(CNN)Beset by controversy in his still-young presidency, Donald Trump is making a characteristic move: betting on family. But is it the right strategy for turning around a troubled White House?
Throughout his career, Trump has expressed his faith in genetically-conferred talents — especially his own — and the extreme loyalty of family. As President, he is acting true to form as he makes his daughter Ivanka an official White House employee — with security clearances and a West Wing office — and heaps responsibilities on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
As a senior advisor to the President, Kushner will be involved in trade, government operations and the highly delicate work of diplomacy in the Middle East. This last responsibility is said to include seeking a permanent peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, an end that has eluded presidents and diplomats for nearly 70 years.
Trump’s turn toward family makes some sense viewed in the context of his life experience. He has always operated with a small number of trusted partners and, from the moment they became adults, his children occupied that circle closest to him — and came to adopt his approach to business (and now, government). Ivanka and Jared in particular mirror the elder Trump in entering public service under a cloud of potential conflicts of interest. But unlike the President, they will be subject to all the laws and regulations governing federal officials.
With a broad-based fortune estimated to be worth as much as $740 million, the couple could benefit from actions taken by any number of corporate titans or foreign officials who visit the White House. Kushner holds lines of credit from Deutsche Bank and Citigroup, for example, and his family’s businesses have sought investments around the world. Ivanka Trump has long used Asian factories to manufacture fashion items her company sells in America.
Consider the situation from President Trump’s perspective and you can imagine why he’s pulling family close. He tried to invest some confidence in an outsider, appointing Michael Flynn to be national security advisor, only to see him driven from office in a matter of weeks. Next came the drip-drip-drip of reports of a myriad of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
Another President who felt betrayed by aides and bureaucrats might turn to seasoned and respected elders — think James Baker in the Reagan years — to provide some stability. Trump’s solution is to invest trust and power in a couple whose youth, inexperience and lifelong isolation in the extreme precincts of family wealth make them unlikely saviors for a President and a nation in crisis.
Ivanka and Jared were both born in 1981. Together they can claim little meaningful experience in government, politics, national, or world affairs. Both attended posh private schools and earned degrees from elite universities.
With minor exceptions, the two of them have spent their entire working lives inside family-run companies where they claimed leadership positions as their birthright. Ivanka became a more-polished female version of her father, fashioning her lifestyle into a commercial brand that she promoted through mass media. Even her most substantive policy ideas about childcare — highly touted by her father and other Republicans — have garnered intense criticism for their lack of attention to some of the women who don’t share her privileges.
In Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump married a man much like her father. Like the elder Trump, Kushner comes from a family that got very rich in real estate adjacent to Manhattan. The Trump fortune was built on the construction and leasing of thousands of outer-borough apartments. The Kushners pursued the same wealth-building strategy in New Jersey.
As the ambitious face of a new generation, Kushner, like Trump, sought to make a splash in Manhattan. He achieved this goal with the purchase of the skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion.
In New York real estate circles, Jared is best known for that building. According to Bloomberg View editor Tim O’Brien, occupancy rates fell and Kushner needed outside investors to keep the operation afloat.
Around the time that his father-in-law sewed up the Republican nomination, notes O’Brien, Kushner began talking to the Anbang Insurance Group of China about investing billions in the building, a move that would have compromised the country’s diplomatic relations with China. A spokesperson for Kushner Companies said last week that the two entities had “mutually agreed” to end talks about such a deal.
It takes a good deal of chutzpah to court investment from a company with ties to the Chinese government when your father-in-law is one of two people competing to become President of the United States. It seems Kushner’s audacity rivals the nerve Trump himself has exhibited throughout his life. (Trump’s continuous claim to be an excellent businessman despite his four bankruptcies is Exhibit A of that attitude.)
But Trumpian nerve may not be the only flaw Kushner shares with his father-in-law. Like Trump, Kushner appears to lack the sense of propriety that would help him steer clear of people and situations that could cause trouble in the future.
Despite the enormous controversy swirling around Trump and Russia, Kushner met with both the Russian ambassador and a Russian banker in the weeks after the election. The banker was appointed to his position by Vladimir Putin and is a graduate of the school that trains Russia’s intelligence officers.
The groundwork for Kushner’s contacts with the Russians was set in 2015, at a time when Trump was discussing with his family the idea of seeking the presidency. At that time, Kushner Companies bought part of the former New York Times building in Manhattan from a firm owned by an international developer, Lev Leviev, in a deal worth $295 million. Born in the former Soviet Union, Leviev has described Putin as a “true friend.”
It’s clear that little in Kushner’s life prior to Trump’s inauguration indicates that he could supply the kind of wisdom and counsel a president needs. His decision to go skiing with his family with a key vote in Congress on the line suggests he may not have learned much during his father-in-law’s first weeks in office, either.
Where he and Ivanka can be helpful, however, is in matters of style. They speak with poise and don’t send out controversial tweets. They have a history of supporting (and meeting with celebrities who support) more center-left causes. They could, in other words, help the President be more effective in dealing with the strong personalities he’ll need to cultivate if he wants to get things done in Washington.
A besieged president and a country riven by Trump chaos needs more than the discretion of a daughter and a son-in-law, however. To succeed, Trump requires the wisdom of those who have been tested in government and politics before, who can demonstrate the integrity suited to serving the Constitution and the rule of law as well as the man in the Oval Office.