Trump’s son-in-law has no business running the coronavirus response.
Reporting on the White House’s herky-jerky coronavirus response, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman has a quotation from Jared Kushner that should make all Americans, and particularly all New Yorkers, dizzy with terror.
According to Sherman, when New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said that the state would need 30,000 ventilators at the apex of the coronavirus outbreak, Kushner decided that Cuomo was being alarmist. “I have all this data about I.C.U. capacity,” Kushner reportedly said. “I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators.” (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top expert on infectious diseases, has said he trusts Cuomo’s estimate.)
Even now, it’s hard to believe that someone with as little expertise as Kushner could be so arrogant, but he said something similar on Thursday, when he made his debut at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing: “People who have requests for different products and supplies, a lot of them are doing it based on projections which are not the realistic projections.”
Kushner has succeeded at exactly three things in his life. He was
- born to the right parents,
- married well and
- learned how to influence his father-in-law.
Most of his other endeavors — his
- biggest real estate deal, his
- foray into newspaper ownership, his
- attempt to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians
— have been failures.
Undeterred, he has now arrogated to himself a major role in fighting the epochal health crisis that’s brought America to its knees. “Behind the scenes, Kushner takes charge of coronavirus response,” said a Politico headline on Wednesday. This is dilettantism raised to the level of sociopathy.
The journalist Andrea Bernstein looked closely at Kushner’s business record for her recent book “American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power,” speaking to people on all sides of his real estate deals as well as those who worked with him at The New York Observer, the weekly newspaper he bought in 2006.
Kushner, Bernstein told me, “really sees himself as a disrupter.” Again and again, she said, people who’d dealt with Kushner told her that whatever he did, he “believed he could do it better than anybody else, and he had supreme confidence in his own abilities and his own judgment even when he didn’t know what he was talking about.”
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this confidence is unearned. Kushner was a reportedly mediocre student whose billionaire father appears to have bought him a place at Harvard. Taking over the family real estate company after his father was sent to prison, Kushner paid $1.8 billion — a record, at the time — for a Manhattan skyscraper at the very top of the real estate market in 2007. The debt from that project became a crushing burden for the family business. (Kushner was able to restructure the debt in 2011, and in 2018 the project was bailed out by a Canadian asset management company with links to the government of Qatar.) He gutted the once-great New York Observer, then made a failed attempt to create a national network of local politics websites.
His forays into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — for which he boasted of reading a whole 25 books — have left the dream of a two-state solution on life support. Michael Koplow of the centrist Israel Policy Forum described Kushner’s plan for the Palestinian economy as “the Monty Python version of Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
Now, in our hour of existential horror, Kushner is making life-or-death decisions for all Americans, showing all the wisdom we’ve come to expect from him.
“Mr. Kushner’s early involvement with dealing with the virus was in advising the president that the media’s coverage exaggerated the threat,” reported The Times. It was apparently at Kushner’s urging that Trump announced, falsely, that Google was about to launch a website that would link Americans with coronavirus testing. (As The Atlantic reported, a health insurance company co-founded by Kushner’s brother — which Kushner once owned a stake in — tried to build such a site, before the project was “suddenly and mysteriously scrapped.”)
The president was reportedly furious over the website debacle, but Kushner’s authority hasn’t been curbed. Politico reported that Kushner, “alongside a kitchen cabinet of outside experts including his former roommate and a suite of McKinsey consultants, has taken charge of the most important challenges facing the federal government,” including the production and distribution of medical supplies and the expansion of testing. Kushner has embedded his own people in the Federal Emergency Management Agency; a senior official described them to The Times as “a ‘frat party’ that descended from a U.F.O. and invaded the federal government.”
Disaster response requires discipline and adherence to a clear chain of command, not the move-fast-and-break-things approach of start-up culture. Even if Kushner “were the most competent person in the world, which he clearly isn’t, introducing these kind of competing power centers into a crisis response structure is a guaranteed problem,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a former U.S.A.I.D. official who helped manage the response to the Ebola crisis during Barack Obama’s administration, told me. “So you could have Trump and Kushner and Pence and the governors all be the smartest people in the room, but if there are multiple competing power centers trying to drive this response, it’s still going to be chaos.”
