By PETER BAKER, GLENN THRUSH and MAGGIE HABERMAN
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 marginalization of Stephen K. 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, Trump is running his West Wing like a family business, and as he has soured on 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 Bannon, Kushner and Ivanka Trump have achieved few concrete victories. And several administration officials and people close to the family said the couple’s move against 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 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 Donald Trump. “You’re always on a what’s-your-quarterly-report kind of relationship with Trump.”
Neither Kushner nor Ivanka Trump has government experience. Kushner, 36, managed the real estate empire he inherited from his family and bought the New York Observer as a side project. Trump, 35, ran a fashion brand that appealed to young, urban female consumers likely to align themselves with her father’s opponents.
But the quarterly report on Kushner shows he has been in merger-and-acquisition mode. One after another, 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 reorganizing 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 Donald Trump embraced as a candidate near the end of the campaign when he tried to siphon black voters away from Hillary Clinton. But Kushner is running into opposition from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who favors toughening, not relaxing, mandatory minimum sentences.
Some colleagues, including Bannon and Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, regard Kushner’s breathtaking list of assignments with comic contempt, according to a dozen Trump associates who insisted on anonymity to discuss Kushner and Ivanka Trump. After Kushner’s trip to Iraq, White House aides referred to him as the “secretary of state.”
But they are warier of Ivanka 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, 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 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 Ivanka 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 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. Ivanka Trump and 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,” Ivanka 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 candor. Where I agree, I fully lean in and support the agenda and – and hope – that I can be an asset to him and – 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.
Dwight D. Eisenhower made his son John a White House aide. Robert F. Kennedy served as his brother’s attorney general and Nancy Reagan as her husband’s quasi-personnel director. George Bush asked George W. Bush to ease out his chief of staff. Hillary Clinton famously ran a health care task force.
“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 Ivanka 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 center of the Trump presidency is a paradox: Even allies acknowledge 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 Trump, not his children, who pushed 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 aggrandize himself at Trump’s expense.
Trump remains annoyed by a February cover of Time magazine labeling Bannon “The Great Manipulator,” telling one visitor this month, “That doesn’t just happen” – a favored 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 Bannon’s former website, Breitbart, which they regarded as a weapon in his war against White House rivals. Confronted about the site, Bannon told the president that it was operating beyond his control and against his wishes.
Ivanka Trump has never been close to Bannon, although she appreciated the ferocity of his work. She puts him in the category of colorful, rough-hewed characters her father collects, with the likes of Roger Stone, a longtime Trump operative.
In recent weeks, she has spoken bluntly about Bannon’sshortcomings to the president. She was especially incensed by articles she believed were planted by 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.
Donald Trump would prefer the situation with Bannon to stabilize, according to people familiar with his thinking, and to keep Bannon on board, albeit in a more circumscribed role, than see him become a populist critic outside the gates. Bannon intuitively understands the president’s connection to white working-class voters and his instinct to demolish political norms. And neither Ivanka Trump nor her husband has so far plunged into day-to-day government operations or logged the 18-hour days the indefatigable Bannon routinely works.
They have important allies, though, including two Goldman Sachs veterans, Gary Cohn, the national economics adviser, and Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser. Cohn, a Democrat, has been projected as a future chief of staff, and Powell, a Republican veteran of the second Bush administration, has served as all-around West Wing fixer.
While Cohn has been attacked by the right, Powell is praised by conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and she and Ivanka Trump have been working with Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor who remains a favorite of grass-roots Republicans. Perhaps tellingly, Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s policy adviser, has shifted away from Bannon, his one-time ally. He has worked with Ivanka Trump since the campaign on child care and other issues, and colleagues said he endeared himself to her and Kushner in order to get more freedom to pursue anti-immigration policies that animate him.
The larger shift has generated consternation among Donald Trump’s supporters. Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative magazine, mocked the president’s daughter and son-in-law as “bright, conventionally wisdomed yuppie New Yorkers who have never had to formulate or defend a complicated foreign policy position in their lives.”
Writing on the website Vox, he said, “I certainly didn’t vote for the foreign policy preferences of Jared and Ivanka, or a policy driven by whatever images on TV happened to move the president."
The expectation that Ivanka Trump will push her father to the left on social issues has been unhelpful, people close to her said. She shares his economically conservative view and did not enter the White House to be a social issues warrior, they said.
For his part, Kushner has succeeded in part because he has never tried “to explain what Jared wants,” 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.”
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.”
Kushner stays calm when others are frayed by 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 Trump lives by any management dictum, it may be this: The only indispensable employee looks back from his mirror.