کتاب: خشم و آتش / فصل 10


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The Jarvanka side of the White House increasingly felt that rumors leaked by Bannon and his allies were undermining them. Jared and Ivanka, ever eager to enhance their status as the adults in the room, felt personally wounded by these backdoor attacks. Kushner, in fact, now believed Bannon would do anything to destroy them. This was personal. After months of defending Bannon against liberal media innuendo, Kushner had concluded that Bannon was an anti-Semite. That was the bottom-line issue. This was a complicated and frustrating business—and quite hard to communicate to his father-in-law—because one of Bannon’s accusations against Kushner, the administration’s point person on the Middle East, was that he was not nearly tough enough in his defense of Israel.

After the election, the Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson with sly jocularity privately pointed out to the president that by offhandedly giving the Israel portfolio to his son-in-law—who would, Trump said, make peace in the Middle East—he hadn’t really done Kushner any favors.

“I know,” replied Trump, quite enjoying the joke.

Jews and Israel were a curious Trump subtext. Trump’s brutish father was an often vocal anti-Semite. In the split in New York real estate between the Jews and non-Jews, the Trumps were clearly on the lesser side. The Jews were white shoe, and Donald Trump, even more than his father, was perceived as a vulgarian—after all, he put his name on his buildings, quite a déclassé thing to do. (Ironically, this proved to be a significant advance in real estate marketing and, arguably, Trump’s greatest accomplishment as a developer—branding buildings.) But Trump had grown up and built his business in New York, the world’s largest Jewish city. He had made his reputation in the media, that most Jewish of industries, with some keen understanding of media tribal dynamics. His mentor, Roy Cohn, was a demimonde, semiunderworld, tough-guy Jew. He courted other figures he considered “tough-guy Jews” (one of his accolades): Carl Icahn, the billionaire hedge funder; Ike Perlmutter, the billionaire investor who had bought and sold Marvel Comics; Ronald Perelman, the billionaire Revlon chairman; Steven Roth, the New York billionaire real estate tycoon; and Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate. Trump had adopted a sort of 1950s Jewish uncle (tough-guy variety) delivery, with assorted Yiddishisms—Hillary Clinton, he declared, had been “shlonged” in the 2008 primary—helping to give an inarticulate man an unexpected expressiveness. Now his daughter, a de facto First Lady, was, through her conversion, the first Jew in the White House.

The Trump campaign and the White House were constantly supplying off-note messages about Jews, from their equivocal regard for David Duke to their apparent desire to tinker with Holocaust history—or at least tendency to stumble over it. At one point early in the campaign, Trump’s son-in-law, challenged by his own staff at the New York Observer and feeling pressure about his own bona fides, as well as seeking to stand by his father-in-law, wrote an impassioned defense of Trump in an attempt to prove that he was not an anti-Semite. For his efforts, Jared was rebuked by various members of his own family, who clearly seemed worried about both the direction of Trumpism and Jared’s opportunism.

There was also the flirtation with European populism. Whenever possible, Trump seemed to side with and stoke Europe’s rising right, with its anti-Semitic associations, piling on more portent and bad vibes. And then there was Bannon, who had allowed himself to become—through his orchestration of right-wing media themes and stoking of liberal outrage—a winking suggestion of anti-Semitism. It was certainly good right-wing business to annoy liberal Jews.

Kushner, for his part, was the prepped-out social climber who had rebuffed all entreaties in the past to support traditional Jewish organizations. When called upon, the billionaire scion had refused to contribute. Nobody was more perplexed by the sudden rise of Jared Kushner to his new position as Israel’s great protector than U.S. Jewish organizations. Now, the Jewish great and the good, the venerated and the tried, the mandarins and myrmidons, had to pay court to Jared Kushner . . . who until little more than a few minutes ago had truly been a nobody.

For Trump, giving Israel to Kushner was not only a test, it was a Jewish test: the president was singling him out for being Jewish, rewarding him for being Jewish, saddling him with an impossible hurdle for being Jewish—and, too, defaulting to the stereotyping belief in the negotiating powers of Jews. “Henry Kissinger says Jared is going to be the new Henry Kissinger,” Trump said more than once, rather a combined compliment and slur.