Competing power centers are a motif of this administration, and its approach to the pandemic is no exception. As The Washington Post reported, Kushner’s team added “another layer of confusion and conflicting signals within the White House’s disjointed response to the crisis.” Nor does his operation appear to be internally coherent. “Projects are so decentralized that one team often has little idea what others are doing — outside of that they all report up to Kushner,” reported Politico.
On Thursday, Governor Cuomo said that New York would run out of ventilators in six days. Perhaps Kushner’s projections were incorrect. “I don’t think the federal government is in a position to provide ventilators to the extent the nation may need them,” Cuomo said. “Assume you are on your own in life.” If not in life, certainly in this administration.
To eject the president, you need to beat him.
All you have to do is beat him.
Donald Trump is not a Caesar; he does not bestride our narrow world like a colossus, undefeatable save by desperate or underhanded means. He is an instinct-driven chancer who has exploited the decadence of his party and the larger system to grasp and hold a certain kind of power.
But he is also a reckless and distracted figure, a serial squanderer of opportunities, who barely won the presidency and whose coalition is united only in partisan solidarity and fear of liberalism. He may not be removable by the impeachment process, but is not a king; he is a widely hated, legislatively constrained president facing a difficult re-election.
All you have to do is beat him.
For a long time during Trump’s ascent I wrote columns demanding that the leaders of the Republican Party do something to keep this obviously unfit, chaotic, cruel man from becoming their nominee for president. Those columns were morally correct but structurally naïve, based on theories of party decision-making that no longer obtain in our era of institutional decay.
But Trump could have been stopped in the Republican primaries the old-fashioned way — by being beaten at the polls. His base was limited, his popularity fluctuated, and if his rivals had recognized the threat earlier, campaigned against him consistently, strategized with one another more effectively, and avoided their own meltdowns and missteps, there was no reason he could not have been defeated.
All you have to do is beat him.
After Trump’s administration began and immediately descended into chaos, I had one last flare of institutionalism, one last moment of outrage and 25th Amendment fantasy. But since then I have left the outrage to my liberal friends, watching them put their hopes in Robert Mueller’s investigation, in law-enforcement and intelligence-agency leaks and whistle-blowing, and finally — though with less real hope, and more grim resignation — in the House’s articles of impeachment.
Now that last effort is ending, as everyone with eyes could see it would, with the Republicans who failed to beat Trump when it counted declining to turn on him now that partisan consolidation and improving national conditions have sealed their base to him. The mix of expedience and cravenness with which the institutional G.O.P. approached impeachment is no different than the way the institutional G.O.P. behaved during Trump’s initial ascent, and it leaves Trump’s opposition no worse off than before. A failed impeachment doesn’t give him new powers or new popularity; it just shows that the normal way to be rid of an unpopular president is the way that Democrats must take.
All you have to do is beat him.
Of course, in trying to beat him they have to cope with the fact that he is chronically unscrupulous, as the Biden-Ukraine foray shows. And they have to overcome the advantage that his particular coalition enjoys in the Electoral College.
But in other ways the Democrats are lucky to have Trump to run against, as they were lucky in 2016. In a year when the fundamentals mildly favored Republicans, Hillary Clinton got to face off against the most-disliked G.O.P. nominee of modern times. And she would have beaten him — even with Russia, even with Comey — had her campaign taken just a few more steps to counter his team’s long-shot strategy to flip the Midwest.
All you have to do is beat him.
As with 2016, so with politics since. Liberal hand-wringing about their structural disadvantages ignores the advantages that Trump keeps giving them — the fact that in the best economy in 20 years he can’t stop making people hate him, can’t stop missing opportunities to expand his base, can’t stop forcing vulnerable Republicans to kiss his ring and thereby weaken their own prospects.
Impeachment has only extended this pattern, with Republicans voting to shorten the trial even when it makes them look like lackeys, and too cowed in many cases to even take the acquit-but-still-condemn approach that Democrats took with Bill Clinton. So now most of the country thinks the president did something wrong, most of the country thinks Republicans are protecting him, and most of the country is open, entirely open, to voting Trump and the most vulnerable Republican senators out in nine short months.
All you have to do is beat him.
