s most intractable public policy puzzles from peace in the Middle East to reinventing government” in him.
Speculation about Kushner’s role comes as the long shadow of the special counsel’s investigation darkens the White House. Investigators have asked witnesses about Kushner’s foreign policy role during the campaign and the presidential transition, including his involvement in a debate over a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank, as The Wall Street Journal has reported.
One person familiar with the questioning, who asked not to be identified discussing the investigation, said the special counsel, Robert Mueller, appeared to be exploring Kushner’s role as part of his examination of Michael Flynn, who went on to become Trump’s national security adviser before being forced out after 24 days for not being forthcoming about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador.
Kushner has yet to be interviewed by Mueller’s team. Worried that his conversations might have been picked up on a government-authorized wiretap or perhaps by Russia or China, Kushner has become increasingly cautious about how he communicates, even with friends.
The scrutiny by Mueller upended Kushner’s initial hopes, according to some colleagues. Kushner expressed relief over Mueller’s appointment in May, assuming that the prosecutor’s inquiry would effectively freeze congressional investigations and therefore free up the White House to pursue its legislative agenda.
To some, that suggested he did not get it, that he did not fully grasp how the special counsel would scrutinize every single thing he had done in business, during the transition and during the campaign. And the emergence of Mueller has not halted the House or Senate inquiries; Kushner has since been interviewed by congressional investigators.
Some friends said Kushner and his wife were at times so discouraged by their brief White House careers — and their shrinking social circle — that they would leap at a chance to gracefully return to New York. At one point this fall, a scenario circulated in which Ivanka Trump could replace Nikki Haley as ambassador to the U.N. if Haley replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Aides to Donald Trump said they never heard that discussed internally, and the latest betting now has Haley staying put.)
Others in the couple’s orbit, however, said that whatever their frustrations, they have found more satisfaction in recent months now that Bannon is no longer inside the West Wing fighting them, and that they are likelier to stay for the foreseeable future. Kushner’s father, Charles, has urged his son to hang on, arguing that otherwise he will become the fall guy for White House mistakes, according to someone in Jared Kushner’s circle.
“Jared’s role working for President Trump is just as important as it was Day 1, only now he doesn’t have to worry about baby-sitting others,” said Jason Miller, a campaign adviser who remains close to the White House. “His focus was always supposed to be the president’s big-picture, long-term projects, and now Jared can work on those uninterrupted.”
New York is not exactly a trouble-free zone for Kushner either. He would presumably resume running his family’s real estate empire, now struggling to save its crown jewel, a Manhattan skyscraper. The building at 666 Fifth Ave. is awash in $1.2 billion in debt, and a key business partner recently declared that a redevelopment plan created by Kushner before he joined the government is unfeasible.
Kushner arrived in the White House with an expansive portfolio. In addition to Middle East peace, he served as the president’s intermediary with Mexico, China and the Arab world. He traveled to Iraq wearing a flak vest over his blue blazer and button-down shirt. His high profile generated magazine covers and late-night comic riffs. Even some inside the West Wing began referring to him as “the secretary of state.”
In the early months, Kushner brokered a tense telephone call between Trump and Mexico’s president and arranged a summit meeting with President Xi Jinping of China that transformed his father-in-law’s approach toward Beijing. He organized Trump’s first overseas trip with an opening stop in Saudi Arabia, where the president aligned himself with Sunni Arabs confronting Iran.
Kushner has since stepped back from the China relationship. He joined Trump in Beijing this month but did not accompany the president on his entire Asia trip. He remains the point person with Saudi Arabia, where he recently visited and talked late into the night with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is also working with the team renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and developing a plan to overhaul re-entry into American society for prisoners.
But Kushner, new to government, has found it confounding at times. And Priebus’ early question about the mandate of Kushner’s innovation office was never fully resolved. Sometimes called “Jared’s island” by White House aides, it has remained a jumble of seemingly random projects, ranging from addressing the nation’s opioid crisis and infrastructure needs to trying to modernize the government’s antiquated computer systems.
Corporate leaders were recruited to give input at roundtable discussions organized by Kushner. But by last summer, some executives were fed up with talk-a-thons. They complained to Gary D. Cohn, the president’s national economic adviser, who in turn told Kushner’s aides not to convene another listening session unless it had a compelling purpose and produced results.
Two White House councils of business leaders were disbanded in August after an exodus of members upset with the president’s failure to more forcefully condemn violence at a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Other initiatives backed by Kushner have proved more fruitful. Congress appears to be on the verge of creating a $500 million fund to help agencies modernize outdated information technology systems, some of which are at least 40 years old.
With Kushner’s support, the Department of Veterans Affairs also developed a plan to erase a long-standing electronic gap between the medical records of service members and veterans that has hurt patient care for years.
But Kushner’s push for technological advances is hobbled by a lack of permanent officials to carry out policy changes at the agency level. The White House has failed to name chief information officers for nine major agencies, including Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security. Even the federal chief information officer is only an acting official, and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is largely a ghost town.
The innovation office is providing political cover and “a push from the top,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the effectiveness of the government. “But at the end of the day, what the White House does doesn’t matter if it doesn’t get implemented at the agencies where the real action takes place.”