Jared Kushner Talks About 'Playing with Live Ammo' After Trump Was Elected

President Trump has asked Jared Kushner to handle everything from the Wall to the West Bank. Photo Illustration by Gluekit for Newsweek; Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

Jared Kushner, the senior adviser (and son-in-law) of President Trump, spoke to Newsweek's Bill Powell at length in mid-June. He talked frankly about which issues he's been involved in (and why), how he operated in the COVID-19 crisis, his Mideast peace plan, and why Black voters should support Donald Trump. These excerpts have been edited for length.

What he thought his role would be in January 2017:

Kushner: That feels like a lifetime ago. I was in a different place in my life then. When we got to the White House at first I was helping [the president] find his way; there were so many people with so many agendas coming at him, it was important to make sure people weren't end-running him, because we were playing with live ammo now. We had to be his eyes and ears to help good people flourish and be a check on people who were playing games. I always had his back.

I think I was good at spotting trends, making decisions and managing organizations. We were doing a lot of learning about how to accomplish his core objectives: get wages rising, rebalance some of the [trade] deals to create long term growth, basically making sure that his big visions had policies put in place below. Every day there are a million crises, you have to figure out how to keep moving forward. In terms of pursuing things that I had interest in, if I identify an objective I go through the process and get signoff to run with it. But look, the fact is that I spend most of my time on things the president wants done. I'm a utility player.

The more I was out campaigning with him the more it became clear that he was representing people who needed a voice. It became clear that the intelligentsia feels one way but the people in the country feel differently. I saw what he was fighting for.

His work on the COVID-19 crisis:

The biggest issue was ventilators and testing. I worked with commercial providers. You needed a lot of components to come together, supply chains needed to be dusted off, set approvals for different types of tests and stay in touch with the companies that can create them. We were able to get a lot of that loosened up. Cut through the bureaucracy and then power through. Get testing unleashed.

On ventilators, the situation varied considerably state by state. We identified what resources were in the private sector and where, and then basically started calling the states asking how many ventilators do you have, what's your utilization rate? We forced discipline on the process.

At the time we were looking at the numbers growing and thinking, holy shit, we may not be able to make 130,000 [ventilators] by May 1. If we don't flatten the curve we might be like Italy, with people dying on gurneys.

I was criticized for saying 'that's not your stockpile,' but the idea was, we are working through all these situations, figuring out the best way to get ventilators to where they were needed. We were not sure we were going to make it, but we did.

On the masks, we had brought in a small group of private equity guys who could sift through the thousands of incoming leads. There was a lot of hoarding going on. We tried to find out how much each state was actually using, in as close to real time as possible. Using data and moving fast—not something the government is always good at. I said, I'll take the heat if there are mistakes.

Operation Warp Speed will hyper-accelerate a bunch of vaccines; we've made progress on therapeutics and testing. We need to be vigilant about screening and testing and monitoring new cases. Overall we need to do a better job of protecting the most vulnerable. People who are older should shelter. People with comorbidities should shelter. But there appears to be little risk for people who are under 45 and who are healthy. We need to figure out a way to continue to open the country safely. Losing one person is too many, so the goal is to prevent as much death as possible. I believe the president and the vice president made a lot of the critical decisions necessary to balance issues of public health and economic health.

Why he took on criminal justice reform:

I had this situation where my father was in prison. For too many people, prison becomes a revolving door. What we find is that 73 percent of the [prison population] had committed a crime previously. It makes you ask, what is the purpose of prison? Because if it's only punishment, then we know where the future criminals are: They're in prison.

[The president] knew I had a personal knowledge of the issue and a passion for it. For the first six months I just studied what had been done before and what had failed. People were saying I was naive and an optimist. People criticize. I don't care. It's okay to take on hard challenges.

The president helped [persuade Republican senators]. He's really aggressive in terms of making things happen when he wants something. He makes people uncomfortable with the status quo. I worked 18 hours a day for three months, going deep on the issue. I did the legal work. I got an education.

What he's proven to President Trump:

That when he gives me a project nothing leaks, I'm able to get things done. I feel I've been able to take on challenges, I feel like I know Washington better, and I've been effective.

Why he took on the role of Middle East peacemaker:

Well, my father-in-law asked me to do it. He's very passionate about the U.S.-Israel relationship. It's an issue that's very important to his constituency. He wanted to make sure it was done in a way he was comfortable with.

