Jared Kushner: The White House Years

Breaking History pulls back curtain on chaotic West Wing, with Middle East peace deals at center

“I never planned to write a book.” An unusual beginning to a 465-page volume. But that is how Jared Kushner’s autobiography, “Breaking History: A White House Memoir,” begins what becomes a thrilling tale of an outsider advising an outsider. Both Kushner and his father-in-law, Donald Trump, are in over their heads at the beginning, slowed by endless investigations from without and nonstop feuding from within.

As both men find their sea legs, they manage to accomplish some truly epic achievements, including the first Middle East peace deals in 40-plus years, the two largest trade deals ever negotiated, a criminal justice reform that not even Obama could pass with massive majorities in both houses, no new foreign wars, and an economy that, up until the sudden appearance of a pandemic that derailed nearly everyone everywhere, one of the strongest economies in American history. Amid all this, Kushner memorably quotes Trump’s first Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, in describing the West Wing: “There were so many natural predators in one zoo.” And that’s just the first few chapters.

As I combed through the remainder of the book, it struck me that Kushner’s opening was ironically fitting. Throughout his chronicling, it becomes clear that Kushner does not aspire to have his name in print or his good deeds publicized. He never even intended to enter the political spotlight. Kushner was thrust into public service because of family ties and a love of country. Some of the high moments of the book detail the author’s journey from the cloistered world of Upper East Side privilege to his first MAGA rally in Springfield, Illinois.

Kushner describes how he had recently attended a Manhattan charity event in which all the captains of industry and fashion and entertainment tipped their champagne flutes as billionaire Barry Sternlicht affirmed how Common Core would rescue American education. And then The Donald breaks the 36-year attendance record at Prairie Capital Convention Center, previously held by Elton John, and brings the crowd to its feet by promising to eliminate Common Core. That disconnect–between what “smart people” think is best for America and what Americans think is best for themselves—informs not just this entire book, but helps explain the ongoing Trump phenomenon, which remains a vibrant part of the American discussion two years after the end of his presidency.

Meanwhile, the book was borne out of a desire to shed light on history, on the unique memories that he cultivated as a senior adviser to the President.

Before detailing the inner workings of the Trump administration, Kushner begins by contextualizing his government work. He lays out the gut-wrenching details of his father’s arrest and sentencing, the family feuds that engendered it, and a deeply moving story of his family heritage. Kushner’s family history is a mosaic of grit, perseverance, and hard work, and Kushner refuses to forget it. Indeed, he attributes much of his own drive to his family’s background.

Kushner’s always genuine and occasionally graceful prose paints the inspiring story of his grandparents and their journey to America. His grandmother, Rae Kushner, was just a teenager when Germany invaded her town along the border of what is now Russia/Belorussia. Kushner’s grandfather, Joseph, also a Holocaust survivor, immigrated to America and worked at construction sites seven days a week, often not returning home at night because he could not afford transportation costs. After toiling away in construction for years, Joseph founded his own company. As Kushner describes it, “He lived the American dream.”

That spirit of hard work and entrepreneurship traversed the generations to instill itself in Kushner. From the young age of 13, Kushner worked every summer, including on a construction site, just like his late grandfather. While still an undergraduate at Harvard, he noticed a business opportunity and begin buying apartments around Boston. By the time he graduated, he had brought in an impressive amount of money through his part-time real estate career.

After closing the chapter on his pre-administration life, Jared dives into the 2016 presidential campaign. His memoir is filled with private moments that meld politics and family to create something unique to the Trump brand. To wit, the campaign and administration–not unlike Donald Trump’s earlier ventures–were family affairs. Kushner recounts how he and Ivanka—she very pregnant with their third child as Iowans when to the key 2016 caucus—traveled the country with Trump amid the chaos of the campaign and how he uncovered Facebook as an effective campaigning tool.

