Histories of Donald Trump’s presidency are likely
to revolve almost entirely around its one dominant personality: Trump himself. To an unusual degree, the 45th president has been his own chief policy architect, political strategist and salesman.
But among the most notable members of Trump’s supporting cast are two of the few senior advisers who have been there from the start: hardline chief speechwriter and policy adviser Stephen Miller and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
From the Muslim travel ban of Trump’s chaotic first days to extensive recent administration efforts to implement policies aimed at curbing both illegal and legal immigration, the single-minded Miller has been one of Trump’s most effective aides, despite continuing controversy over the wisdom and legality of the policies he champions.
Meanwhile, Kushner, who has a hand in many areas, seems far less successful, undercutting hopes for an effective beginning of the Trump presidency, providing questionable political advice and mismanaging administration efforts to resolve long-standing Middle East and immigration problems.
The contrast in effectiveness may reflect their very different degrees of governmental experience. It really does help to have some idea of how Washington works.
Miller, a committed conservative since his high school days, spent a decade working his way up through the political ranks as an aide to Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions before joining Trump’s campaign. If anyone in this White House understands how to operate the levers of government, it’s the 33-year-old Miller.
Kushner, 38, a New York real estate developer who was believed to be a Democrat before Trump’s election, is a governmental neophyte, like the president. That has clearly hampered his efforts to cope with complex problems like the Middle East and immigration, which have defied more experienced officials for decades. In both areas, Kushner has mirrored his father-in-law’s unilateral approach, trying to develop a Middle East plan without talking to the Palestinians and an immigration plan without bringing in Democrats. Unsurprisingly, he has failed to bring either to the point where they can be seriously considered.
Significantly, his lone success came when he helped create a bipartisan coalition to enact important criminal justice reforms, easing many hardline penalties passed in the 1990s.
Kushner’s inexperience has also showed in his questionable political advice. The New York Times recently reported that he suggested that Trump commute the prison sentence of former Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in part to win brownie points with some Democrats.
Within days, there was virtually unanimous bipartisan criticism from former colleagues of Blagojevich, who is serving 14 years in prison after his conviction on charges stemming from efforts to sell a vacant Senate seat appointment to the highest bidder. Since then, Trump has seemed to back away from the idea.
Two years ago, Kushner reportedly urged Trump that firing FBI Director Jim Comey would end the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, pleasing Democrats by canning the man they blamed for costing Hillary Clinton that election.
Just the opposite proved true. Comey’s firing led to the selection of
special counsel Robert Mueller, whose two-year probe is still having fallout in the courts and on Capitol Hill.
Kushner contributed to Trump’s stumbling 2017 start by persuading him right after his election to scrap New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s transition plan, including policy proposals and prospective appointees. Some saw retaliation for Christie’s prosecution, while U.S. attorney, of Kushner’s father for illegal campaign contributions and tax evasion.
Miller helped fill the resulting void with the administration’s first major effort, a temporary ban on travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Though the initial effort was mishandled and ultimately blocked in the courts, Miller persisted and eventually succeeded in crafting a plan that passed judicial muster.
Every day brings signs of his success in shaping administration
immigration policy. The most recent have been new guidelines that could make getting green cards harder for legal immigrants.
Miller occasionally appears on television defending administration policies.
Kushner rarely does, but he gave an extensive recent interview to Axios’ Jonathan Swan and, in it, may have undercut his own Middle East efforts by questioning the viability of the “two-state solution” that has always been regarded as an essential part of any agreement.
Asked if the Palestinians could govern themselves, Kushner replied, “I think that’s a very good question,” adding, “The hope is that they over time can become capable of self-governing.”
That attitude and such pro-Israel administration policies as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem prompted Palestinians to boycott an economic conference that Kushner convened in a presumed first step toward peace negotiations.
On immigration, Kushner failed to reach out to Democrats, omitting any relief for the 800,000 illegal immigrants brought here as children under President Barack Obama’s DACA (Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals).
Some Republicans said that made his plan a non-starter. “They cannot be excluded from any immigration package,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told The Washington Post.
Miller has been successful, but not necessarily wise. Kushner, by most signs, has been neither.