The Media Today

Jared Kushner bubbles up again

August 29, 2022
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

In 2017, after Donald Trump entered the White House, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote about his past experience working for a key power player in the new administration: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Kushner once owned the New York Observer, where Pope worked as editor between 2009 and 2011. In an essay for CJR titled “The Jared bubble,” Pope recounted how Kushner asked him to run a “hit piece” on a business rival but otherwise showed little interest in the Observer’s journalism and journalists. “Most weeks, Kushner not only didn’t read the Observer, he didn’t appear to read anything else, either,” Pope wrote. Kushner bragged about not reading the New York Times; indeed, politics in general didn’t seem to interest him. And Pope “never knew him to discuss a book, a play, or anything else that was in the Observer’s cultural wheelhouse.”

Now Kushner is discussing a book at great length: his own. It’s called Breaking History: A White House Memoir, and it came out earlier this month. Many observers, New York magazine noted, assumed that Kushner’s book “would be a dry affair that mainly just talked up his work on the Abraham Accords,” the series of Middle East diplomatic agreements that he helped to broker, but it ended up covering more varied terrain, from his youthful courtship of Ivanka Trump to his secret diagnosis with thyroid cancer in 2019. Several of Kushner’s claims in the book bear directly on the media, and Trump’s relationship with it. Kushner writes that he stopped Trump from publicly attacking Rupert Murdoch early in his presidential campaign and that he subsequently convinced Murdoch—long a friend and idol of Kushner’s, as Pope noted—to stop attacking Trump, paving the way for a supportive relationship. After entering the White House, Kushner writes, he sparred with Steve Bannon over who was leaking what to the press about whom, claiming that he was initially “unprepared” to counter Bannon’s “black belt in the dark arts of media manipulation,” before ending up getting Bannon fired. Kushner also (very briefly) addresses the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, writing that he accepted his close ally Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s denials of direct involvement and insisting that Khashoggi’s killing, while “terrible,” should be weighed against MBS’s reformism. (The US intelligence community has publicly stated that MBS was directly involved in Khashoggi’s murder. Kushner has previously said that he doesn’t dispute this finding, but his book doesn’t mention it.)

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Kushner has embarked on a media tour to promote the book—well, a conservative-media tour, at any rate, featuring interviews with Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Megyn Kelly. Appearing on Fox & Friends, Kushner boasted that he’d broken decades of gridlock in Middle East diplomacy by breaking with conventional thinking; appearing at a virtual book event, he boasted that he might literally live forever, because he thinks his is “either the first generation to live forever or the last generation that’s going to die.” (His entourage later tried to play this off as a joke.) As with his time in the White House, Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni suggested in the Times over the weekend, Kushner’s book rollout has been a balancing act: an attempt to take credit for good stuff while dodging the (voluminous) bad stuff. Not that he’s been able to do so completely, despite the friendliness of his interlocutors. At one point, Kelly asked Kushner whether he agrees with Trump that the 2020 election was stolen. After some meaningless gabbing, Kushner replied that the election was “sloppy” and had triggered a “badly needed” debate about “election integrity.”

The mainstream media has engaged with Kushner’s book, too. Major outlets have published posts running down its juiciest claims, as they often do with new books, no matter how noxious the author. They have also published some of the most scathing reviews of a political memoir that you’re likely to read, with critics largely agreeing on the roboticism and selectiveness of Kushner’s account. In a particularly memorable excoriation, Dwight Garner, of the Times, likened Kushner’s book to “a tour of a once majestic 18th-century wooden house, now burned to its foundations,” and—in its unabashed fealty to Trump—to “watching a cat lick a dog’s eye goo.” (Kushner claimed, to Kelly, that he found Garner’s review “hysterical” and plans to frame it, before rattling off a list of his grievances with the Times’s coverage. So much for not reading it.) Vicky Ward, who wrote a book about Kushner, accused him of “classic historical revisionism” that’s “not even well written.” (Various ghost writers, including an indicted former Observer editor, and a James Patterson MasterClass might have to share in the blame for that.) Over the weekend, Elizabeth Spiers, who edited the Observer after Pope, weighed in via the Washington Post, characterizing the book as “an extended news release that exists primarily to exculpate its author.” The book communicates “a very good sense of what Kushner is really like,” Spiers writes—just not in the way Kushner intended.

(Not that it’s just reviewers at legacy news outlets who have ridiculed the book—various figures in Trump’s orbit, past and present, don’t seem impressed, either. One told The Guardian that the book is “493 pages of pure boredom.” Peter Navarro, Trump’s uber-hawkish former trade adviser, suggested that Kushner had exaggerated his cancer diagnosis to get sympathy book sales. Chris Christie—a well-known Kushner nemesis ever since he helped put Kushner’s father in prison for hiring a sex worker to entrap his brother-in-law—said that he was looking forward “to seeing Jared’s book end up where it belongs: in the fiction section at Barnes & Noble.” He might not see it there, but he might see a copy under the fake title “I AM SLENDERMAN” after a pair of pranksters went to a Barnes & Noble in New York and tinkered with the dust jacket.)

