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Award-Winning Journalist Amy Wilentz on Just How Little Jared Kushner Knows About Foreign Politics

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President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is, along with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., at the center of a shocking New York Times story published Sunday. According to the article, Kushner, Trump Jr. and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the 2016 campaign after being promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton at Trump Tower two weeks after Trump won the Republican nomination. Kushner is one of Trump’s senior advisers who has assumed a major diplomatic role in the administration, despite having no previous diplomatic experience. We speak to Amy Wilentz, a contributor at The Nation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we end the show today with a look at one of the key members of the Trump administration, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser is, along with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., at the center of a new New York Times story published Sunday. According to the article, Kushner, Trump Jr. and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the 2016 campaign, after being promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton, at Trump Tower. They met two weeks after Trump won the Republican nomination. Kushner is one of Trump’s senior advisers, and he’s assumed a major diplomatic role in the administration despite having no previous diplomatic experience.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest is an award-winning reporter who has a simple question about Jared Kushner: Does he know anything about the countries he’s supposed to be doing diplomacy with? Amy Wilentz, a longtime contributing editor at The Nation, has also written a number of books on Haiti, including Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti. She’s winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award. She also wrote The Rainy Season: Haiti—Then and Now.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Amy. Talk about Jared Kushner, what you know about him, his history, his experience, and how that qualifies him to be the point person on foreign policy. Some are wondering whether Donald Trump has put him ahead of Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state.

AMY WILENTZ: Yes, Jared is—of course, he’s trusted because he’s the son-in-law, and Trump runs the presidency a little bit like a mom-and-pop business, which is where he comes from. And Jared, his experience, really, he’s been a sort of dilettante outside of his business dealings. So he’s the scion of this big New Jersey real estate family, but, other than that, he’s just run a bunch of things that interest him. And as far as international affairs go, that has never seemed to be one of his main concerns. Indeed, the Trump Organization is far more internationally oriented and has far more dealings, as a business, with foreign governments and foreign entities than does the Kushner Companies, which is Jared’s company, which is mostly a New Jersey and Maryland company, or has been, until the sort of regal marriage of Jared Kushner to Ivanka Trump.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and while he is being deputized by the president to handle all of these diplomatic issues, meanwhile, the State Department continues to be suffering from a lack of appointments by the administration—

AMY WILENTZ: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of either career officials moving up or other ambassadors being appointed.

AMY WILENTZ: Yes. Trump has had a difficult time. First of all, I don’t think he has a lot of interest—President Trump, this is, not Donald Jr.—in appointing ambassadors. He doesn’t have a wide reach of experts in foreign affairs who are his friends, which is a traditional method for presidents to appoint their people to ambassadorships. And he doesn’t have that much interest, either, in moving up the career officials. So what happens is, a lot of countries are left like wondering, "Who am I supposed to deal with? There is no ambassador to my country, and the desk for my country in the State Department is sort of empty. Who do I go to in the U.S. for my country?" And I think one of the unfortunate elements of this is not only has Jared been put in charge of a lot of big portfolios—for example, China and peace in the Middle East—but smaller countries are left befuddled also, not knowing where to go, and Jared isn’t that interested in them.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the stories told, Denmark approached their Miss Universe, hoping maybe she had a link to someone who could reach out to the White House, because they just couldn’t figure out how to do it.

AMY WILENTZ: Right, yeah. Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But let’s talk more about Jared Kushner, because, actually, his experience in being a developer in the Baltimore area, in New Jersey, in Jersey City, actually, you point out, does give him experience in dealing with other countries. Explain how, and how this actually creates a conflict of interest today.

AMY WILENTZ: Well, one of the sort of amusing stories about the Kushner Companies, when you think of them in light of Jared’s role in the administration, is that they’ve been a kind of mom-and-pop operation themselves in Jersey and Baltimore. They own something like 20,000 units of housing in the Baltimore area. And they’re very aggressive landlords. And they have instigated something like 550 suits against tenants. And I often think that this sort of makes Jared a good envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian situation, since his company behaves, in a sense, like the Israelis in the Occupied Territories—pushing people out of their housing, pushing people out of the places they thought were home. So, that kind of gives him some experience.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about—

AMY WILENTZ: Now, but further—yeah, go ahead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, go ahead. I’m sorry.

AMY WILENTZ: Well, further, he’s had now some experience dealing in Russian real estate deals, too, through his wife and the Trump Organization. So I think that also gives him a little bit more of a portfolio there. And in China.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted—I wanted to ask you about Saudi Arabia. And apparently Jared does have some relationships with some of the royal family in Saudi Arabia. How this might play out?

