How Jared Kushner Washed His Hands of Donald Trump Before Jan. 6
WASHINGTON — On Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, barely 24 hours after President Donald J. Trump claimed in the middle of the night that “frankly, we did win this election,” Jared Kushner woke up in his Kalorama mansion and announced to his wife that it was time to leave Washington. “We’re moving to Miami,” he said.
The election had not even been called for Joseph R. Biden Jr., but as Mr. Kushner later told the story to aides and associates, the White House’s young power couple felt no need to wait for the official results. They saw which way the votes were going and understood that, barring some unforeseen surprise, the president had lost his bid for a second term. Even if he refused to accept it himself.
No matter how vociferously Mr. Trump claimed otherwise, neither Mr. Kushner nor Ivanka Trump believed then or later that the election had been stolen, according to people close to them. While the president spent the hours and days after the polls closed complaining about imagined fraud in battleground states and plotting a strategy to hold on to power, his daughter and son-in-law were already washing their hands of the Trump presidency.
Their decision to move on opened a vacuum around the president that was filled by conspiracy theorists like Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, who relayed to Mr. Trump farcically false stories of dead voters, stuffed ballot boxes, corrupted voting machines and foreign plots. Concluding that the president would not listen even to family members urging him to accept the results, Mr. Kushner told Mr. Trump that he would not be involved if Mr. Giuliani were in charge, according to people he confided in, effectively ceding the field to those who would try to overturn the election.
Mr. Kushner’s decision to withdraw from the most consequential moment of the Trump presidency left few effective counterweights to the plotters seeking to subvert the will of the voters to hang on to power. While the president’s son-in-law had arguably been the most influential adviser to the president through four years, weighing in at times and carefully cultivating his reputation, he chose at that pivotal moment to focus instead on his personal project of Middle East diplomacy. He returned to the region to meet with figures who would also be helpful to him later in making money after leaving the White House. It was the final act in the myth that Mr. Kushner would be the moderating force on a president who resisted moderation.
The role Mr. Kushner played could come into sharp relief once the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol opens public hearings this week. The committee interviewed Mr. Kushner, who otherwise has not spoken at length publicly about the events after the 2020 election, and plans to show video excerpts from his testimony along with Ivanka Trump’s.
Mr. Kushner’s activities in his final months in the White House are now also coming under the scrutiny of another Democratic-run House committee investigating whether he used his position to secure a $2 billion investment in his new private equity firm from a prominent Saudi Arabian wealth fund. Mr. Kushner has said he abided by all legal and ethical guidelines while in public service.
This account of Mr. Kushner’s postelection activities is based on interviews with a wide array of figures close to him and the former president for a forthcoming book by this reporter and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker magazine called “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” to be published by Doubleday on Sept. 20. Nearly all of those who spoke requested anonymity to discuss private conversations and meetings.
One of the most striking realizations that emerged from the book research was how many people around Mr. Trump did not believe the election had been stolen but kept quiet or checked out, including White House officials and campaign aides. Hope Hicks, long one of his closest advisers, told him it was time to move on. “Well, Hope doesn’t believe in me,” Mr. Trump responded bitterly. “No, I don’t,” she replied. “Nobody’s convinced me otherwise.” She disappeared in the final weeks of the administration.
Kellyanne Conway, the former White House counselor and fierce Trump loyalist, reported in her new book that she told Mr. Trump to accept his loss, something she did not say publicly at the time; even this much-delayed acknowledgment of reality drew a rebuke from Mr. Trump, who said she should “go back to her crazy husband.”
The Two-to-One Formula
During his four years in the White House, Mr. Kushner positioned himself as the measured alter ego to a volatile president, the one who others turned to for help in calming down or reasoning with Mr. Trump when he headed down one erratic path or another. But in fact, Mr. Kushner became strategic in his interventions, having been burned by early efforts that blew up in his face. He focused on personal priorities like criminal justice reform, and he jousted with rivals in a factionalized West Wing while absenting himself at key moments, to the frustration of colleagues.