Through dialogue and vivid imagery that make the scenes appear as though they are playing out in real-time, Kushner reveals the little-known origins of West Wing disputes that led to the revolving door of staff during Trump’s administration. A flash point of White House strife, according to Kushner, was Stephen Bannon, whose taste for combat, skill with the knife and constant flow of strange (and sometimes good) ideas make for one of the book’s most compelling characters.

Though the two had been close allies during the campaign, Kushner became so fed up with Bannon’s leaks to the media that he sealed off the connecting door between his and Bannon’s offices. Despite the feud between them, Kushner closes out the book with nothing but good will for Bannon. When Trump asked Kushner whether he should issue Bannon a pardon, Kushner responded affirmatively. “He probably leaked and lied about me more than everyone else combined. He played dirty and dragged me into the mud of the Russia investigation. But now that he was in trouble, I felt like helping him was the right thing to do,” Kushner writes. Along with Bannon, Kushner does not hide his ire for former Chief of Staff John Kelly, who is revealed to have secretly listened in on the president’s private phone calls.

While Kushner devotes time to the ego wrestling matches in the administration, the main focus of “Breaking History” is his policy work. In the foreign policy realm, he played a major role—critics like Kellyanne Conway would say too major—in brokering the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), the historic Abraham Accords and a reconciliation deal between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He pulls back the curtain on these momentous events, chronicling his private conversations with global players like Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, and Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar.

On the domestic front, he reveals that his father’s story informed his passion for the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice bill that Kushner guided through Congress. Kushner discusses how the unconventional coalition required to pass this breakthrough legislation was formed — and how it almost didn’t happen. Roadblock after roadblock made it seem almost impossible. But Kushner overcame the odds, notching a 360–59 vote in a divided House with support from unlikely allies such as former Obama official Van Jones.

Finally, Kushner takes on the timely topic of COVID.  He delves into the heated back and forth exchanges he had with governors during the height pandemic over medical supplies. In one section, he expresses his displeasure with NY Governor Cuomo for over-requesting ventilators only to keep them in a warehouse out of use.

Some have disparaged Kushner’s work—the New York Times called it “soulless” in a shockingly personal review—but I see it differently. One of the chief criticisms of Kushner—that he’s an impossible-to-read cypher with no core beliefs—led to disappointment among conservatives who found him insufficiently MAGA and among liberals who had hoped he’d do more to temper the president’s populist instincts. This book will do little to quiet those criticisms, because ultimately Kushner concludes that his job was not to act upon his own convictions but to further the aims of the President and the American people who elected him.

That’s infuriating to a public that wants White House insiders to become celebrities, with all the access to their innermost thoughts that entails. Indeed, as one of the few members of any recent administration who is instantly identifiable by only his first name and the husband of a glamorous former model, it was at least annoying and possibly enraging to people that Kushner didn’t use Twitter or Instagram or give any interviews outside the factual parameters of the policy files he was assigned. This book will quiet some of those critics because it goes into detail about his belief that he could achieve a lot more good inside the White House than outside.

Ultimately, it won’t satisfy everyone, though, because its careful, precise tone closely mirrors the careful, precise tone of its author. There are no sex scandals, college LSD trips, or even surprising differences of opinion. The nearest we get to a fistfight is when General Kelly kind of shoves Ivanka in the hallway. But what remains is an honest, first-hand account of one of the most chaotic and consequential administrations in history.

Kushner’s political memoir is a candid portrayal of how an erstwhile liberal businessman found himself at the center of a Republican presidential administration. Filled with stories of political wins and losses, policy deals made down to the wire, and sweet family moments scattered throughout, “Breaking History” is a must read. Just as Kushner combed through volumes detailing strategies of past administration to shape his own path, his book will likely have a real impact on administrations to come.

Jared Kushner and his father-in-law, some guy.

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Alexandra Orbuch

Alexandra Orbuch attends Princeton University, where she writes for The Princeton Tory and the Princeton Legal Journal, the university’s undergraduate Law review.

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