AMY WILENTZ: Yes. So, Jared, apparently, according to news reports, helped organize President Trump’s recent triumphal trip to Riyadh. And the person he dealt with there was one of the many princes of the royal family, Mohammed bin Salman. And that relationship—that’s a 30-year-old prince, so very young for succession in the Saudi family. One of the—one of the results of that relationship, which was apparently very cordial, between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman, or, as he’s known, MBS, is that MBS has now been made the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, in a sort of nod to Jared Kushner and the Trump administration. And that’s a big step for the Saudis to take, although I think it can be rescinded at the end of a Trump administration, if they wish to do so. So that’s a very big deal for Jared Kushner.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re suggesting—

AMY WILENTZ: He now has a crown prince.

AMY GOODMAN: —that in Saudi Arabia, that they—that he decided to depose his nephew—King Salman—and put in his son, because of his relationship with Jared Kushner.

AMY WILENTZ: Exactly, although, you know, one wonders whether the nephew was consulted about this or whether there was prior discomfort with the nephew. We can’t see inside the Saudi monarchy. But, yes, this is a gesture to the Trump administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Also extremely significant—

AMY WILENTZ: A big one, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —given that his son is the one who has overseen the Saudi military operations, the U.S.-backed Saudi military—

AMY WILENTZ: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —operations in Yemen, which has devastated this country—which has devastated Yemen.

AMY WILENTZ: That’s right, the 30-year-old son.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this meeting, that is big news in the United States today, the meeting of—that was initiated apparently by Donald Trump Jr., that The New York Times is reporting on? He brought in Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner into this meeting with a Russian Kremlin-linked lawyer.

AMY WILENTZ: Yes, well, there are several things to think about here. To me, one of the most interesting things about this meeting, other than the kind of suspicions it raises about dealmaking between the Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the Trump administration, is whether Donald Trump Jr., who does not have a job in the White House, has been made sort of, sub rosa, an official of the Trump administration, who does not have a legal obligation to reveal. In other words, if Jared Kushner had not felt that he better reveal this meeting with Veselnitskaya on his security form—which he failed to do in the first place, but now has done—if he had not been present at this meeting, we would not know about this meeting. If he and Paul Manafort hadn’t been invited by Donald Trump Jr., Donald Trump Jr. could have had this meeting with Veselnitskaya to discuss possible negative information this lawyer had, with no knowledge of the American public or the press or the security infrastructure, and yet Donald Trump Jr. would be acting, in effect, as an agent of the Trump administration. I think that is the most disturbing underlying thing that we’ve learned from this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy, I wanted to ask you about this whole trend of the Trump administration, of—as you mentioned, it’s a family operation—of involving not only Jared, the son-in-law, but Ivanka in all of these high-level meetings with key world leaders, when they have absolutely no experience or no reason to be there other than that they are family members.

AMY WILENTZ: Yeah, he’s running it as if he’s running the Trump Organization. He’s moved them, effectively, some of them, out of positions of power in the organization into positions of power in the new organization: the United States government. And it’s an extremely disturbing thing. You know, you do get worried when Denmark is going to Miss Universe to talk foreign policy to the United States government, and when you have Ivanka Trump subbing in for her dad at the G20 conference on how to help African economies so that refugees aren’t generated every two seconds in those terrible economies. What is she doing sitting between Xi Jinping and Theresa May at a table at the G20 conference? It’s just ridiculous. And I think one of the things that—you know, it adds to the impression in the world that the Americans are not worth talking to, that it’s silly and not serious.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on a very—

AMY WILENTZ: And yet, of course—and yet, of course, they have to be—they have to be dealt with, because it is the United States government, and it is in charge of one of the grandest militaries in the world. And yet Ivanka Trump is representing it at the G20.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Wilentz, we only have 30 seconds, but I did want to get to Haiti, an issue that you’ve covered for so long. And that is Haiti announcing that it is reconstituting its military after decades. Your thoughts?

AMY WILENTZ: My thought is that the United Nations is going to be moving out of Haiti in the near future—they’ve had a force there for a long time—and that the elite, the tiny elite that runs the country, is concerned about who will control the means of violence after the U.N. leaves. Will that pop the cork off the Haitian people and allow them to protest and resist? And so, that, to me, explains—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

AMY WILENTZ: —entirely—

AMY GOODMAN: Amy Wilentz—

AMY WILENTZ: —entirely why this new move.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, longtime Nation contributing editor, professor of English and literary journalism at University of California, Irvine.

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