Kushner Faces Scrutiny for WH Role 03/29 06:02
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Jared Kushner has been a power player able to avoid much
of the harsh scrutiny that comes with working in the White House. But this week
he's found that even the president's son-in-law takes his turn in the spotlight.
In a matter of days, Kushner, a senior Trump adviser, drew headlines for
leaving Washington for a ski vacation while a signature campaign promise fell
apart. The White House then confirmed he had volunteered to be interviewed
before the Senate intelligence committee about meetings with Russian officials.
At the same time, the White House announced he'll helm a new task force that
some in the West Wing have suggested carries little real influence.
Kushner became the fourth Trump associate to get entangled in the Russia
probe. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the intelligence
committee, said Tuesday that Kushner would likely be under oath and would
submit to a "private interview" about arranging meetings with the Russian
ambassador and other officials.
The news came as the White House announced Kushner would lead a new White
House Office of American Innovation, a task force billed as a powerful
assignment for Kushner. But the task force's true power in the White House
remained unclear, according to a half-dozen West Wing officials and Kushner
associates who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The official White House line is that the group would have sweeping
authority to modernize government, acting as strategic consultants who can draw
from experiences in the private sector --- and sometimes receive input from the
president himself --- to fulfill campaign promises like battling opioid
addiction and transforming health care for veterans. White House press
secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that it would "apply the president's
ahead-of-schedule-and-under-budget mentality" to the government.
But others inside and outside the White House cast doubt on the task force's
significance and reach, suggesting it was a lower priority for the
administration and pointing out that similar measures have been tried by
previous presidents with middling success. The assignment revived lingering
questions about whether Kushner had opted to focus his time on a project that
would put him at some distance from some Trump's more conservative and
controversial policy overhauls.
The announcement came just days after Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump,
were photographed on the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado, as the GOP health care
deal began to unravel amid protests from conservative Republicans that it did
not go far enough in replacing President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
Kushner rushed back to Washington on Friday but it was too late to save the
bill, which was scuttled hours later by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Two people close to Kushner vehemently denied the president was upset at his
son-in-law for being absent, saying Trump had given the trip his blessing. And
a senior White House official insisted the timing of the task force
announcement was planned weeks in advance.
Kushner, who has been at his father-in-law's right hand since the campaign,
has long been viewed as a first-among-equals among the disparate power centers
competing for the president's ear. Kushner, who routinely avoids interviews,
draws power from his ability to access Trump at all hours, including the White
House residence often off-limits to staffers.
His portfolio is robust: He has been deeply involved with presidential
staffing and has played the role of shadow diplomat, advising on relations with
the Middle East, Canada and Mexico. Though Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been
spotted with some frequency on the Washington social circuit, the president's
son-in-law is routinely in the office early and leaves late, other than on
Fridays when he observes the Sabbath.
While those close to Trump flatly state that Kushner, by virtue of marriage,
is untouchable, this is a rare moment when he has been the center of the sort
of political storm that has routinely swept up the likes of White House chief
strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior counselor
Kellyanne Conway. It points to a White House whose power matrix is constantly
Kushner has been closely allied with senior counselor Dina Powell and
National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs
executive and a registered Democrat. That group has, at times, been at odds
with conservatives led by Bannon, who to this point has been the driving force
behind the White House's policy shop.
When Kushner officially joined the administration in January as a senior
adviser, it was suggested that the real estate heir would draw upon the private
sector to streamline and modernize government. His task force has been meeting
since shortly after the inauguration and started talking to CEOs from various
sectors about ways to make changes to entrenched federal programs.
"Jared is a visionary with an endless appetite for strategic, inventive
solutions that will improve quality of life for all Americans," said Hope
Hicks, Trump's longtime spokeswoman.
A list supplied by the White House of some of those who have met with
Kushner reads like a who's who of the American business world, including
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Tim Cook of Apple and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan
Chase. Kushner usually does more listening than talking in the meetings,
largely avoiding ideological arguments while asking questions about efficiency
and best practices, according to a person who has attended a gathering but is
not authorized to discuss private conversations.
But the Trump team is hardly the first seeking to improve how the government
operates. The Reagan administration tasked the Grace Commission in 1982 with
uncovering wasteful spending and practices, while the Clinton administration
sought its own reinvention of government in 1993 with what was initially called
the National Performance Review. Previous commissions have not produced
overwhelming results in changing the stubborn bureaucracy, casting some doubt
on what Kushner's team can accomplish.
Philip Joyce, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland,
said the domestic spending cuts in Trump's budget blueprint suggest that this
new committee would most likely focus more on shrinking the government than
improving its performance.
Even then, any change would be unlikely to deliver significant budget
savings compared to reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare and
"It's not the main thing we ought to be focusing on," Joyce said. "It's at
the margins of the big issues facing the country, certainly in terms of the