Kelly struggling to make sense of Kushner’s West Wing role
As Secretary of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly spent months touting a hard line on immigration. He argued publicly and privately with Congress that if there were objections to the laws, it was up to legislators to change them — not to blame enforcers on the front lines.
But after a particularly contentious meeting with Democrats on the Hill regarding DACA this past summer, he was informed by Senate leaders that he appeared not to have been “read in” to some conversations going on in the White House, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter.
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The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Kelly learned, had been quietly back-channeling with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Kushner, Democratic Hill aides confirmed, had discussed with the two senators a potential deal to protect Dreamers from deportation.
Kelly, according to three sources familiar with the exchange, was livid, not at the content of the discussions — he has said he personally supports DACA — but that they were going on without his knowledge. He called senior White House officials and demanded a meeting with Trump to deliver something of an ultimatum: If Kushner was going to freelance on DHS issues, the president would have to choose between his son-in-law and the four-star general serving in his Cabinet.
A White House official disputed this account, noting that Kelly was not upset — he simply wanted to be briefed on what the administration’s strategy was.
Kelly cooled off after speaking to then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and to Kushner directly, according to the sources familiar with the conversation. He ultimately never raised the issue directly with the president, or threatened him with any ultimatum.
But the incident illustrates how Kelly was concerned about a White House where the president’s son-in-law had free range to function outside his lane, even before the retired general agreed to join the West Wing.
Now, as Kelly instills a formal organizational chart on top of Trump’s formerly chaotic West Wing, he is still navigating the X-factor of Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s inchoate roles as family members-turned-staffers.
It’s not just Kelly who is uncertain of how to make the arrangement work. In recent months, according to multiple administration officials, the president has also been casually surveying people close to him about whether having his family members in the government is creating too much noise.
“Baby, you’re getting killed, this is a bad deal,” Trump has told Ivanka Trump, in front of other staffers, after soaking in the criticisms of the role his daughter is playing.
He has expressed some of his frustrations with her battered image on Twitter. “When I left Conference Room for short meetings with Japan and other countries, I asked Ivanka to hold seat. Very standard. Angela M agrees!” the president tweeted in July, defending his daughter for taking his seat at the G-20 conference in Hamburg, Germany. “If Chelsea Clinton were asked to hold the seat for her mother, as her mother gave our country away, the Fake News would say CHELSEA FOR PRES!”
Privately, Trump has asked some senior staffers their thoughts on how Kushner and Ivanka Trump can withstand the personal attacks, according to White House officials. Another White House official said the president’s concern about their current roles was not driven by any sense that they were unable to serve appropriately, but out of a desire to protect his daughter and son-in-law.
Until Kelly’s arrival, Ivanka Trump and Kushner were seen internally as the people who always had the last word with the president, especially when it came to personnel matters. Their special status irked some of their colleagues. But the concerns voiced to Trump by staffers and lawyers has been more about the legal ramifications that Kushner could inflict on the president, related to the ongoing probes into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
The media glare turned back on the couple earlier this week, when the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee expressed concern that Kushner had failed to disclose his use of a private email account for White House business and that he did not turn over documents from that account to the committee.
Kushner has also come under scrutiny for attending a Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton during the campaign.