Jared Kushner's Unconventional Take on Our Most Unconventional President

"The problem with most books about President Donald J. Trump is that they have tried to explain him through a conventional lens," Jared Kushner writes in his memoir, Breaking History.

In a nation filled equally with Americans who think Trump can do no wrong and those who think his mere existence is a threat to democracy, Kushner's book will not change minds. But for anyone interested in Trump's ascent to the White House, his decision-making style and the substantive policy achievements during his tenure, Kushner's book is a compelling read.

It starts with Kushner's account of one of the most unusual beginnings of any presidential campaign in American history. "After I announce this week, everything will be different," Kushner recalls Trump telling him and his wife, Ivanka. "Moments before descending the iconic gold escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy to the world in the summer of 2015, Trump turned to Don Jr., Eric and me. 'Okay, kids,' he said, 'now we find out who our real friends are.'"

It wouldn't take long for him to find out who his enemies were either. Enemies on both sides of the aisle, including many in the establishment wing of the Republican Party more comfortable with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Davos crowd than working-class voters across the country.

It wasn't until a rally in Springfield, Illinois, in November 2015 that Kushner understood the nature of his father-in-law's appeal in America's heartland. "Congratulations, sir, you just broke the attendance record for this arena, previously held by Elton John," the events manager at Springfield's Prairie Capital Convention Center told Trump.

"See, Jared, and I don't even have a piano," Trump replied with a laugh.

Jared Kushner and Donald Trump
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listens as Donald Trump speaks at his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on November 3, 2020. The former president's son-in-law has a new memoir out, "Breaking History." Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Then came Trump's speech—and the audience's reaction to it, including Kushner's. "In contrast to media reports that described his rallies as breeding ground for lunatics and neo-Nazis, I saw normal people: hardworking moms and dads as well as students and grandparents. People of all different ages, races and backgrounds believed someone was finally speaking for them," Kushner writes. "When Trump promised to end [Common Core], the crowd went wild."

It was a political awakening of sorts for Kushner. "I was beginning to understand why Trump's message resonated with so many Americans," he writes. "Washington's upper-class elites were out of touch with the lower and middle-class citizens they supposedly represented, leaving their constituents feeling forgotten and disenfranchised."

It was a humbling moment for Kushner. He might just as well have been writing about the bubble of his own creation in Manhattan's world of finance, fashion and media.

On that night in Springfield, Kushner knew Trump was deadly serious about becoming the nation's next president. "I was surprised by his willingness to shake every hand and pose for a picture with everyone who asked, even though he was a germophobe. This was a big sign to me about his total devotion to winning the race."

We learn that there was a method to his father-in-law's communication madness. "The first of many media crises taught me what I later called the 'three rules of Trump,'" Kushner explained. "Number one, controversy elevates message. Number two, when you're right, fight. And number three, never apologize."

We also learn that Trump was undeterred by threats of any kind, even from friendly sources. After his dustup with former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly during the first presidential debate, Trump got a call from Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, a man who could make or break a Republican candidate.

"Donald, in your business, your assets are buildings," Ailes told Trump. "In my business, my anchors are everything I have. We need to find a way to deescalate this thing." Trump didn't capitulate. "The more irreverent Trump was toward the media and the political establishment," Kushner writes, "the more my friends in NY thought he was on his way out. But he kept climbing in the polls."

One of Kushner's insights had to do with Trump's decision-making style, which he attributes to his years working in the family business: construction. "Trump has a habit of seeking information and opinions from people whose views are often overlooked," Kushner notes. "As a builder, he would visit construction sites and ask the frontline workers for their input on serious design questions."

The gap between an architect's designs and real-life, on-the-ground application by contractors is something anyone who's ever built a home understands. That same gulf existed between the technocrats and policy designers on Capitol Hill and life as it is lived and experienced by ordinary Americans.

Trump's candidacy—and presidency—was in many ways a story about those gaps. And the depths to which lifelong policymakers and Beltway insiders avoided risk or challenging prevailing orthodoxies.

In a story about Trump's approach to China, Kushner describes a discussion he had with a trade veteran who'd worked with President George W. Bush. "While he fully agreed with our aims in China, he thought that using tariffs was a grave mistake," Kushner writes. "When I asked him what he would recommend, he suggested more rounds of talks. I said the first thing that came to mind: 'So you want us to accomplish something you couldn't by doing it the same way you did?' For the Washington establishment, the answer to that question was a resounding yes."

Over the course of 13 trade meetings spanning the Bush and Obama administrations, Kushner said, the U.S. trade deficit with China more than quadrupled, increasing from $80 billion in 2001 to $418 billion in 2018. Trump and his team, led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, did their best to disrupt that pattern.

"These guys play us like a fiddle," Lighthizer told Kushner. "What we need to do is hit them with tariffs to show them we're not idiots."

By the end of 2018, American tariffs covered 96 percent of all Chinese imports, Kushner noted. That raised nearly $40 billion in revenue for the U.S. government in 2018 and 2019 alone. By 2020, the trade deficit had dropped to $308 billion.

Lighthizer, a curmudgeon of the first order, comes to life in the memoir. In 2019, as bargaining with China entered a new phase, he emailed a limerick to some colleagues:

We are talking to President Xi

Whether progress is made we shall see.

