Jared Kushner huddled behind closed doors with some of the Republican Party’s most powerful donors at a midtown Manhattan hotel earlier this month.
The mission: convince them that the Trump White House isn’t a mess.
While the administration raced to extinguish that day’s firestorm — U.S. President Donald Trump’s denial of Hurricane Maria’s 2,975-person death toll — Kushner insisted that the circus-like perception is wrong. Real work is getting done. There are serious people in the White House who are following an actual process, he said, and low-performing staffers had been replaced.
The appearance before the secretive American Opportunity Alliance donor conference, previously unreported, sheds light on the latest addition to Kushner’s expansive portfolio: ambassador to the Republican money set, a contingent that remains wary of the administration and its never-ending tumult. The 37-year-old Trump senior adviser has attended at least four donor gatherings since August, and those close to him say he may soon appear at more. He has been in regular contact with Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, one of the Republican Party’s most prolific benefactors and a staunch pro-Israel figure. The two spoke last week.
Kushner’s charm offensive reflects a broader realization within the Trump White House that after dismissing elite donors in 2016, they are now a constituency that must be carefully tended to. With his party racing to save its congressional majorities and a treacherous reelection contest fast approaching, Trump can’t afford ignore them.
It’s a natural role for Kushner, a wealthy former real estate executive and newspaper publisher.
Kushner’s presentation drew a multitude of bold-faced names, including financial executive Charles Schwab, Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts and Los Angeles investor Marc Stern. Some in the room had complicated histories with the president, such as billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer. During the 2016 Republican primary, Singer backed Florida Senator Marco Rubio and bankrolled an anti-Trump super PAC. He has since been in touch with the president and other top administration officials and has helped to fund the efforts to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominees.
Trump’s son-in-law detailed his work on trade and prison reform and was pressed on a range of issues, including the administration’s unorthodox approach to foreign policy. At one point, it was pointed out to Kushner that while previous American presidents had typically chosen to make their first foreign trip to a traditionally allied country like Canada, Mexico or the United Kingdom, Trump went to Saudi Arabia.
Kushner made the case that it wasn’t a random pick. It was aimed at cultivating a relationship with eventual Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi King Salman, he said, resetting the relationship with the Arab world.
Donors “walked in doubting that the president has serious, thoughtful people around him,” said Ken Kurson, a longtime Kushner friend who attended the conference, but “left feeling reassured.”
Kushner is filling a void with his outreach. Previous administrations had unofficial donor liaisons who were regularly in touch with influential givers, such as Karl Rove in George W. Bush’s White House and Valerie Jarrett in Barack Obama’s. But Trump, who spent much of the Republican primary campaign attacking his rivals for kowtowing to big contributors, hasn’t had such a figure.
It’s a natural role for Kushner, a wealthy former real estate executive and newspaper publisher who before entering the White House was a mainstay of Manhattan high society. His father, Charles, was for years a major Democratic benefactor in New Jersey. Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, has made his focus the Middle East peace process, an issue of paramount interest to many of the party’s top patrons.
Kushner’s involvement underscores his changing position in the turbulent Trump White House. After taking on a high profile during the first year of the administration, he has increasingly become a behind-the-scenes player. Kushner, who has come under widespread criticism for failing to tame his father-in-law’s most self-destructive impulses and for taking on too many responsibilities, has told people that he’s content being out of the spotlight.
Kushner declined to comment for this story.
Dan Senor, a former George W. Bush administration official and confidant of Singer and House Speaker Paul Ryan, has helped Kushner navigate some of his outreach.
His tour began last month, when he appeared at a donor retreat hosted by Ryan in Jackson Hole, Wyo. At a mountaintop restaurant, Kushner — who saw the event as an opportunity to address a group of establishment-aligned donors who weren’t fully on board with Trump’s 2016 campaign — spoke on a range of policy issues. His wife, Ivanka Trump, attended with him.
“He clearly has the president’s ear” — Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban
Karen Kemmerer, a Wyoming-based contributor who was in the audience that evening, acknowledged she initially felt some skepticism toward Kushner, a newcomer to government. But she said she came away impressed.
“I think certainly for my husband and I, before meeting either of them, we had on our minds like, ‘What backgrounds and capabilities do they really have to be working in the White House? What kind of experiences do they have? What are they doing? I don’t want to say we had a negative impression, but we were kind of neutral,” she said. “So it was really very eye-opening to hear from both of them that night. And I think the majority of the other donors felt the same way.”
After Labor Day, Kushner attended a dinner at New York City’s Pierre Hotel that drew an elite crowd of donors, think tank leaders, and foreign policy elders from both parties. Among those in attendance was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, and billionaire investor Ira Rennert.
With Singer at one side of a long table and Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban at the other, Kushner — joined by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Trump Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt — engaged in a free-flowing conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Saban, an Israeli-born Hollywood mogul who was close to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, has forged an unexpectedly warm relationship with Kushner. In an interview, Saban, who’s grown frustrated with what he described as the antagonistic posture some in his party were taking toward Israel, said he and Kushner spoke several times a month.
Saban, who was in such frequent contact with team Clinton that he became known as its “favorite billionaire,” contended that Kushner is the “ideal candidate” in the Trump White House to take on the role of donor whisperer.
“He clearly has the president’s ear. He clearly, when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, is familiar with the issues and has access at the highest level,” said Saban, who added that he remains a Democrat.
Kushner’s most recent foray came on Thursday, when he flew to Ohio to headline a fundraiser for Rep. Jim Jordan, a founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Kushner, who has grown close to Jordan, fielded an array of questions from attendees.
The blitz has soothed the nerves of some donors, who’ve watched as the Trump administration has endured a torrent of scandals and flare-ups.
People familiar with the planning for the event stressed that Kushner’s appearance wasn’t intended as an endorsement of Jordan’s bid for House speaker, and that the fundraiser was agreed to long before the congressman announced his candidacy for the post.
It’s unclear how Kushner’s role will evolve as Trump’s reelection bid kicks into gear. After helping to spearhead his father-in-law’s 2016 campaign, he has told people that he doesn’t expect to have a formal position on the 2020 campaign and will remain in the White House.
The blitz has soothed the nerves of some donors, who’ve watched as the Trump administration has endured a torrent of scandals and flare-ups. As Kushner’s talk at the American Opportunity Alliance conference came to a close, a question was posed to him.
“Mr. Kushner, you really reassured me,” an audience member said. “But are you having fun?”