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Why Jared Kushner needs to speak up on Trump-Russia scandal

Jared Kushner, senior advisor to President Trump, listens to the president during a listening session with cybersecurity experts in the Roosevelt Room the White House in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Jared Kushner, senior advisor to President Trump, listens to the president during a listening session with cybersecurity experts in the Roosevelt Room the White House in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.

Jared Kushner, more than anyone else, is the man at the intersection of the various threads of the Trump/Russia scandal.

He attended the Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya that was set up under the understanding that it was part of a Russian government effort to assist the Trump campaign. He met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition and discussed possible ways to set up a line of communication between himself and Moscow that would be impenetrable by US intelligence agencies. He met with the head of a Russian state-owned bank, to discuss either American sanctions on Russian financial institutions or Russian investment in Kushner-owned properties or both. And he oversaw the Trump campaign data operation, which, according to McClatchy, is being probed for possible links to Russia's propaganda efforts.

Last but by no means least, multiple press accounts suggest that Kushner was the senior Trump official most firmly in favor of the plan to fire the FBI director in a failed effort to shut down the Russia investigation.

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Yet Kushner has thus far largely escaped extensive scrutiny. Unlike other members of the Trump administration, he essentially never speaks on the record or appears on television. And unlike most of the other players in the Trump-Russia drama, there's no talk of calling him to testify in the open before Congress. Kushner has the best legal team of anyone in Trumpworld, led by former Clinton administration Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, and he appears to run a savvy PR strategy based on deploying dishy anonymous leaks to garner good coverage for himself.

Consequently, the person who should be at the center of the story is often left out of the narrative.

Kushner is a key ongoing player in US policymaking

Unlike Carter Page, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, or even Donald Trump Jr., Kushner is a current officeholder in the United States government. And his at times bafflingly broad policy portfolio specifically features a number of sensitive foreign policy matters that, for no particularly clear reason, have been placed in his wildly unqualified hands rather than those of Rex Tillerson's kneecapped State Department.

Indeed, in an administration that's seen fit to leave six of the top 10 State Department jobs vacant, both Axios and the Washington Post have dubbed Kushner the "Shadow Secretary of State" who is "in charge of issues as big as Middle East peace" and serves as "the primary point of contact for presidents, ministers and ambassadors from more than two dozen countries."

He has no diplomatic experience that would qualify him for this critical job.

Nor does he have any military or governmental experience that might help him backfill. Unlike Tillerson or even Trump, he doesn't even really have meaningful experience in international business deals. We're talking about a guy who inherited a business empire because his father went to jail and then ran it for a few years without any noteworthy success before suddenly emerging as one of the most significant players in American foreign policy.

And he's up to his eyeballs in scandal.

Kushner has been subject to multiple avenues of blackmail

The sheer quantity of contacts with Russian government officials that Kushner failed to disclose on his SF-86 security form is mind-boggling.

A Wednesday New York Times article rather generously noted, of his presence at the Veselnitskaya meeting, that "Kushner faces potential trouble because he currently works in the White House and neglected to mention the encounter on forms he filled out for a background check to obtain a security clearance."

Much of this activity is problematic on its own terms. But Kushner's efforts to conceal it through "neglect" create a double problem. At any point before these various meetings were revealed to the public, the Russian government could have revealed them and created both publicity and legal hassles for Kushner. And as the public still doesn't know the full details of the contents of those meetings — but the Russians do — the Russians continue to be in a position to damage Kushner at a time and place of their choosing.

For a hostile foreign government to have that kind of leverage over a high-ranking American official is troubling. That his portfolio specifically includes a range of sensitive foreign policy matters and that he lacks any kind of meaningful qualification to do the job greatly exacerbates it. Yet Democratic calls for Kushner to lose his security clearance have attracted zero bipartisan support, even from congressional Republicans who profess to be deeply concerned about Russian behavior on the world stage.

We aren't hearing from Kushner

The latest revelations about Trump Jr. led immediately, and rightly, to calls for public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley says he wants to hear from Manafort and vows to subpoena him if necessary.

Kushner, by contrast, agreed about a month ago to meet behind closed doors with Intelligence Committee staffers, and that's that.

It is, of course, a good idea for committee staff to hear from him. But it's by no means adequate. Kushner is serving at the very highest levels of the American government, doing so without clear qualifications, while operating under a cloud of potential blackmail and multiple prongs of involvement in a massive scandal.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has asked him to testify in public, but she has no power to make that happen. Congressional Republican leaders seem inclined to let him slide, and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee are proud that their investigation is proceeding with a modicum of bipartisanship and don't seem to want to force the issue.

Meanwhile, Kushner seems insulated in part by the fact that unlike other members of the Trump administration, he has in Gorelick a real-deal high-powered DC lawyer with strong connections to both parties. He and his wife, Ivanka Trump, also have a curious knack for generating puff pieces about themselves, likely accomplished by also serving as anonymous sources for some of the many detailed portraits of Trumpworld dysfunction that have fascinated the reading public for months, which helps keep Kushner out of the headlines. As a family member, Kushner also appears to be exempt in a unique way from the Trump administration's rule that every official's most important job is to defend the president on television.

Consequently, there are zero opportunities for journalists to grill him on the record about the various vectors of legal trouble surrounding him.

But make no mistake: Kushner was clearly at the center of whatever it is the Trump team was trying to do with Russia during the transition. He appears to have been involved in whatever it is that happened during the campaign. And he was by all accounts central to firing the FBI director to cover it all up. He's the one domino Trump can't afford to see fall, but right now he's flying under the radar.

Commentary by Matt Yglesias, a writer at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @mattyglesias.

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