WASHINGTON (AFP) — At a White House meeting with President Donald Trump this week, the two dozen politicians around the polished table enthusiastically took turns introducing themselves. But it was one of the few remaining silent who caught the eye.
Jared Kushner needed no introduction.
“Jared you know,” Trump told the assembled collection of state governors, cabinet members and top aides.
Not saying a word, the slender and pale 37-year-old smiled shyly and waved for the next person along, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, to talk.
Married to the president’s daughter Ivanka, Kushner has an ill-defined role as “senior adviser” — but he pops up all over the White House, running everything from a so far invisible Middle East peace initiative to US prison reform.
Ivanka is an adviser too, regularly accompanying her father on Air Force One and appearing alongside Kushner at Oval Office get-togethers.
But even veteran watchers of the so-called Javanka power duo were surprised by US media reports late Thursday that Trump’s son-in-law was being considered for promotion to chief of staff — in other words, running the White House itself.
Running out of friends
Trump did not end up picking Kushner as his right-hand man to replace the outgoing former Marine Corps general John Kelly.
But as White House staffing turnover churns away and former friends like lawyer Michael Cohen flip against the president in court, Trump finds himself increasingly lacking trusted allies.
The mere suggestion of Kushner as a candidate triggered scorn and nepotism jokes from Trump’s critics, like incoming Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who tweeted sarcastically: “Classic Republican ‘bootstrap’ meritocracy.”
Still, the White House didn’t completely shoot the rumor down.
“I am not aware that he is under consideration,” Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said carefully.
“But, as I think all of us here would recognize, he would be great in any role that the president chooses to put him in.”
Another Kushner link cropped up in the chief of staff saga when Republican heavyweight Chris Christie took his name out of the running Friday.
As pundits noted, he had a distinct problem: in the 2000s, Christie was the same New Jersey federal prosecutor who had put Kushner’s dad Charles in prison for fraud.
‘Genius’ or liability?
Nikki Haley, who grabbed headlines in October with the announcement of her own upcoming resignation as Trump’s United Nations ambassador, called Kushner “a hidden genius that no one understands.”
The praise sparked snarky tweets and headlines, including Vanity Fair’s “All the Times Jared Kushner Hid His Genius from Us.”
But regardless of the truth about Kushner’s concealed brilliance, his actual performance since entering the White House with Trump has been mixed.
That shouldn’t be surprising.
A real estate career — launched when Kushner took over the family fortune following his father’s imprisonment — made him familiar with Trump’s business milieu. But he has almost no previous political or diplomatic experience.
The most historic task given to Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, is nothing less than to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian standoff that has bedeviled US foreign policy for decades.
After a long gestation, that plan could be rolled out early next year.
However, many analysts are skeptical of chances for success given that the run-up has featured a barrage of punitive measures against the Palestinians amid the fallout over the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Kushner’s other major dealing in the region has been forging ties with ambitious Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.
US-Saudi ties have been touted by the Trump administration as a major success, but the Saudis’ grisly murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi — allegedly on the orders of Kushner’s friend MBS — has proved a costly embarrassment for the president and his son-in-law.