One issue I’ve touched on here and there in my posts on the Russia probe is my abiding sense that especially the younger generation of Trumpers: Kushner, Don Jr., et al. just don’t seem to grasp the magnitude of the trouble they’re in, or at least the magnitude of their legal exposure. I can’t point to any one piece of evidence. It’s more like every piece of evidence. The signs I’m going on are a mix of public evidence, things we see unfolding in the newspapers, and my own reporting. They just don’t act like people who get what they’re dealing with and are acting accordingly.
The abiding sense I get is not simply that they don’t know the magnitude of the legal threat but that they don’t understand the nature of the threat either. Again and again they seem to think the legal vulnerability can be trumped by good news cycles or getting the press to focus on some other individual. They don’t seem to get that a big, sprawling federal investigation like this, untethered from the political chain of command and led by one of the top law enforcement professionals of his generation, trundles onward with a perfect indifference to whether you win the morning or kill it in 10 or a 100 different news cycles. Those things just don’t matter. And yet my sense at least is that Jared Kushner thinks he is helping himself by knifing his brother-in-law – as though if Don Jr is at the center of a media firestorm for a few days, Mueller will just forget about him.
Here is an example of what I’m talking about. This is from Mike Allen’s morning Axios email.
The view in Kushner’s orbit is that the brutal new revelations are more P.R. problems than legal problems. And if he makes progress with his Middle East peace efforts, perceptions would be very different.
Again, this strikes me as a profound and dangerous naïveté. These are certainly not PR problems. Prosecutors, meanwhile, really don’t care how well you’re doing on the policy front. But even if you grant the nonsensical premise – that grave legal problems can be managed with good PR or even substantive policy successes – this is an inane statement.
It amounts to “Sure, it looks bad. But if Jared negotiates a final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it will all be fine.” That’s nuts. A generation of very committed, focused and knowledgable US policy hands have been trying to crack that nut with little or no success since the Oslo Accords almost 25 years ago and arguably for the better part of a century. The idea that a inexperienced and callow rube like Kushner, backed by a thoroughly distracted President, is going to get anywhere, is truly fantastical. And yet, that’s the plan for slipping the noose with his legal problems.
With Don Jr., if he knew he’d been sitting on this for a year, why didn’t he already have a lawyer, rather than hiring one this weekend? Why did he tweet those emails, even if he knew or thought the Times was about to publish them? And why did he go on Hannity last night? Again, I don’t think there is any real answer beside the hard to figure reality that they just don’t get the scale of trouble they’re in.
Why is this?
At a basic level, I think the key players just aren’t that smart and have a lot of hubris. They’re like low level grifters or mob soldiers who are headstrong and stupid and get chewed up when the authorities come after them. But I have a more general theory.
Back when Trump started becoming our big national story and especially when Kushner moved center stage, I started thinking more about the big New York real estate families. The very rich, of course, play by different rules everywhere. And perhaps big real estate families, participants in an inherently intergenerational business, are like this all over. But no American city is quite like New York, either in the scale of the city itself or the particular dynamics of the concentrated, finite space and which is tied to the durability of investment value. There’s one other dynamic at work. A lot of the big New York real estate families of today became that way because they held on to investments and stayed in the city in the dark days of the 1970s and early 1980s when it seemed like the city and even the concept of the big American city was falling apart. Whether that required much courage or prescience, staying in meant they reaped a windfall when the city started rebounding about a quarter century ago. It also spurred an ethos or pride in these families that they had the guts, prescience, loyalty or whatever else to stick with the city when others didn’t. It’s part of that culture.
But the big thing that stands out to me about this set – a very small social world that Trump, his kids and the Kushners are all part of – is that they are reckless and filled with a sense of invulnerability. And why not? Trump has skidded on the edge of legality for decades. He at least worked with and took money from crooks and organized crime figures for decades. Other than having to settle a few lawsuits, he’s never paid any price.
But the weird thing is that these guys in many cases aren’t invulnerable. A lot of them have done time. At least two I can think of have gotten caught trying to hire hit men to kill business partners. Maybe others succeeded and we didn’t hear about those. But my sense is more that precisely because they were actually not mobsters they didn’t have killers on call and got busted in stings or being set up by informants. There’s Robert Durst, scion of a big New York real estate dynasty who seems to have killed numerous people. But he actually seems different to me inasmuch as I think he’s just a psychopath and serial killer who got away with it for a longtime because of his wealth.
But consider Kushner’s own father, Charles Kushner. Kushner was being investigated for campaign finance violations when he got mad at his sister and brother-in-law for cooperating in the investigation against him. So he hired a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law and videotape one of their sexual encounters so Charles could give the tape to his sister as retaliation. The sex tape part of the story is relatively well known. But this was textbook obstruction. Set aside the intra-familial craziness of this, legally, it’s insane. Charles Kushner was sentenced to 18 to 24 months in federal prison.
Why is this the case? I think it’s acculturation. They’re born to invulnerability. And by and large their life experience supports that and rewards it.
You’d think this would have been a chastening experience for Charles’ son Jared. But apparently not. He was a driving force spurring his surrogate father, Donald Trump, to fire James Comey, which landed both of them in an investigation for obstruction of justice. He thought that was a good idea when in fact it was an insane idea. During James Comey’s high profile testimony after his dismissal, Sen John Cornyn of Texas pressed Comey on why he thought there was a political motive behind his firing since it was so obvious that firing Comey would inflame the Russia probe rather than make it go away. Cornyn has been one of President Trump’s most reliable and lickspittleish defenders. But in this case he was right, at least in the narrow sense of the logic of his argument. But people don’t always act logically. Kushner and Trump are impulsive, aggressive and headstrong and think they’re invulnerable. It’s the kind of power play that probably makes a lot of sense on their own stomping grounds.
New York’s business and media world is a cockpit of vipers. It’s hard to say anyone who comes out of that world is green or wet behind the ears. But Washington DC, and especially big federal criminal investigations, are different. It does not prepare you for that. If you look at Trump’s own career, there’s a persistent pattern. Get into a jam and you call in the lawyers, make threats, threaten lawsuits. If someone gets in your way you bleed them for years in court. If things go bad, you settle and move on. There’s also the tabloids. They look vicious. But they can also be deeply pliant for the rich. Landing a blow by planting a nasty story in the Post is a persistent theme of Trump’s racket for decades. Being a longtime informant for the FBI solves other problems. Having a problem with a disloyal? Fire them and threaten retribution. There’s probably an NDA already in place. They can be dealt with.
Kushner, notoriously, bought The New York Observer as one of his first gambits after taking over the family business when his dad headed to the big house. But he reportedly used the paper as a tool to attack business enemies. Kushner’s interest in the Observer has always struck me as of a piece with Trump’s modus operandi with the New York tabloids.
Because of the President’s damaged personality and perrenial and chronic anger it can seem like he’s different, that he gets the magnitude of the situation. I don’t think he does. Every reverse is because he’s being treated unfairly or let down by Reince Priebus or Steve Bannon or now his loyalist lawyer Marc Kasowitz. The problems won’t go away because his staff can’t stop the leaks. In a situation like this there aren’t a lot of people you can effectively buy or destroy. This is a legal world that Trump has very little experience with.
A big federal investigation like this is like a broad lava flow. It moves slowly but it is unstoppable. It burns and crushes things in its wake. And things too big or unburnable it just covers over. The little antics and PR gambits mainly do not matter. Key players in this mix don’t seem to appreciate that.