Still Standing, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump Step Back in the Spotlight

Despite a bruising 18 months, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are as close to the center of President Trump’s orbit as they have ever been.

WASHINGTON — They disappointed climate change activists who thought they would keep President Trump from leaving the landmark Paris accord. They enraged Democrats and even some Republicans by not pushing back against his immigration policies, and alienated business allies by their silence over threats to Nafta. They regularly faced news stories about their unpopularity.

Even their relationship with the president seemed to suffer.

Several times Mr. Trump joked that he “could have had Tom Brady” as a son-in-law. “Instead,” the president said, according to five people who heard him, “I got Jared Kushner.”

And yet, after 18 months of bruising internal White House conflicts and bitter criticism that they have failed to be a moderating influence on the president, both Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter, are still in Washington and still working as aides to Mr. Trump. They are as comfortable — and as close to the center of the president’s orbit — as they have ever been.

As scrutiny of the couple often referred to as Javanka became increasingly intense during the president’s first year, Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump seemed to retreat from public view, and after several of their allies in the White House departed, there was a near-constant stream of questions about whether they would follow.

It did not help that the president had gone from telling aides to “talk to Jared,” as he did during the campaign, to telling them that “Jared hasn’t been so good for me.” At various points, Mr. Trump told friends and his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, that he wished both Jared and Ivanka would return to New York.

But as one staff member after another has disappointed him and has departed or been dispatched, Mr. Trump has retreated into the familiarity of his family — his daughter, above all, and eventually, her husband. As Mr. Trump, cut off from dissenting voices and convinced of his own popularity, has become more emboldened, so have his daughter and son-in-law.

It was only in May that Mr. Kushner had his security clearance restored after months of questions about whether he was in peril in the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Mr. Mueller’s investigators have not publicly cleared Mr. Kushner, and Mr. Kushner’s advisers issued misleading statements that indicated his clearance had been fully restored, when in fact he was still awaiting that status.

But he and his wife are still ramping up their profiles, ready again for a more public stage to pursue their projects after waiting out — and in some cases grinding down — their critics.

Credit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“I think they felt in some ways when things escalated that they thought it was best to keep a lower profile and hone in on their specific policy areas,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.

Ms. Trump’s announcement this past week that she would shut down her fashion brand, based in New York, seemed to symbolize a recommitment to her life and her husband’s in Washington. The woman who once said that she did not intend to stay in the capital long enough to become one of its “political creatures” — people she feels are “so principled that they get nothing done,” according to someone familiar with her thinking — said on Tuesday that she did not know “if I will ever return to the business.”

“Any suggestion that they were going to leave the White House was just ridiculous,” said Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who was one of several allies the couple asked to speak on their behalf for this article. “They both have been dependable, valuable and effective partners for me and other members of the president’s cabinet.”

Although they have kept a foothold in Manhattan, home is now in Washington, where their children attend Jewish schools and their house is routinely watched by paparazzi as they depart for work or go for a run. They live in a rented mansion in the Kalorama neighborhood, where they have courted groups of lawmakers and Washington hands in an effort to ease hyperpartisan tensions over cocktails and comfort food.

Their allies say this is a sign that the two, both children of businessmen, have adjusted to the market. But intentionally or not, Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump have redefined the expectations that people in their New York social circle once had that the two would be horrified by the president’s policies and change them.

“I never counted on it, but they themselves promoted the idea that they would save us,” said Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist who has been a vocal critic of the administration, before ticking off a list of policies that Mr. Trump has sought to dismantle.

As for separating immigrant families, she added, “How do they sleep at night?”

In response to critics like Ms. Rosen, the couple have argued that they can temper Mr. Trump only if he is willing to listen. And sometimes he has been: Ms. Trump pushed for the expanded child tax credit in the tax cut bill that passed in 2017, and Mr. Kushner has convinced the president that criminal justice reform is worthwhile, even as his attorney general remains a vocal opponent.

Mr. Kushner has shown an adeptness at using the president’s impulses to steer him toward his own priorities. When Mr. Kushner ushered Kim Kardashian West into the Oval Office to speak about commuting the life sentence of an African-American woman named Alice Marie Johnson, Mr. Trump ignored the concerns of his advisers and freed Ms. Johnson, dazzled by his power to grant clemency and Ms. Kardashian’s celebrity.

But the Middle East, the devilishly complex issue that the president almost cavalierly assigned to Mr. Kushner at the outset of the administration, is still a quagmire as Mr. Trump’s pro-Israel policies have infuriated the Palestinians and increased the already long odds of a peace deal.

Domestically, Mr. Trump has moved to restrict family planning funding, an issue where Democrats had hoped that Ms. Trump would have influence. And both she and her husband have stayed silent in public amid the outcry over the White House’s “zero tolerance” measures to stanch the flow of immigrants, some of them unaccompanied children, coming over the border.

