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Kushner taking on quieter role in White House

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Ashley Parker, The Washington Post

A month ago, Jared Kushner - President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser - made a surprise trip to Riyadh to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the fellow son of a world leader who is making waves with crackdowns and modernization efforts.

Kushner, 36, flew commercial and the White House only announced the visit once he was already on the ground. There were no news releases touting the specifics of his meetings, which included two days of one-on-one and small private audiences with Salman, 32. White House officials said the trip was part of Kushner's effort as Trump's adviser to build regional support for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Just days after Kushner landed back in Washington, Salman launched a purge of allegedly corrupt Saudi officials also seen as rivals to the prince and his father, King Salman. Kushner had no knowledge or advance warning of the move, and the topic was not natural for the two to discuss, a White House official close to him said. "Jared's portfolio is Israeli-Palestinian peace, and he respects what his lane is," the official said.

The journey revealed Kushner as a figure who seems both near the center of power and increasingly marginalized at the same time. His once sprawling White House portfolio, which included walk-in privileges to the Oval Office, has been diminished to its original scope under Chief of Staff John Kelly, and he has notably receded from public view.

His still-evolving role in the investigations of Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice also make him a potential risk to Trump, even as he enjoys the special status of being married to the boss's daughter, Ivanka, and serving as one of the president's senior confidants. Kushner's family faces additional pressures over a troubled New York City skyscraper at 666 Fifth Ave., which he purchased in his role as head of his family's real estate business but which he has divested from since entering the administration.

In a rare interview in his West Wing office earlier this month - a silver bowl of Halloween candy still on the table - Kushner offered his own version of the fable of the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing.

"During the campaign, I was more like a fox than a hedgehog. I was more of a generalist having to learn about and master a lot of skills quickly," he said. "When I got to D.C., I came with an understanding that the problems here are so complex - and if they were easy problems, they would have been fixed before - and so I became more like the hedgehog, where it was more taking issues you care deeply about, going deep and devoting the time, energy and resources to trying to drive change."

This portrait of Kushner comes from interviews with Kushner himself, as well as 12 senior administration officials, aides, outside advisers and confidants, some of them demanding anonymity to offer a more candid assessment.

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner waits for President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump to arrive to a state banquet hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Oct. 6, 2017. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)NYT
White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner waits for President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump to arrive to a state banquet hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Oct. 6, 2017. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
NYT

Allies say Kushner's subtle shift into the background of the West Wing reflects his natural inclination to work hard and eschew the limelight, while his enemies gloat that it stems from a series of avoidable missteps that are the result of his political naivete. Following recent reports, which the White House denied, that the president privately blames Kushner for Mueller's widening probe, Breitbart, the conservative website, snarkily dubbed him, "Mr. Perfect."

Some aides scoff at the notion that Kushner isn't still whispering to the president about official business. But one of Kelly's conditions for taking the job was that everyone, including Kushner and his wife, had to go through him to reach the president, and Kelly has made clear that Kushner reports to him, aides said.

The new hierarchy is part of Kelly's effort to sideline Kushner, said one Republican in frequent contact with the White House, though others say the order Kelly has imposed has simply liberated Kushner to focus on his own portfolio - and eased some of the animosity his colleagues felt toward him.

Kushner said he welcomes the change. "The order allows this place to function," Kushner said. "My number one priority is a high functioning White House, because I believe in the president's agenda, and I think it should get executed."

He still maintains the broad portfolio he took on at the beginning of the administration that made him a punchline among aides on Capitol Hill: Peace in the Middle East, as well as Canada, Mexico and China, and overseeing the Office of American Innovation, an in-house group that focuses on tackling longer-term government challenges.

He attends meetings of his innovation group once a week, often on a Tuesday or Wednesday for an hour-long check-in and progress update. The innovation office launched with great fanfare in March, but some aides recently said they could not pinpoint exactly what it has accomplished.

Kushner and his allies reject that assessment, saying the office is focused on long-term projects. They say, for example, that the group helped the Department of Veterans Affairs launch their electronic medical records initiative in June, with Kushner expediting the process by calling Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and asking him to send over people from his department to help.

"If I ever get into a roadblock, we just elevate it to Jared," said Chris Liddell, a senior White House official who works in the innovation office. "He's great at saying, 'Can't we get so-and-so to come over?' and we get it done on the spot."

Kushner is one of the advisers helping on negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he accompanied Trump on the first half of his Asia trip earlier this month.

But the main focus for Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, is working to bring peace in the Middle East - a task that has bedeviled negotiators far more experienced in the region for generations. What Kushner brings to the effort, say several senior White House officials, is personal relationships with players on all sides and a willingness to bet on long shot outcomes.

