Kushner’s Global Role Shrinks as He Tackles Another: The 2020 Election

Kushner’s Global Role Shrinks as He Tackles Another: The 2020 Election

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WASHINGTON — When senior administration officials gathered in the Situation Room on Tuesday for a meeting to discuss the repercussions of the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Vice President Mike Pence had a seat at the table. So did Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, and Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary.

But the White House aide whose portfolio is the Middle East was notably absent from the meeting.

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was sitting for a photo shoot for a planned Time magazine cover story. He was also absent from the Situation Room later in the day when it was clear Iran was launching an attack on American forces and the same officials rush backed, joined by Mr. Trump and West Wing aides like Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, and Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary.

Over the past two weeks, Mr. Kushner has had little visible part in what has been Mr. Trump’s most high-stakes moment as commander in chief, the starkest example of how much his role in the White House is changing as the Trump presidency enters its fourth year.

Mr. Kushner has also served as the peacemaker in trade negotiations with Mexico and China, smoothing over disputes and serving as a mediator between foreign officials and Mr. Trump. But with the North American trade deal expected to become law within weeks, and the president poised to sign a first-phase China trade deal on Wednesday, that role will be less of a focus.

Instead, Mr. Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, the president’s older daughter, is positioning himself to be the overseer of something of even greater personal interest to his father-in-law: Mr. Trump’s 2020 re- campaign.

Unlike the behind-the-scenes role he played in the 2016 campaign — where he was seen as a key figure but, campaign aides said, never took a title and avoided blame — Mr. Kushner is positioning himself now as the person officially overseeing the entire campaign from his office in the West Wing, organizing campaign meetings and making decisions about staffing and spending. His more prominent role comes after much of 2019 was spent bogged down by the Russia-related investigations that had dogged the president since he took office.

The portfolio marks a sharp departure from Mr. Kushner’s focus in the early days of the administration, when he sought to be a central driver of administration Middle East policy, acting at times as a shadow secretary of state who circumvented official channels of power within the State Department.

Back then, Mr. Kushner’s influence in the region extended far beyond his stated portfolio of negotiating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, setting an early tone by bypassing cabinet members to persuade Mr. Trump to make Saudi Arabia his first stop abroad as president.

“Since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has come in, you’ve seen Jared’s role narrow to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, who worked under former Secretary of State John Kerry on Middle East issues. “It’s been a gradual move, and it’s very striking right now.”

Mr. Kushner declined to comment on his change in focus, but his allies in the White House say he sees no reason to involve himself as extensively in international issues now that the State Department is run by Mr. Pompeo, whom he sees as far more competent than his predecessor, Rex W. Tillerson. They also pointed to the fact that Mr. Trump’s national security team now includes many Kushner allies, like Mr. O’Brien and Brian H. Hook, the special representative for Iran who has also worked with Mr. Kushner on the peace process.

Mr. Kushner’s status as a member of the president’s family has also made it possible for him to choose the moments and issues where his role is highly visible.

He played a critical role in persuading Mr. Trump to support a criminal justice overhaul, which he has also promoted as a way to help Mr. Trump win over African-American voters. But he has never unveiled a peace plan whose delivery date has been delayed indefinitely. And with Israel in its own political limbo, the expectations that Mr. Kushner’s plan would form the basis of a deal are low.

In recent months, Mr. Kushner has been directing the construction of the president’s wall along the southern border, telling associates he has a timetable for getting a portion completed by the election and holding regular meetings with status updates on how much mileage has been built. Mr. Kushner’s wresting of control over the issue has generated criticism from some administration officials, who said he dives into other people’s policy areas with abandon and little foresight.

Last week, he was involved in the Trump campaign’s decision to spend $10 million on a 60-second ad that will run during the Super Bowl, an announcement that came out after the campaign of former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York signaled it would make the same buy, a person familiar with his role said.

But ever since Mr. Trump entered office with his son-in-law at his side, Mr. Kushner has been trailed by questions about what it is that he really does or has accomplished. His portfolios — streamlining the government’s information technology systems, brokering peace in the Middle East — have at times seemed so large that they are meaningless. His floating “senior adviser” status that functions outside of any formal chain of command has given him a role that seems simultaneously all-powerful and make-believe.

His expectations for winning an election, however, are higher.

During Mr. Trump’s vacation at Mar-a-Lago, his private Florida club, Mr. Kushner arranged meetings with campaign officials to discuss messaging. He made a rare appearance at a campaign briefing in December with members of the news media, where the former Democrat declared that he was now a card-carrying Republican.

Mr. Kushner spent the holidays with Mr. Trump, and it is unclear what private conversations he had with his father-in-law there about the situation in Iran. Mr. Trump, who personally granted his son-in-law a security clearance by overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House counsel, often seeks Mr. Kushner’s counsel on issues he is not directly involved with, and they spent many hours together during the week.

Aides, however, would not say what Mr. Kushner’s view of the strikes was.

“Jared’s Middle East portfolio is primarily focused on developing a peace plan between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. “He gets involved in other matters where appropriate to further President Trump’s objectives.”

While he was not in any Situation Room meetings, Mr. Kushner pushed his father-in-law to deliver some kind of statement about the Suleimani strike from the White House rather than at a political rally later, despite concerns from other senior officials about the president speaking about a crisis that did not appear to be over.

And there are issues in the Middle East and on the international stage where Mr. Kushner still asserts himself: He was present for a meeting on Monday in the Oval Office with Khalid bin Salman, a member of the Saudi royal family. The meeting was not on Mr. Trump’s schedule, and officials have declined to give a summary of what was discussed; its existence was acknowledged by the White House only after the Saudis posted photos on Twitter.

After Mr. Trump met with the prime minister of Greece on Wednesday, it was Mr. Kushner he turned to in the Oval Office, an aide said, asking him to walk him out.

Among Trump critics, Mr. Kushner’s many roles have not instilled confidence. “It seems like he just bounces around based on whatever issue intrigues him at any given moment, without regard for his past track record, or inexperience on any given issue,” said Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton’s spokesman during her 2016 campaign against Mr. Trump.

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