Bannon, meanwhile, did not hesitate to ding Kushner on Israel, that peculiar right-wing litmus test. Bannon could bait Jews—globalist, cosmopolitan, Davoscentric liberal Jews like Kushner—because the farther right you were, the more correct you were on Israel. Netanyahu was an old Kushner family friend, but when, in the fall, the Israeli prime minister came to New York to meet with Trump and Kushner, he made a point of seeking out Steve Bannon.

On Israel, Bannon had partnered with Sheldon Adelson, titan of Las Vegas, big-check right-wing contributor, and, in the president’s mind, quite the toughest tough-guy Jew (that is, the richest). Adelson regularly disparaged Kushner’s motives and abilities. The president, to Bannon’s great satisfaction, kept telling his son-in-law, as he strategized on Israel, to check with Sheldon and, hence, Bannon.

Bannon’s effort to grab the stronger-on-Israel label was deeply confounding to Kushner, who had been raised as an Orthodox Jew. His closest lieutenants in the White House, Avi Berkowitz and Josh Raffel, were Orthodox Jews. On Friday afternoons, all Kushner business in the White House stopped before sunset for the Sabbath observance.

For Kushner, Bannon’s right-wing defense of Israel, embraced by Trump, somehow became a jujitsu piece of anti-Semitism aimed directly at him. Bannon seemed determined to make Kushner appear weak and inadequate—a cuck, in alt-right speak.

So Kushner had struck back, bringing into the White House his own tough-guy Jews—Goldman Jews.

Kushner had pushed for the then president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, to run the National Economic Council and to be the president’s chief economic adviser. Bannon’s choice had been CNBC’s conservative anchor and commentator Larry Kudlow. For Trump, the Goldman cachet outdrew even a television personality.

It was a Richie Rich moment. Kushner had been a summer intern at Goldman when Cohn was head of commodities trading. Cohn then became president of Goldman in 2006. Once Cohn joined Trump’s team, Kushner often found occasion to mention that the president of Goldman Sachs was working for him. Bannon, depending on whom he wanted to slight, either referred to Kushner as Cohn’s intern or pointed out that Cohn was now working for his intern. The president, for his part, was continually pulling Cohn into meetings, especially with foreign leaders, just to introduce him as the former president of Goldman Sachs.

Bannon had announced himself as Trump’s brain, a boast that vastly irritated the president. But in Cohn, Kushner saw a better brain for the White House: not only was it much more politic for Cohn to be Kushner’s brain than Trump’s, but installing Cohn was the perfect countermove to Bannon’s chaos management philosophy. Cohn was the only person in the West Wing who had ever managed a large organization (Goldman has thirty-five thousand employees). And, not to put too fine a point on it—though Kushner was happy to do so—Bannon had rolled out of Goldman having barely reached midlevel management status, whereas Cohn, his contemporary, had continued on to the firm’s highest level, making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. Cohn—a Democrat globalist-cosmopolitan Manhattanite who voted for Hillary Clinton and who still spoke frequently to former Goldman chief and former Democratic New Jersey senator and governor Jon Corzine—immediately became Bannon’s antithesis.

For Bannon, the ideologue, Cohn was the exact inverse, a commodities trader doing what traders do—read the room and figure out which way the wind is blowing. “Getting Gary to take a position on something is like nailing butterflies to the wall,” commented Katie Walsh.

Cohn started to describe a soon-to-be White House that would be business-focused and committed to advancing center-right to moderate positions. In this new configuration, Bannon would be marginalized and Cohn, who was dismissive of Priebus, would be the chief of staff in waiting. To Cohn, it seemed like easy street. Of course it would work out this way: Priebus was a lightweight and Bannon a slob who couldn’t run anything.