Mr. Kushner developed his own techniques for handling Mr. Trump. One key, he told others, was feeding the president good news, even if it was in short supply. In fact, Mr. Kushner came up with a specific mathematical formula for his peculiar brand of Trump management: two to one. Any phone call, any meeting should include this good-news-to-bad-news ratio. He would give twice as much upbeat information as grim updates. He similarly made a habit of telling Mr. Trump to add five points to any bad poll, rationalizing that traditional surveys missed many Trump voters anyway, part of a common White House practice of telling the president what he wanted to hear regardless of the facts.
Even for his son-in-law, though, the president was a demanding boss, not given to showing appreciation. Mr. Kushner understood that Mr. Trump was never going to call him and say, “You’re doing a great job. I just want to thank you for this.” Instead, Mr. Kushner once explained to an associate, his dealings with Trump invariably began with the president saying, “What the hell is going on with this?” albeit with an earthier expletive, often in a phone call at 1 or 2 in the morning.
Having watched dozens of senior officials come and go, Mr. Kushner realized the essential element of survival: never forgetting it was Mr. Trump’s show, Mr. Trump’s party, Mr. Trump’s way. “You have to realize you don’t make the waves,” Mr. Kushner regularly advised other officials. “He makes the waves. And then you have to do your best to kind of stay on the surfboard.”
Mr. Kushner the surfer had come to recognize when the waves were too rough — as they were after Election Day 2020. He understood that his father-in-law would not concede right away and would ask for recounts and file lawsuits, but he believed that even if there were some irregularities, it was mainly a way of soothing a wounded ego and explaining defeat. Mr. Trump would lash out and make outlandish claims but eventually accept reality and move out of the White House — an assumption many Republicans in Washington made, only to discover how far the president was really willing to go.
To Mr. Kushner, his father-in-law’s decision to turn once again to Mr. Giuliani was a red flag. As far as Mr. Kushner was concerned, Mr. Giuliani was an erratic schemer who had already gotten Mr. Trump impeached once because of his political intriguing in Ukraine, and nothing good would come of the former mayor’s involvement in fighting the election results. But instead of fighting Mr. Giuliani for Mr. Trump’s attention, Mr. Kushner opted out entirely, deciding it was time to focus on his own future, one that would no longer involve the White House.
He and Ms. Trump began making plans. They quickly ruled out returning to New York. Like Mr. Trump, who had officially become a Florida resident in 2019, they had soured on their former home just as it had soured on them. Miami, on the other hand, seemed exciting and new.
While Mr. Trump huddled with Mr. Giuliani and others telling him that he could still win, Mr. Kushner and his wife began thinking about where they would live, what schools they could send their three children to and what business ventures they would pursue. They had to be discreet about it. The last thing they wanted to do was make it look as if they were moving on because that would produce headlines embarrassing to Mr. Trump. Indeed, Ivanka Trump would text her father’s top advisers that same day just after the election and prod them to “Keep the faith and the fight!”
But she and Mr. Kushner were soon scouting properties in Florida, and within weeks they were buying a $32 million lot formerly owned by the Spanish singer Julio Iglesias on the private island of Indian Creek near Miami, an exclusive haven for a couple dozen wealthy families that tabloids called the “Billionaire’s Bunker.”
In what remaining time he had in the White House, Mr. Kushner wanted to focus on expanding the Abraham Accords, the agreement establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states, an achievement that he felt validated his whole time in Washington. Two other countries, Morocco and Sudan, signed on to the accords during the period between the election and Mr. Biden’s inauguration.
As his father-in-law refused to authorize transition cooperation with Mr. Biden’s incoming team, Mr. Kushner quietly began working with aides to the president-elect like Jake Sullivan and Jeffrey Zients to prepare for their takeover. And although Mr. Trump might not have been thinking about his legacy yet, Mr. Kushner was.
While still in the White House, he began writing a memoir focused on Middle East peacemaking. In the weeks to come, as Mr. Trump would continue to insist that he would remain for a second term, Mr. Kushner set about chronicling the first. He even took an online MasterClass on how to write a book, taught by the prolific best-selling novelist James Patterson. In the course of a two-week stretch after the election, he secretly batted out 40,000 words of a first draft. The final version is set to be published in August.