Ms. Trump’s main public comment related to the subject came when she lashed out on Twitter at “trolls” who condemned her for posting cheery photos of her own children even as the government was separating migrant children from their parents. Her supporters argue that she is in an untenable situation if she speaks out in public. Her father said she had addressed the issue with him privately, further inflaming her critics.

Mr. Kushner appears to see himself as the custodian of Mr. Trump’s political brand, offering his father-in-law “options,” and has spoken about clearing out the Republican Party of lingering resistance. He has privately said that he has been taking action against “incompetence” and that any tensions are a result of fighting for his father-in-law’s best interests.

“I have greatly enjoyed working collaboratively with so many extraordinarily devoted and competent people,” Mr. Kushner said through a spokesman a few hours before this article was published, “but those who have tried to undermine the president have found me to be an obstacle.”

His detractors say the friction stems from Mr. Kushner’s meddling in things for which he is out of his depth, like when the president, following his own preference, huddled with Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump instead of his top policy advisers before his meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

The couple’s allies insist that the expectations of their friends were way too high from the beginning, and that the admonitions to publicly denounce Mr. Trump were never realistic or fair. They also say that the two have become more careful about how they engage with people, after early missteps.

A conversation during Mr. Trump’s transition with Cecile Richards, then the president of Planned Parenthood, was particularly instructive.

After meeting with both Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump, Ms. Richards wrote in a memoir that they had offered her a deal that felt like a “bribe” — continued federal funding for the group in return for a halt to providing abortions. Ms. Trump, someone briefed on the meeting said, suggested to Ms. Richards that she should have been more appreciative of Mr. Trump’s warm words about Planned Parenthood during a Republican primary debate.

Ms. Trump was stung by Ms. Richards’s account, and has told people close to her that Ms. Richards initiated the meeting and later “mischaracterized” the discussion “for political and personal profit.”

Inside the White House, the couple’s influence is most felt in internal battles, particularly with aides they do not regard as loyal to their mission — or Mr. Trump’s.

That is particularly true of Mr. Kushner, who, critics say, shares his father-in-law’s desire for control. Over the course of Mr. Trump’s campaign and presidency, Mr. Kushner has been seen as trying to undercut or as being at odds with a long list of aides — some who remain, many who have left.

The list includes: Mr. Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski; his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his associates; his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon; Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel; the White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway; the first head of the presidential transition, Chris Christie; the former secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson; Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, and his longtime lawyer Marc E. Kasowitz.

Their privileged permanence as family members has allowed them to outlast other aides in an environment where expectations have been shifted and, at times, lowered on their behalf.

Both husband and wife, like Mr. Trump, are said to hang on to grudges, but Mr. Kushner is far more transactional than his wife. Like his father-in-law, he appears to convince himself that fights did not happen if someone has become useful to him.

A persistent obstacle to both Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump is Mr. Kelly, whose approach to security clearances they feel unfairly targeted them, and who, they have confided to associates, they believe has spread negative information about them.

Though they have insisted that they are not trying to play a role in a succession plan for Mr. Kelly, few West Wing staff members believe that. Both Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner are widely believed to support Nick Ayers, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, as Mr. Kelly’s successor.

Whoever the replacement is would join a new set of aides who — many with the couple’s support — have replaced the familiar faces from the 2016 campaign.

When Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive, was preparing to join the White House, Mr. Kushner, with Ms. Trump’s support, gave him their stamp of approval. It was Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump who wanted Mercedes Schlapp, a well-connected Republican consultant, brought into the administration. Mr. Kushner’s ally Brad Parscale became the 2020 campaign manager, a move Mr. Kushner told the West Wing staff about on the morning it was publicly announced.

And they regard Stephen Miller, a supporter of some of Mr. Trump’s harshest stands on immigration, as a walking policy encyclopedia.

Although Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner rarely talk on the record to reporters — they declined requests to do so for this article — they remain focused on their media coverage.

Earlier this month, Ms. Trump held an event at the White House to promote job training, and her father turned up to offer support. In June, when the United States won its joint bid with Canada and Mexico to host the World Cup in 2026, Mr. Kushner’s team made sure to tell reporters that it happened in part because of the efforts of the president’s son-in-law, who reportedly used some of his international contacts to win enough votes to seal the bid.

The couple entertains in both Washington and Manhattan, where the guests for a recent dinner honoring Nikki R. Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, included former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and A. G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times.

Their dinners in Washington have drawn a range of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has at times challenged the president, said that at first she did not know what to expect.

But she and Ms. Trump forged a closer working relationship over the administration’s efforts to overhaul the tax code, and Ms. Collins found in Ms. Trump what many Republicans most desire: a direct line to a president sometimes at odds with his own party.

And so Ms. Trump has delivered one of the few things she can uniquely accomplish in Washington: Riding in a car together one day, she handed Ms. Collins a phone. The president was on the line.

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