Within weeks of Cohn’s arrival on the transition team, Bannon nixed Cohn’s plan to expand the National Economic Council by as many as thirty people. (Kushner, not to be denied, nixed Bannon’s plan to have David Bossie build and lead his staff.) Bannon also retailed the likely not-too-far-off-the-mark view (or, anyway, a popular view inside Goldman Sachs) that Cohn, once slated to become Goldman’s CEO, had been forced out for an untoward Haig-like grasping for power—in 1981 then secretary of state Alexander Haig had tried to insist he held the power after Ronald Reagan was shot—when Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein underwent cancer treatment. In the Bannon version, Kushner had bought damaged goods. The White House was clearly Cohn’s professional lifeline—why else would he have come into the Trump administration? (Much of this was retailed to reporters by Sam Nunberg, the former Trump factotum who was now doing duty for Bannon. Nunberg was frank about his tactics: “I beat the sh@t out of Gary whenever possible.”) It is a measure of the power of blood (or blood by marriage), and likely the power of Goldman Sachs, too, that in the middle of a Republican-controlled Washington and a virulent, if not anti-Semitic (at least toward liberal Jews), right-wing West Wing, the Kushner-Cohn Democrats appeared to be ascendant. Part of the credit went to Kushner, who showed an unexpected tenacity. Conflict averse—in the Kushner household, his father, monopolizing all the conflict, forced everyone else to be a mollifier—confronting neither Bannon nor his father-in-law, he began to see himself in a stoic sense: he was the last man of moderation, the true figure of self-effacement, the necessary ballast of the ship. This would all be made manifest by a spectacular accomplishment. He would complete the mission his father-in-law had foisted on him, the one he was more and more seeing as his, yes, destiny. He would make peace in the Middle East.

“He’s going to make peace in the Middle East,” Bannon said often, his voice reverent and his expression deadpan, cracking up all the Bannonites.

So in one sense Kushner was a figure of heightened foolishness and ridicule. In another, he was a man, encouraged by his wife and by Cohn, who saw himself on the world stage carrying out a singular mission.

Here was yet another battle to be won or lost. Bannon regarded Kushner and Cohn (and Ivanka) as occupying an alternative reality that had little bearing on the real Trump revolution. Kushner and Cohn saw Bannon as not just destructive but self-destructive, and they were confident he would destroy himself before he destroyed them.

In the Trump White House, observed Henry Kissinger, “it is a war between the Jews and the non-Jews.”

For Dina Powell, the other Goldman hire in the West Wing, the main consideration when Ivanka pitched her on coming to work at the White House was the downside assessment of being associated with a Trump presidency. Powell ran the Goldman Sachs philanthropic arm, a public relations initiative as well as a courtship of the increasingly powerful pools of philanthropic money. Representing Goldman, she had become something of a legend at Davos, a supreme networker among the world’s supreme networkers. She stood at an intersection of image and fortune, in a world increasingly swayed by private wealth and personal brands.

It was a function of both her ambition and Ivanka Trump’s sales talents during swift meetings in New York and Washington that Powell, swallowing her doubts, had come on board. That, and the politically risky but high-return gamble that she, aligned with Jared and Ivanka, and working closely with Cohn, her Goldman friend and ally, could take over the White House. That was the implicit plan: nothing less. Specifically, the idea was that Cohn or Powell—and quite possibly both over the course of the next four or eight years—would, as Bannon and Priebus faltered, come to hold the chief of staff job. The president’s own constant grumbling about Bannon and Priebus, noted by Ivanka, encouraged this scenario.

This was no small point: a motivating force behind Powell’s move was the certain belief on the part of Jared and Ivanka (a belief that Cohn and Powell found convincing) that the White House was theirs to take. For Cohn and Powell, the offer to join the Trump administration was transmuted beyond opportunity and became something like duty. It would be their job, working with Jared and Ivanka, to help manage and shape a White House that might otherwise become the opposite of the reason and moderation they could bring. They could be instrumental in saving the place—and, as well, take a quantum personal leap forward.

More immediately for Ivanka, who was focused on concerns about women in the Trump White House, Powell was an image correction to Kellyanne Conway, whom, quite apart from their war with Bannon, Ivanka and Jared disdained. Conway, who continued to hold the president’s favor and to be his preferred defender on the cable news shows, had publicly declared herself the face of the administration—and for Ivanka and Jared, this was a horrifying face. The president’s worst impulses seem to run through Conway without benefit of a filter. She compounded Trump’s anger, impulsiveness, and miscues. Whereas a presidential adviser was supposed to buffer and interpret his gut calls, Conway expressed them, doubled down on them, made opera out of them. She took Trump’s demand for loyalty too literally. In Ivanka and Jared’s view, Conway was a cussed, antagonistic, self-dramatizing cable head, and Powell, they hoped, would be a deliberate, circumspect, adult guest on the Sunday morning shows.

