Domestic task forces. Private huddles. High-profile international travel. Interlocutor with foreign powers and critical domestic constituencies.
This is the portfolio of the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. It is also the typical portfolio of… wait for it… vice presidents!!!
Vice presidents are my thing, but this pretty much sums up the kinds of things they do. From George H.W. Bush on, each vice president has chaired various policy councils and reform initiatives. Putting the VP on the case gives an extra oomph to the inter-agency process and it works reasonably well. Vice presidents make lots of high-profile trips on the president’s behalf. This is not just funeral duty (although that can be important.) But of course, VPs also provide critical and discreet advice to their Presidents. Often they can say things no one else can say. It looks like that is what Jared is doing. So what?
President’s have discretion to organize their staff and assign responsibilities as they see fit. And every White House has courtiers. They play a number of necessary functions. Still, even putting aside specific questions of Kushner’s own experience and capabilities, there are some problems. Some of these problems are managerial, but some are deeper.
Kushner is being given the role of czar — the Presidential appointee who can crack heads and break logjams. It is an appealing notion, but the actual record of effectiveness is mixed. For a White House staffer, the ideal czar issue is narrow and short-term — not huge and open-ended. The White House does not have the internal staff to run issues, their role is rather to push and prod the bureaucracy. Kushner’s issues however are huge and open-ended.
Kushner has also been tossed a vast number of issues very quickly. It is difficult to see how anyone could work many of them effectively at the same time. Further, many of these issues (like relations with China) are considered by the interagency process. This process can be slow and cumbersome — it is also necessary to ensure critical aspects of an issue are not missed. Giving an overwhelmed White House staffer this broad portfolio is a recipe for policy freelancing and missing key factors.
In general, presidents have tried to separate the national security process and the political calculations — bringing them together in a very tight circle. This is not a firewall, senior White House political staffers certainly have input on major national security decisions. But if politics are injected to early into the national security debate, it discredits the decision-making. The roles played in national security by political advisors have been limited. The White House chief of staff, for example, does not have time to act as an emissary abroad — liaising with congress and the media is more than enough work for anyone.
If a czar is needed for a particularly big or high-profile issue, that czar is more likely to be a cabinet official or the vice president. These figures bring greater stature to the role which can be important in pressing through change and for reassuring the public that the issue is being taken seriously. Cabinet officials are confirmed by Congress and vice presidents are elected. If it is an issue of national concern, the key official should in some greater sense be accountable.
Conceptually there is a distinction between line and staff. A senior aide for a powerful congressperson may wield more de facto power than a junior congressperson. The aide, no matter how important, is still staff and can be fired by their principle. The congressperson is answerable to voters — to the American people.
I cannot say, categorically, that any single role taken on by Kushner is unprecedented. There have been occasions where domestic political advisors addressed foreign policy issues. They have certainly taken on domestic policy issues. And of course Kushner’s oft-reported role is Trump Whisperer (ie close confidant) is not only a common White House role, but also frankly a necessary and welcome one.
Taken in total, however, Kushner is taking on a broader range of White House roles than any staffer before him and at a higher profile — while also serving as a sympathetic ear. The only figure I can think of to have held a comparable role is Colonel Edward House as the surrogate to President Wilson. That was a century ago, and there was a significant difference between that case and the present.
Now, when the 45th President is signaling that an issue is of critical importance, where other Presidents have sent their vice president, this President prefers to send his son-in-law.
It does not appear to me that any of this, in anyway, is unconstitutional or illegal (although it may be organizationally unwise.) But it does seem, deeply and profoundly off.
Originally published at veepcritique.blogspot.com on April 4, 2017.