The dynamics were much larger than just sitting down with the Palestinians and the Israelis. That conflict is a cancer. It's almost like if you can treat the tumor or extract it, then it provides the opportunity for a major reconciliation. So the first thing that we did, we went to Saudi Arabia and tried to set out the president's goals for the Middle East.

The first goal was confronting Iran and their aggression and undo the disastrous damage that had been done by the previous administration. We should be doing it with our allies and with regional stateholders.

The second priority was ISIS. If ISIS had been able to keep growing you would destabilize the entire region, so we had to stop that—but we had to do it together. The third thing was extremists. They needed to clean out their mosques and stop funding institutions that are promoting radicalism. The fourth one was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We needed to start pushing everyone's relationship closer with Israel.

We sat down with the Israelis and the Palestinians and what I found was, everyone wanted to focus on process or history. Those are traps. I looked at different peace deals that were done—and I found that it's almost like they never started, it was almost an excuse for people to keep getting what they were getting. The Palestinian Authority could keep getting money and Israel could keep getting land. Neither side was actually motivated to solve the problem.

Pushing the Arabs closer to Israel—that's the only way that you can actually get this thing done. Where we need to be is that all Muslims have to have access to the mosque. You have to be in a position where the Palestinians can govern themselves. That becomes economic opportunity. We got Israel to agree to a Palestinian state and to negotiate based on the United States' conceptual map... And then we said to the Palestinians, if you have technical changes, come back and tell us what they are. And they were just totally dumbfounded because they started attacking it beforehand. I feel like it put them in a position internationally where they have to defend the status quo while Israel is saying okay we're ready to solve this thing.

And what we've also done with the region is, no more cherry-picking issues. If you're with America and we are helping you with your biggest problems, ISIS and Iran, you can't cross us on Israel. And quite frankly they have economic and security reasons to get together with Israel. I think if you look over three years, number one there has been no real violence, which is a success.

On the Gulf Arab partners' relationship with the Palestinians now:

They probably give them happy talk, but I think they've all given up on it. They'd love to help the people, but unfortunately the people are hostages to bad leadership. They've grown less scared of them because their publics don't care as much. In Saudi Arabia they care about jobs for Saudis, not the Palestinians. In Bahrain they want jobs for Bahrainis. From our Gulf allies' standpoint, Iran is number one through 10 on their concern meter. Israel is an ally against Iran. The economy is number 11 through 20.

On Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman:

We were worried that their policies at home, their repression, was creating more terrorism. Trump was not going to stand for it. I told them we want to be a great ally, but you have to show us. MBS said we want to rebuild a good relationship, give me some space and time. I want to start modernizing our society. I have to invest. I'm setting ambitious goals. Let me do this in my time. I think he has tried to keep his word. There have obviously been a couple of missteps. But they've been a good ally.

[The murder of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi] was a very, very tough situation. We told them we weren't happy and we urged them to be transparent. But we couldn't upend the entire relationship.

His role in the 2020 campaign:

My role is the same as the last campaign: organizer, problem solver and builder. I have been taking everything that worked from the last campaign and built on that. The polls are all bullshit. If you look at all the public opinion polls from Labor Day to the election last time, we were ahead in very few. They're done with bad methodology and turnout models. We have our own data operation. We know there are more than enough Trump voters to give the president a big victory. We were in a very strong position prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. Who do you think can go back and do the same now? Try Trump, he gets things done.

Can Trump increase his share of the African American vote in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the subsequent outrage and unrest?

Maybe. Maybe not. We worked hard to deliver results for the African American community. Criminal justice reform. School choice. Opportunity zones. We have built a coalition and shown up in places where [Republicans] haven't shown up before. There are big race issues in America, obviously. They [the Democrats] are offering emotion. We offer substance. We've been trying to cultivate a whole generation of Black conservative Republicans. Last time not a lot of [Black] Trump supporters put on a red hat and knocked on doors to encourage new supporters and there are a lot of those now. When you lay out what he has done, his favorability jumps. He has promised to fight for all forgotten Americans and that community has been forgotten. President Trump is not a panderer. He offers action and a framework. Our offering is better than theirs. We believe we have a real shot to compete for every vote.

Correction July 20, 2020, 11:32 a.m. ET: A quote from Jared Kushner was corrected to say, "all Muslims have to have access to the mosque," not "all Arabs" as a previous version of the story read.