A Coming Collision
The postelection fraud claims quickly exposed a rift within the Trump family. On the same day Mr. Kushner woke up to declare it was time to move to Miami, his brother-in-law Donald Trump Jr. was already pushing the president’s team to fight to stay in power. He sent a text to Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, outlining a plan to override the verdict of the voters by having Republican legislatures in states won by Mr. Biden invalidate the results and send Electoral College votes for Mr. Trump when Congress counted them on Jan. 6.
How much Mr. Kushner knew about that at the time remains unclear, but he did not express serious concern about how far the effort to hang on to power would go. He sent word to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, that Mr. Trump would eventually accept the reality that he lost.
“We’ll get through it, bear with us,” Mr. Kushner told Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff and campaign manager for Mr. McConnell who would pass along the message. “We’ve got a couple of challenges that have some merit, we’ll see how they go, but there’s a pretty good chance we come up short.” And once the Electoral College voted on Dec. 14, he suggested, that would be the end of it. Mr. Trump just needed time to come to terms with his defeat.
While Mr. Kushner was often called the president’s shadow chief of staff, the man who held the actual title, Mr. Meadows, was actively encouraging the conspiracy theorists seeking to overturn the election, acting less as a gatekeeper than a door opener, letting practically anybody who wanted to come into the Oval Office.
Among them were lawyers and others arguing that Vice President Mike Pence could unilaterally stop Mr. Biden from being formally recognized as the winner in his role overseeing the counting of the Electoral College votes in Congress. Mr. Pence concluded he had no such power and it would be unconstitutional for him to do so, but that did not stop Mr. Trump from keeping up the pressure.
Finally, seeing the collision that was coming, Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, tried to enlist help from Mr. Kushner, calling him over the holidays to ask him to get his father-in-law to stand down. “Look, can you help us with this?” Mr. Short asked.
But Mr. Kushner brushed him off. “Look, when Rudy got involved, I stopped being involved,” he told Mr. Short. The vice president “is a big boy,” and if he disagreed with the president on a legal issue, he should bring in his lawyers. “I’m too busy working on Middle East peace right now, Marc.”
Indeed, in the days leading up to Jan. 6, Mr. Kushner was in the Middle East brokering a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to end a three-year blockade of the small Gulf state. He was on a plane back to Washington when Mr. Trump’s mob stormed the Capitol.
After arriving home in the afternoon, Mr. Kushner was in the bathroom with the shower already running and about to jump in when his phone rang. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican minority leader, was on the line asking Mr. Kushner to persuade the president to do something. “We need help!” Mr. McCarthy insisted. Mr. Kushner turned off the shower and rushed to the White House.
Ivanka Trump had spent much of the day trying to keep her father from going too far. She had refused to address the rally on the Ellipse but at the last minute was so concerned by her father’s anger toward Mr. Pence that she decided to accompany him there in hopes of avoiding a worse clash. Over the following hours, as rioters rampaged through the Capitol, she ran up and down the stairs in the West Wing from her office to the Oval Office hoping to persuade her father to issue stronger statements calling off the attackers.
By the time Mr. Kushner finally arrived at the White House, his wife had gotten her father to release a video telling supporters to go home. But even then, he repeated his lies about the “fraudulent election” and expressed solidarity with the rioters, telling them, “We love you, you’re very special.” Mr. Kushner quickly concluded there was little more he could do at that point.
In the days that followed, Mr. Kushner tried to broker peace between the president and vice president. On Jan. 11, he asked Mr. Short to come to his office. Would the vice president be willing to get together with the president?
“He’s always willing,” Mr. Short replied. “But that’s not his responsibility to reconcile this relationship. That invitation should come from the other end of the hall.”
“That’s what I’m doing, Marc,” Mr. Kushner said.
At Kushner’s arrangement, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence sat down that afternoon with no staff for an hour and a half. Mr. Pence reported back to aides that it was somewhat warm. But it was only a bandage over a gaping wound.
On Jan. 20, Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump attended the farewell ceremony for the outgoing president at Joint Base Andrews and accompanied him on Air Force One to Florida. Mr. Trump was heading into exile, prepared to keep waging war on Mr. Biden and the system, insisting he really won.
Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump would have nothing to do with that. The next day, two moving trucks showed up at their Kalorama house to load up the furniture and a Peloton bike for the journey south to a luxury multilevel condo they had rented to live in while waiting for their new mansion to be built.
They were moving on to their new life.