The unconscionable conflicts of Jared Kushner
BERKELEY — Before I turn to Jared Kushner, let me ask: Do you believe the U.S. government does the right thing all or most of the time?
The Gallup organization started asking this question in 1963, when more than 70 percent of Americans said they did. Since then, the percentage has steadily declined. By 2016, before Donald Trump became president, only 16 percent of Americans said they did.
Why the decline? Surely various disappointments and scandals played a part — Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, “weapons of mass destruction,” the Wall Street bailout.
But the largest factor by far has been the rise of big money in politics. Most people no longer believe their voices count.
That view is backed by solid research. Princeton University professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University professor Benjamin Page analyzed 1,799 policy issues that came before Congress and found “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Instead, Gilens and Page concluded, lawmakers respond to the policy demands of wealthy individuals and moneyed business interests — those with the most lobbying prowess and deepest pockets to bankroll campaigns.
It’s likely far worse now. Gilens and Page’s data came from 1981 to 2002, before the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in its Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions.
Trump and Bernie Sanders — authoritarian populist and progressive populist, respectively — based their shockingly successful campaigns on the public’s outrage at the corruption of our democracy by big money. Sanders called for a “political revolution.” Trump promised to “drain the swamp.”
Trump hasn’t drained it, of course. He’s turned the entire government into a giant bog of lobbyists, real estate moguls, Wall Streeters and billionaires.
Which brings us to Kushner, the putative swamp-drainer’s son-in-law and adviser.
Kushner may yet be indicted in Robert Mueller’s investigation. But it could turn out that Kushner’s most significant contribution to the stench of this administration will come from his financial conflicts of interest.
When he took the White House job, Kushner chose not to follow the usual practice of wealthy people when they join administrations — putting their assets into blind trusts managed by outside experts.
Instead, Kushner retained control over the vast majority of his interest in Kushner Companies, worth as much as $761 million, according to government ethics filings.
So how has Kushner separated his business dealings from his dealings on behalf of the United States? He hasn’t.
The New York Times reported last week that after the CEOs of Citigroup and Apollo Global Management attended White House meetings set up by Kushner, the two firms loaned the Kushner family business more than $500 million.
Furthermore, the Securities and Exchange Commission dropped an inquiry into Apollo Global Management after the company had granted the loan to the Kushner family business.
Last spring, Kushner’s real-estate firm sought hundreds of millions of dollars directly from the Qatar government for its distressed property on Fifth Avenue in New York City, the Intercept reported. Soon after Qatar turned down the request, Kushner reportedly backed a diplomatic assault on Qatar that sparked a crisis continuing today.
Kushner is such an easy mark that officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways to manipulate him with financial deals, U.S. officials told the Washington Post.
Kushner insists that he’s done nothing wrong, and that there’s no direct evidence he has profited from his position in the White House or put personal financial interests ahead of the interests of the American public.
But that’s not the point. Conflicts of interest are always difficult to prove, which is why we have ethics rules to avoid even the appearance of such conflicts.
And it sure looks as if Kushner is using his White House perch to make money for himself, just as his father-in-law is.
It’s as bad for a government official to look as if he’s lining his pockets as it is for him to actually do so, because the appearance of corruption undermines public trust just as readily as the real thing. And trust is what distinguishes an advanced democracy from a banana republic.
But Trump and the family members he’s brought into his White House don’t give a hoot about public trust. They have utter contempt for the common good. Government ethics officials have compared Trump’s administration to a game of Whac-a-Mole — go after one potential violation, and others pop up.
Perhaps Kushner tells himself that the American public is already so cynical about big money’s takeover of our democracy that his own apparent (or real) conflicts are chicken feed by comparison.
Which may be true. But by adding to the distrust, Kushner is doing his own bit to destroy American democracy — actions almost as treasonous as if he colluded with Russians to make his father-in-law president.
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Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Robert Reich’s new book, “The Common Good,” is out Feb. 20. His documentary, “Saving Capitalism,” is available on Netflix.