By late February, after the first helter-skelter month in the West Wing, the campaign by Jared and Ivanka to undermine Bannon seemed to be working. The couple had created a feedback loop, which included Scarborough and Murdoch, that reinforced the president’s deep annoyance with and frustration about Bannon’s purported importance in the White House. For weeks after the Time magazine cover story featuring Bannon, there was hardly a conversation in which Trump didn’t refer to it bitterly. (“He views Time covers as zero sum,” said Roger Ailes. “If someone else gets on it, he doesn’t.”) Scarborough, cruelly, kept up a constant patter about President Bannon. Murdoch forcefully lectured the president about the oddness and extremism of Bannonism, linking Bannon with Ailes: “They’re both crazy,” he told Trump.

Kushner also pressed the view to the president—ever phobic about any age-related weakness—that the sixty-three-year-old Bannon wouldn’t hold up under the strain of working in the White House. Indeed, Bannon was working sixteen- and eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, and, for fear of missing a presidential summons or afraid that someone else might grab it, he considered himself on call pretty much all night. As the weeks went by, Bannon seemed physically to deteriorate in front of everybody’s eyes: his face became more puffy, his legs more swollen, his eyes more bleary, his clothes more slept in, his attention more distracted.

As Trump’s second month in office began, the Jared-Ivanka-Gary-Dina camp focused on the president’s February 28 speech to the joint session of Congress.

“Reset,” declared Kushner. “Total reset.”

The occasion provided an ideal opportunity. Trump would have to deliver the speech in front of him. It was not only on the teleprompter but distributed widely beforehand. What’s more, the well-mannered crowd wouldn’t egg him on. His handlers were in control. And for this occasion at least, Jared-Ivanka-Gary-Dina were the handlers.

“Steve will take credit for this speech if there’s even one word of his in it,” Ivanka told her father. She knew well that for Trump, credit, much more than content, was the hot-button driver, and her comment ensured that Trump would keep it out of Bannon’s hands.

“The Goldman speech,” Bannon called it.

The inaugural, largely written by Bannon and Stephen Miller, had shocked Jared and Ivanka. But a particular peculiarity of the Trump White House, compounding its messaging problems, was its lack of a speech-writing team. There was the literate and highly verbal Bannon, who did not really do any actual writing himself; there was Stephen Miller, who did little more than produce bullet points. Beyond that, it was pretty much just catch as catch can. There was a lack of coherent message because there was nobody to write a coherent message—just one more instance of disregarding political craft.

Ivanka grabbed firm control of the joint session draft and quickly began pulling in contributions from the Jarvanka camp. In the event, the president behaved exactly as they hoped. Here was an upbeat Trump, a salesman Trump, a nothing-to-be-afraid-of Trump, a happy-warrior Trump. Jared, Ivanka, and all their allies judged it a magnificent night, agreeing that finally, amid the pageantry—Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States—the president really did seem presidential. And for once, even the media agreed.

The hours following the president’s speech were Trump’s best time in the White House. It was, for at least one news cycle, a different presidency. For a moment, there was even something like a crisis of conscience among parts of the media: Had this president been grievously misread? Had the media, the biased media, missed well-intentioned Donald Trump? Was he finally showing his better nature? The president himself spent almost two full days doing nothing but reviewing his good press. He had arrived, finally, at a balmy shore (with appreciative natives on the beach). What’s more, the success of the speech confirmed the Jared and Ivanka strategy: look for common ground. It also confirmed Ivanka’s understanding of her father: he just wanted to be loved. And, likewise, it confirmed Bannon’s worst fear: Trump, in his true heart, was a marshmallow.

The Trump on view the night of the joint session was not just a new Trump, but a declaration of a new West Wing brain trust (which Ivanka was making plans to formally join in just a few weeks). Jared and Ivanka, with an assist from their Goldman Sachs advisers, were changing the message, style, and themes of the White House. “Reaching out” was the new theme.

Bannon, hardly helping his cause, cast himself as a Cassandra to anyone who would listen. He insisted that only disaster would come from trying to mollify your mortal enemies. You need to keep taking the fight to them; you’re fooling yourself if you believe that compromise is possible. The virtue of Donald Trump—the virtue, anyway, of Donald Trump to Steve Bannon—was that the cosmopolitan elite was never going to accept him. He was, after all, Donald Trump, however much you shined him up.

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