WASHINGTON – Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have tried their best to soar gracefully above the raging dumpster fire that is the Trump administration. Unhappily for the handsome couple, gravity makes no allowances for charm.
Kushner, already reported to be a “person of interest” in the Justice Department probe of the Trump campaign, is arguably the individual with the most to lose from the revelation that the campaign did, after all, at least attempt to collude with the Russian government to boost Donald Trump’s chances of winning the election.
The president’s hapless eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. – who convened the June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer for the purpose of obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton – had no operational role in the campaign. Paul Manafort, who also attended, was the campaign’s chairman; but his many shady business dealings with several Ukrainian and Russian characters were already under scrutiny, so the encounter with attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya could be seen as just another item on the list.
Kushner was at the meeting too, however, and he had oversight of the campaign’s digital operations. That could be a problem, given the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered with the election and that the meddling took place largely in cyberspace.
And unlike the other participants, Kushner has an official position in the Trump administration. He serves in the White House as a senior adviser to the president with responsibility for numerous high-profile initiatives – and with a top-secret security clearance, which should immediately be revoked.
Trump Jr. says that Kushner didn’t stay long at the session with Veselnitskaya and that no damaging information about Clinton was imparted. But since he kept the meeting secret for more than a year, scoffing indignantly at the very notion of collusion with the Russians, and then twice lied about the nature of the meeting before finally coming clean, no one should believe another word Trump Jr. says on the subject. At least, not until special counsel Robert Mueller puts him under oath, which I believe is likely to happen.
At one point in his changing story, Trump Jr. claimed that Kushner and Manafort didn’t even know what the meeting was about. Yet he copied both of them on an email chain that begins with an intermediary’s offer of campaign help from the “Russian government.” The proper thing to do would have been to call the FBI, but this crowd knows nothing of propriety.
The Veselnitskaya encounter was one of more than 100 meetings or phone calls with foreigners that somehow slipped Kushner’s mind when he applied for his security clearance. He revealed this one in one of his subsequent efforts to amend the form.
It is hard to imagine what connection Kushner might have had to the Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee computers and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails. But there was another component of the clandestine effort to help Trump get elected: Investigators believe that as Election Day approached, Russian trolls and “bots” flooded the social media accounts of key voters in swing states with “fake news” disinformation about Clinton, according to a report Wednesday by McClatchy newspapers.
How would the Russians know which voters to target, down to the precinct level, in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan? This is a question that surely will be posed to Kushner, since at the time he happened to be overseeing a sophisticated digital campaign operation that tracked voters at a granular level.
Ivanka Trump’s name has not surfaced in the Russia affair. But she, like her husband, is serving as a presidential adviser, and she received unwanted attention when she briefly took her father’s place at the head table during the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. We expect officials representing our country to have been elected by the voters or appointed because of merit, not installed by the caprices of heredity.
She also received unwanted scrutiny when three labor activists were arrested in May for investigating alleged sweatshop practices at a factory in China where Ivanka Trump shoes have been manufactured.
Among Manhattan’s progressive upper crust, Jared and Ivanka – they really are first-name-only celebrities at this point – were expected to at least temper the hard-right policy positions being pushed by other presidential advisers. If this indeed is what they are trying to do, they’ve had negligible impact to date.
Writing in Time magazine, Henry Kissinger wished Kushner well “in his daunting role flying close to the sun.” Jared and Ivanka have first-class educations. They know how the Icarus story ends.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.