It’s worth remembering, too, that liberalism is not just struggling in America, with our Electoral College and right-tilting Senate; it is struggling all around the world. Which, again, suggests that American liberals are fortunate to have Trump as their Great Foe. If he were merely as disciplined and competent as Boris Johnson or Viktor Orban, to choose leaders with whom he has a few things in common, he would be coasting to re-election.
Instead it is very likely that he will lose. But it was likely that he would lose in 2016 as well. One essential lesson of the Trump era is that likelihoods are not enough; if you want to end the Trump era only one thing will suffice.
You have to beat him.
Only one person can save us from the dangerous belligerent in the White House.
And that person is Donald Trump.
How screwed up is that?
Will the president let himself be pushed into a parlous war by John Bolton, who once buoyed the phony case on W.M.D.s in Iraq? Or will Trump drag back his national security adviser and the other uber hawks from the precipice of their fondest, bloodiest desire — to attack Iran?
Can Cadet Bone Spurs, as Illinois senator and Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth called Trump, set Tom Cotton straight that winning a war with Iran would not merely entail “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”? Holy cakewalk.
Once, we counted on Trump’s advisers to pump the brakes on an out-of-control president. Now, we count on the president to pump the brakes on out-of-control advisers.
.. “On one side, you have a president who doesn’t want war, who simply wants to do with Iran what he has done with North Korea, to twist the arm of the Iranians to bring them to a negotiation on his terms,” said Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador. “He thinks they will suffer and at the end, they will grovel in front of his power.”
But in a way, Araud said, the face-off with the Iranians is more “primitive and dangerous” because, besides Bolton, other factions in the Middle East are also “dreaming of going to war.”
“Even if Trump doesn’t personally want war, we are now at the mercy of any incident, because we are at maximum tension on both sides,” said Araud, recalling Candidate Trump’s bellicose Twitter ultimatumsin 2016 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards held American sailors blindfolded at gunpoint for 15 hours.
Given their sour feelings about W. shattering the Middle East and their anger at Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans are inclined to see the U.S. as trying to provoke Iran into war. This time, the Europeans will not be coming along — and who can blame them?
I’m having an acid flashback to 2002, when an immature, insecure, ill-informed president was bamboozled by his war tutors.
In an echo of the hawks conspiring with Iraqi exiles to concoct a casus belli for Iraq, Bolton told members of an Iranian exile group in Paris in 2017 that the Trump administration should go for regime change in Tehran.
“And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Bolton cheerily told the exiles.
When Bolton was the fifth column in the Bush 2 State Department — there to lurk around and report back on flower child Colin Powell — he complained that W.’s Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) was too limited, adding three more of his own (Cuba, Libya, Syria). Then, last year, Bolton talked about “the Troika of Tyranny” (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). His flirtations with military intervention in Venezuela this month irritated Trump.
The 70-year-old with the Yeti mustache is an insatiable interventionist with an abiding faith in unilateralism and pre-emptive war. (The cost of our attenuated post-9/11 wars is now calculated at $5.9 trillion.)
W. and Trump are similar in some ways but also very different. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: W. was interested in clarity. Trump wants chaos. W. wanted to trust his domineering advisers. Trump is always imagining betrayal. W. wanted to be a war hero, like his dad. Trump does not want to be trapped in an interminable war that will consume his presidency.
Certainly, the biographer says, Trump enjoys playing up the scary aspects of brown people with foreign names and ominous titles, like “mullah” and “ayatollah,” to stoke his base.
But Trump, unlike W., is driven by the drama of it. “It’s a game of revving up the excitement and making people afraid and then backing off on the fear in order to declare that he’s resolved the situation,” D’Antonio said. “Trump prefers threats and ultimatums to action because that allows him to look big and tough and get attention without doing something for which he will be held responsible. This is who he is at his core: an attention-seeking, action-averse propagandist who is terrified of accountability in the form of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”
David Axelrod, who had the military briefing about what a war with Iran would look like when he was in the Obama White House, said: “I’m telling you. It’s not a pretty picture.”
He says he is not sure which movie Bolton is starring in: “Dr. Strangelove” or “Wag the Dog.”
“If part of your brand is that you’re not going to get the U.S. into unnecessary wars,” he said, “why in the world would you hire John Bolton?”
They’re in for a long wait.