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Kushner has often attracted critical scrutiny, during his time in the White House and since; in April, the Times dropped a big story reporting that an investment fund chaired by MBS (him again) plowed two billion dollars into a nascent Kushner-led private-equity business over the strong objections of the fund’s own advisers. (One of the authors of the story, Kate Kelly, is married to Pope.) At the time, however, various media critics charged that other major outlets moved on too quickly from the story, or failed to cover it at all. (The story has since come back around, with a House committee now investigating whether Kushner traded influence for cash.) And another old criticism of Kushner coverage has recently been leveled again, too: that credulous political journalists have been too quick to swallow his self-presentation as an urbane sophisticate who erected sensible guardrails inside his father’s administration. In early June, with a different House panel set to kick off its televised probe of the insurrection, the Times ran a story headlined “How Jared Kushner Washed His Hands of Donald Trump Before Jan. 6.”

The story, in fairness, suggested that this “handwashing” was a failing, an abdication of duty that gave unhinged coup-plotters unfettered access to Trump and served as “the final act in the myth that Mr. Kushner would be the moderating force on a president who resisted moderation.” But another basic contention in the story—that, “according to people close to them,” Kushner and Ivanka never believed Trump’s election lies—has not held up so well: the day after it ran, the January 6 committee showed footage of Kushner dismissing top White House lawyers’ post-election resignation threats as “whining”; now we have his comments on his book tour. The tale of Kushner’s private skepticism may very well be true. But, when it comes to election lies, what officials say publicly is far more important than what they believe—and the only appropriate standard for accountability there, as I’ve written before, is zero tolerance. Kushner’s book-tour comments on the election do not sound like hand-washing.

In their piece over the weekend, Haberman and Karni attributed Kushner’s recent “contortions” on the election to the fact that his book’s financial success hinges on Trump’s stamp of approval; Kushner claims to have obtained it, but Haberman and Karni note that Trump’s base generally views Kushner “skeptically” and that his book has “no clear audience” since Democrats hate him, too. Garner put it even more bluntly in his review, calling Kushner “​​a pair of dimples without a demographic.” Tough scrutiny of Kushner’s motivations in writing and marketing his memoir is welcome. But we should ensure that it’s not limited to the caustic pen of the critic or the realm of memory. Kushner remains a subject for scrutiny in the present tense, both as the subject of a Congressional corruption probe and someone who remains lashed to Trump, who is obviously still a political story in his own right. Despite his recent efforts, as Haberman and Karni described them, “to rehabilitate his own image by telling people that he had wanted nothing to do with Mr. Trump’s lies about a stolen election” and to tell “anyone who would listen” that he won’t advise Trump politically again, Kushner has not ruled out returning to the White House should Trump win in 2024. Litigating his revisionism isn’t just a matter of concern for the historical record.

In 2017, as Pope reflected on working for Kushner nearly a decade prior, he wrote that he’d been scouring Kushner’s days owning a New York City media outlet for clues that might have pointed toward his future in a populist, media-bashing administration run by his father-in-law; when Pope knew him, after all, Kushner was a self-described liberal who was “hanging out with Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, not trying to keep immigrants out of the country.” Eventually, it dawned on Pope that Kushner and Trump “weren’t so far apart after all,” not least in the sense that “both had used the media, quite successfully, for their own ends.” In Kushner’s view, Pope wrote, the utility of journalism “lay only in what it could do to polish his image or enrich his coffers or those of his family.” And book-writing, apparently.

Below, more on Kushner and Trumpworld:

  • Javanka: Also in 2017, Hannah Seligson wrote, for the same CJR issue that featured Pope’s piece on Kushner, about how his wife, Ivanka, has sought to play the press. To that point, Ivanka had “succeeded at crafting and maintaining a narrative about her role in the White House that is consistent with her pre-election image: effective professional operator and careerist; smart and gracious ambassador for the Trumps; caring daughter, spouse, and mother; and advocate for women’s rights,” Seligson argued. “One possible explanation is that some in the media see Ivanka—even more than Kushner—as one of their own. She is the kind of person they would have lunch with or see in passing.”
  • The latest: On Friday, the Justice Department complied with a judge’s order that it publish the affidavit that underpinned the FBI’s recent search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in connection with Trump’s mishandling of government records, including highly sensitive classified material. Various news organizations had asked the judge to order the release of the affidavit and other documents related to the search. The version the Justice Department unsealed was heavily redacted so as to protect witnesses and agents, among other considerations, though it still shone fresh light on the rationale for the search. (ICYMI, I criticized early coverage of the search for jumping to conclusions.)
  • Ain’t that the truth?: As the aftermath of the search has unfolded, Trump has regularly weighed in on it via Truth Social, the online platform that he launched after Twitter banned him following January 6. Trump’s recent posts have gained media attention—but the platform itself is struggling, the Post’s Drew Harwell reports, “as its traffic remains puny and the company that is scheduled to acquire it expresses fear that his legal troubles could lead to a decline in his popularity.” There are signs that Truth Social’s “financial base has begun to erode,” Harwell writes, and it has “struggled with some basics of corporate operation”—it hasn’t even been able to trademark “Truth Social.”
  • Fox news: Over the weekend, the trailer dropped for a new Breitbart-produced movie about Hunter Biden, son of Joe and right-wing outrage magnet, and it is, erm, well, you can watch it for yourself. The role of Hunter is played by Laurence Fox, the scion of a British acting dynasty who has recently reinvented himself as an anti-lockdown activist and right-wing campaigner. Last year, he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of London.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.