WASHINGTON — One has an office down the hall from the President in the White House; the other just moved into an office a floor up. One recently visited war-torn Iraq as the President’s emissary; the other will soon head to Berlin at the invitation of Germany’s chancellor.
Both have seats at the table at any meeting they choose to attend, join lunches with foreign leaders and enjoy “walk-in privileges” to the Oval Office. And with the marginalisation of Stephen Bannon, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have emerged as President Donald Trump’s most important advisers, at least for now.
More openly than any president before him, Mr Trump is running his West Wing like a family business, and as he has soured on Mr Bannon, his combative chief strategist, he has turned to his daughter and son-in-law. Their ascendance has some conservative supporters fretting about the rising influence of the urbane young New Yorkers, as some moderates and liberals swallow concerns about nepotism in the hope that the couple will temper the temperamental President.
Still, for all the talk of a velvet coup against Mr Bannon, Mr Kushner and Ms Trump have achieved few concrete victories. And several administration officials and people close to the family said the couple’s move against Mr Bannon was motivated less by interest in shaping any particular policy than by addressing what they view as an embarrassing string of failures that may damage her father personally, as well as the Trump family brand.
“If you think of it as a classic business model, Trump likes to invest in winners because they make more money, and Jared has been pretty consistently winning,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an ally of Mr Trump’s. “You’re always on a what’s-your-quarterly-report kind of relationship with Trump.”
Neither Mr Kushner nor Ms Trump have government experience. Mr Kushner, 36, managed the real estate empire he inherited from his family and bought The New York Observer as a side project. Ms Trump, 35, was groomed with her brothers to run the family company before starting a fashion brand that appealed to young, urban female consumers likely to align themselves with her father’s opponents.
But the quarterly report on Mr Kushner shows that he has been in merger-and-acquisition mode. He has expanded his portfolio into a far-ranging set of issues, including Middle East peace, the opioid epidemic, relations with China and Mexico and reorganising the federal government from top to bottom. “Everything runs through me,” he told corporate executives during the transition.
Lately, he has pushed to overhaul the criminal justice system, a goal that Mr Trump embraced as a candidate near the end of the campaign when he tried to siphon black voters away from Hillary Clinton. But Mr Kushner is running into opposition from Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who favours toughening, not relaxing, mandatory minimum sentences.
Some colleagues, including Mr Bannon and Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, regard Mr Kushner’s breathtaking list of assignments with comic contempt, according to a dozen Trump associates who insisted on anonymity to discuss Mr Kushner and Ms Trump. After Mr Kushner’s trip to Iraq, White House aides referred to him as the “secretary of state”.
But they are warier of Ms Trump, who only recently arrived in the West Wing and until now has been a more sporadic player than her ambitious husband. Initially resistant to a formal role in the administration, Ms Trump took an office and a government position – albeit, like her husband, without accepting a salary – out of concern over the troubles of her father’s first couple of months in office.
According to associates, she views her role partly as guardian of the family reputation and has fretted during and since the campaign about the long-term damage to the family business’s image that her father’s political career could cause.
When Ms Trump does intervene, her father listens – although he does not always take her advice. One person close to the family described her influence as a delayed-action fuse: At times the President will mention a point Ms Trump made, uncredited, days later.
Her brother Eric Trump said she was upset by pictures of victims from the chemical attack in Syria and that may have encouraged their father to retaliate. He defended family members being in the White House, saying relatives are more candid. “The beautiful thing about family is you play on a little bit of a different dynamic and once in a while you can pull them aside and say, ‘No disrespect but you might want to think about this or maybe you crossed the line here’,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
The White House had no comment on Friday. But the supposed backstage liberal counterrevolution that critics fear has yielded modest results. Last week, the President signed legislation allowing states to deny federal funding to women’s health care providers offering abortion services, like Planned Parenthood. Ms Trump and Mr Kushner were skiing in Canada, just as they were on the slopes in Aspen during the collapse of the health care effort.
“I think there are multiple ways to have your voice heard,” Ms Trump recently told CBS News. “In some cases, it’s through protest and it’s through going on the nightly news and talking about or denouncing every issue on which you disagree with. Other times it is quietly and directly and candidly.
“So where I disagree with my father, he knows it,” she added. “And I express myself with total candour. Where I agree, I fully lean in and support the agenda and – and hope – that I can be an asset to him and make a positive impact. But I respect the fact that he always listens. It’s how he was in business. It’s how he is as President.”
Other presidents have relied on family. John Adams appointed John Quincy Adams minister to Prussia. Edith Wilson effectively ran the White House when Woodrow Wilson was stricken. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote reports to Franklin D. Roosevelt from around the country and their daughter Anna Roosevelt was a gatekeeper in his later days.
“The history is that it is very common for the whole family to become involved in the White House,” said Doug Wead, who researched presidential children for the first President Bush and later wrote a book.
“The Trumps are not as good at hiding the family involvement as others, but it is there for almost all of the presidents with adult children.”
Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian at the National First Ladies’ Library, said Ms Trump can play a vital role for her father and praised her for being transparent about taking the assignment rather than operating behind the scenes, predicting that her participation “will prove the single greatest success of the first 100 days of her father’s presidency”.
But Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers, a history of White House chiefs of staff, said relatives in the West Wing can confuse the chain of command. “It can be disastrous if they exert their influence at the expense of the chief of staff,” he said.
At the centre of the Trump presidency is a paradox: Even allies acknowledge Mr Trump is impulsive, indifferent to preparation and prone to embracing the last advice offered. He needs a strong hand to guide him, but insists on appearing in firm command, so any aide perceived as pulling strings can face his wrath sooner or later. It was Mr Trump, not his children, who pushed Mr Bannon to the margins, motivated less by ideology than by dissatisfaction with recent failures and his perception that his chief strategist was running an off-the-books operation to aggrandise himself at Mr Trump’s expense.
Mr Trump remains annoyed by a February cover of Time magazine labelling Mr Bannon “The Great Manipulator”, telling one visitor this month, “That doesn’t just happen” – a favoured Trump expression for anger at subordinates who tend to their interests ahead of his.
At the same time, the President and his family have closely monitored Mr Bannon’s former website, Breitbart, which they regarded as a weapon in his war against White House rivals. Confronted about the site, Mr Bannon told the President that it was operating beyond his control and against his wishes.
Ms Trump has never been close to Mr Bannon, although she appreciated the ferocity of his work, people close to her said. She puts him in the category of colourful, rough-hewed characters her father collects, with the likes of Roger Stone, a long-time Trump operative.
In recent weeks, she has spoken bluntly about Mr Bannon’s shortcomings to the President. She was especially incensed by articles she believed were planted by Mr Bannon’s allies suggesting he, not her father, honed the populist economic message that helped sweep the Midwest. She made that point in the strongest terms to her father, who agreed, according to a family friend.
For his part, Mr Kushner has succeeded in part because he has never tried “to explain what Jared wants”, Mr Gingrich said. “He is very attuned to listening to Trump and trying to figure out what Trump needs, and what Trump is trying to get done.”
Mr Kushner has served as the President’s eyes and ears. “Jared is constantly reaching outside the Trump inner circle to get feedback,” said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, on whose board he served. “That is really making an impression on people that there’s an opportunity to have input into what’s happening in the White House.”
Mr Kushner stays calm when others are frayed by Mr Trump’s explosive temper. During the campaign, when the candidate was incensed by the performance of his aides, he reminded his father-in-law that four people could not be fired – himself and the three Trump siblings.
Still, if Mr Trump lives by any management dictum, it may be this: The only indispensable employee looks back from his mirror.
-The New York Times