Should cheating continue beyond this brief window

Tariffs there surely will be.

"The Chinese never saw that email, but if they had, it would have played into their worst fears about Lighthizer," Kushner writes. "His reputation as a tough negotiator intimidated them. What really rattled them, of course, was not just Lighthizer, but the fact that for the first time in history, an American president was standing up to Beijing's unfair economic behavior."

The work Lighthizer and Trump's trade team did with Mexico was equally compelling. "We'd known that the central sticking point in our talks involved auto-industry jobs. Under NAFTA, the United States had lost 350,000 of them to Mexico, where the labor is cheaper and the regulations are looser," Kushner writes. "In 2018, autos alone made up nearly $64 billion of our $78 billion trade deficit in goods with Mexico."

When trade talks between Lighthizer and his negotiating counterpart in Mexico reached a stalemate. Trump intervened. "In May, he directed his trade team to prepare a 25% tariff on autos imported from Canada and Mexico into the United State," Kushner writes. "His bold move unnerved Washington and Wall Street, but Trump was fighting for Main Street. As a former businessman, he knew a lot more [than] the typical politician or fund manager about imposing leverage over a rival."

Indeed, what stands out repeatedly throughout the memoir is Trump's innate talent for keeping his negotiating partners off-balance. "Negotiating a trade deal is like a game of chicken, with real consequences," Kushner writes. "The other side has to believe you are going to jump off a cliff. We succeeded because Trump was absolutely prepared to terminate NAFTA—and Mexico and Canada knew it."

Nowhere are the Trump team's negotiation and disruption skills more evident than their efforts in the Middle East. It started with a game-changing insight that only an outsider with a practical business mindset would come up with. "There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace," John Kerry, the outgoing secretary of state, declared in his final speech on the subject. "Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality."

This was not merely conventional wisdom but an article of faith in Republican and Democrat administrations for decades. "I initially accepted it as fact," Kushner writes. "But as I listened and learned, I felt the reverse might be true. If we could make peace between Israel and the Arab world, then more likely than not, a path to making peace between the Palestinians and Israel would eventually open up as well."

That paradigm shift unleashed a series of discussions that would lead to the most historic peace deal in the past half-century: the Abraham Accords. No less an authority than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman heaped praise on the diplomatic triumph. "A Geopolitical Earthquake Just Hit the Mideast," the headline to his column read. "For once, I am going to agree with President Trump in his use of his favorite adjective: 'huge'" Friedman wrote. "The UAE, Israel and the US on Thursday showed—at least for one brief shining moment—that the past does not always have to bury the future, that the haters and dividers don't always have to win.'"

Kushner's description of a commercial flight not long after the peace deal was completed may be the highlight of the book. "On the tarmac at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport, I stood before an Israeli El Al jet," Kushner writes. "Painted on the side of the blue and white plane was the word peace in English, Hebrew and Arabic. News networks carried live coverage as I stepped forward to say a few words. 'We are about to board a historic flight: The first commercial flight in history between Israel to a Gulf Country.... We hope that this will start an even more historic journey for the Middle East and beyond.'"

Many Trump fans—and even some critics—wondered why the Nobel Prize was not forthcoming for such an achievement. They're still wondering.

Many of the characters America came to know during the Trump years come alive in the book as well, none more vividly than Dr. Anthony Fauci, who rose to prominence as COVID-19 shook America and the world.

"Nobody rises to the top of a bureaucracy like the National Institutes of Health and services 6 presidential administrations over three and a half decades without knowing how to self-promote, outmaneuver, and curry favor with the powerful," Kushner writes.

Then came the most interesting showdown of them all between the two men. "In a meeting with the president, Fauci strongly advised against a full reopening. Continued lockdowns would save lives, he argued, and we should keep them as long as possible," Kushner writes. "'I'm not going to preside over the funeral of the greatest country in the world,' Trump declared. 'I understand,' said Fauci meekly. 'I just do medical advice. I don't think about things like the economy and the secondary impacts. I'm just an infectious disease doctor. Your job as president is to take everything else into consideration.'"

There is much more to enjoy in Kushner's book, particularly the story that led to a historic prison reform bill that Trump signed. The First Step Act resoundingly passed the House (358-36) and Senate 87-12 and was supported by a unique cross section of American political and cultural life, including Kim Kardashian and CNN's Van Jones.

Love Trump or hate him, it's hard to argue with his administration's pre-COVID triumphs. "Before the pandemic, unemployment had reached a 50-year low, middle-class income increased $6,000, Trump's policies created 7 million new jobs, and America became the #1 producer of oil and natural gas," Kushner writes. The average price of a gallon of gas in November 2020 was a mere $2.10.

Add the Abraham Accords, two historic trade deals, prison reform, tax cuts, the appointment of three Supreme Court judges, a foreign policy that had little place for foreign military entanglements, and a fundamental realignment of the GOP from Wall Street and big business to Main Street and small business, and there's little wonder why so many voters who call themselves Republicans continue to support Trump despite his obvious flaws.

Kushner's book covers all of that ground—and more—for anyone interested in the story behind the story of the Trump presidency.