Before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Trump at the White House in September, Kushner and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt met him at the Mandarin Oriental for a two-hour breakfast. More recently, on Halloween, Kushner suggested that he and Greenblatt visit Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian peace negotiator, at the apartment in Virginia where he is recuperating from a lung transplant. After briefly considering, and then nixing, wine - Erekat is Muslim - Kushner ultimately brought chocolate.

"This is very much a human conflict and a human-to-human relationship," Greenblatt said. "When you're able to touch somebody and talk about it, it's a meaningful engagement. It takes a certain personality and Jared has that touch."

Yet snags persist. A week ago, the Palestinians threatened to freeze all contact with the Trump administration after the State Department said the Palestine Liberation Organization's office in Washington could not remain open - a decision it backtracked on Friday.

And Kushner's friendship with Mohammed bin Salman raised questions after the crown prince's anti-corruption campaign - which critics paint as an attempt to consolidate power, but devotees say is part of his efforts as a reformer - as well as concerns from some that Saudi Arabia now feels further emboldened within the region.

The Mueller probe, meanwhile, is entering a new phase, with the special counsel announcing two indictments at the end of last month - including for Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort - while investigators begin to interview people close to the president's inner circle. Kushner has turned over documents to the House and Senate committees investigating possible collusion between Russia and Trump's campaign, though in a letter, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently complained that Kushner had not been fully forthcoming - a charge his lawyer denies.

Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner (L) holds his son Joseph as Ivanka Trump (C) adjusts her daughter Arabella's (L) coat during the pardoning of Thanksgiving turkey Drumstick in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on November 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSONJIM WATSON/AFP/Getty ImagesAFP/Getty Images
Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner (L) holds his son Joseph as Ivanka Trump (C) adjusts her daughter Arabella's (L) coat during the pardoning of Thanksgiving turkey Drumstick in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on November 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSONJIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

So far, Mueller has filed no court documents to suggest Kushner is in legal jeopardy, but people close to the case say investigators have been looking at his meetings with Russians before and after the election, as well as his role in discussions that led to the firing of FBI director James Comey.

The news on Thanksgiving that former national security adviser Michael Flynn's lawyers had notified Trump's legal team that they could no longer share information about the Russia probe prompted speculation that Flynn may now be cooperating with Mueller - a potentially perilous sign for the president and his associates.

But friends say Kushner is even-keeled about the investigations. For him, they said, the most stressful moments came in May, amid news reports that he had tried to establish a secret back-channel with Russia during the transition, and that the FBI was probing his actions. He was frustrated, a White House official said, that he couldn't respond to the allegations until he went to be interviewed by Congress.

"Jared is an extraordinary calm person," said H.R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser. "I have never seen him distracted."

He huddled with his lawyers for hours in the run-up to his testimony before Congress but is in less frequent daily contact now unless something from Mueller's probe specifically requires his attention, one White House official said.

Kushner's detractors point to his role in the Russia probe as another sign of his poor political skills and continued risk to the president. A Republican close to the White House said that Kushner "has no judgment - never has and never will."

But in some ways, Kushner appears more protected from the daily sniping that plagued the early months of Trump's presidency. Over the summer, a trio of advisers who were rivals to Kushner were pushed out of the West Wing: Stephen Bannon, then the president's chief strategist who now runs Breitbart; Reince Priebus, the chief of staff; and Sean Spicer, the press secretary.

"He no longer is in an environment where he has an actual predator," said one White House official, likening Kushner to Bannon's regular prey. "That has probably helped his working environment some."

Kushner, with his whispery voice, has also proven one of the few people adept at absorbing Trump's anger. He can speak to Trump in a shared language of transaction from their days in the New York real estate world.

"I don't try to manage him," Kushner said. "I try to give him my honest feedback. If he asks my advice on something, sometimes I'll give it, sometimes I'll say, 'Let me go call a few people,' and then I'll give it."

McMaster said Kushner sometimes acts as a translator between his father-in-law, the president, and his senior advisers. "He helped a lot of us learn faster what's important to the president," McMaster said. "His relationship with the president makes Jared valuable as an adviser to the president, and also as an adviser to the president's advisers."

When Kushner's family first arrived in Washington, they agreed they would assess after six months whether they intended to stay. Trump himself has mused privately about the hit his daughter and son-in-law's reputation is taking because of their White House roles and about what a great and easy life they had back in New York. Others have questioned why someone like Kushner would put himself in Mueller's crosshairs by remaining in government.

But when the couple reassessed in July, they reached a decision. "We're here to stay," Kushner said. "At the current moment, we're charging forward."

He added, "My wife asked me the other day if we should be looking at new houses, so that's a good sign."