Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were once seen as moderating influences within the White House. A new book by longtime Vanity Fair journalist Vicky Ward, Kushner, Inc., portrays them instead as coiffed agents of chaos — lying, scamming, and backstabbing their way through Donald Trump’s Washington.
Kushner, Inc. is a burn book with page numbers. We hear how Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn mocked Ivanka (“She thinks she’s going to be president of the United States”) and Trump strategist Steve Bannon told her to “[g]o f*** yourself … you are nothing,” how Jared’s father is possibly bisexual, how Trump wished Ivanka had married Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady instead (“Jared is half the size of Tom Brady’s forearm”), and how he considered sending the two back to New York because they were causing him so much trouble in the press.
But Ward seems to forget the original tenet of White House reporting: Everyone has an agenda. She has said she interviewed 220 people for the book, but is vague on who they are. Some claims seem to originate with the pair’s rivals, including Steve Bannon. Kushner, Inc. is populated by “close associates,” “family friends” and, occasionally, a “person.” Sometimes no one is cited at all. At one point, the anonymous person who gave Ivanka a tour of her high school pops up to say she seemed like a lonely teenager.
There is a form of fact laundering that takes place through books like these. Imagine a sketchy claim with a single, biased source. Good news outlets wouldn’t run it. But since publishing houses lack the editorial standards (fact checking, requiring multiple sources, etc.) that those outlets have, the claim can appear in a news book. And from there, through outlets covering the book like news, the claim gets into the news outlets that would never have printed it in the first place.
But let’s get back to the book. Other journalists have previously reported many of the serious claims presented in Kushner, Inc., including the pair’s sway over the president, their various conflicts of interest, and the strife they create with White House staff. Ward also repeats details of Charles Kushner’s shady dealings (including setting up his brother-in-law with a prostitute and sending the sex tape to his sister). Ward adds a few new claims, including an alleged profit-sharing arrangement by the Kushner brothers, Jared and Josh, which could create incentives for Jared to promote his brother’s businesses at the White House. Ward cites “a former business associate,” while Josh Kushner denies it happened.
Ward’s own yields generally feel meager, and she wraps even the smallest scoops in a fog of insinuation and menace. For instance, she writes that behind the first daughter’s charm, “there was another side Ivanka hid from public view. No one on the outside knew, for example, that in discussions with [a real estate firm that wanted to kill a Trump licensing deal], she would lose the softness in her voice and talk coldly and menacingly, according to someone who was told about the conversations.” Two degrees of separation and we find out that Ivanka has a secret cold voice.
Another anonymous source attests that Ivanka throws lame parties: “One guest joked that the median age was seventy: ‘It wasn’t a fun party.'” This feels a little like an assassination attempt with Nerf pellets.
More troubling is the fact that the thoughts and feelings of Steve Bannon, one of the couple’s main rivals, are woven through the book, though Ward is not explicit about whether these come from direct interviews with him. Generally, interviews are indicated in the endnotes or in the text of the book (“x told me”), but Bannon’s ideas quietly permeate the book without attribution. Surely she could only write phrases like, “Bannon thought to himself” because he talked to her. But she remains coy. One of the other effects of writing from inside of Bannon’s head is that he comes off as a sort of protagonist, the only person with real interiority in Kushner, Inc.
A further wrong note is Ward’s treatment of Judaism. The way Judaism frequently crops up in the context of power brokering, greedy cabals and string-pulling feels, at very best, tone deaf. Consider this passage about Charles Kushner: “They just knew that Charlie was insatiable, and that money and its trappings were not enough. ‘I want to be the most powerful Jew in America,’ Charlie once told a business associate.” It is, of course, possible to be both greedy and Jewish, but Ward seems to include those things in the same place too often for comfort. Regardless of intent, Ward’s treatment of Judaism is certainly a missed opportunity to ask how Jewish identity actually plays into Jared and Ivanka’s lives. Do they, for instance, believe it comes with ethical obligations?
But Ward seems to lack curiosity about her subjects’ inner lives in general. We never find out whether the family’s loyalty to each other is expedient or real, what their values are, or how they justify their choices. “One day, when Jared and Ivanka are gone, I will tell you the real story,” one of Ward’s “most important sources” tells her on the final page of the book. Ward means to end on an ominous note, but it is an unintentionally apt choice. It implies what readers will have realized already: Ward still hasn’t found the real story.