Signing up to carry out Donald Trump’s vision of America has come at a cost to many of the president’s closest allies.
Some have found it a constant struggle to balance their reputations and their newfound access to power.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Kushner, 36, has been described as the most powerful aide to the president of the United States. He and his wife, Donald Trump’s oldest daughter Ivanka, moved to Washington, DC, from New York so Kushner could take an unpaid role as one of Trump’s senior advisers. On Monday, Trump appointed Kushner as the head of the new White House Office of American Innovation, whose aim is to overhaul government operations using ideas from the business world.
But so far, Kushner has found himself caught between two worlds, both inside the White House and out.
Within its walls, he is considered a mediator between warring factions — the “Republican populists” like chief strategist Steve Bannon, and the “Democrats,” the more left-leaning members of Trump’s inner circle. Kushner is considered one of the “Democrats.”
But outside, liberals who knew Kushner before his administration role have grown concerned. They are no longer sure where he stands — for Trump’s America or theirs — and the uncertainty has fractured relationships.
Business Insider spoke with a number of people who knew Kushner before and during Trump’s campaign, as well as people who are close to him now. Their feelings toward Trump’s apparent protégé mirrors the polarization of the country.
Trump, they seem to feel, is a black and white issue: You can be for or against his policies.
But Kushner is an uncomfortable swirl of grey.
“The hope was that with Jared, there at least was someone who was smart and thoughtful and potentially doing the right things behind the scenes,” one person who previously worked with Kushner told Business Insider.
But people “hate him right now,” they continued. “Not just him as a person so much but what he stands for and the fact that he hasn’t been able to use his position to do anything meaningful for what we stand for.”
Another person who attended Kushner’s wedding in 2009 agreed former acquaintances are “seething.”
“I’m not planning on being friends,” this person said. “I don’t think I’m going to be over it. … I feel really, really upset about what they’re doing. I think it’s so terrible and so disruptive that I can’t get over that. I can’t endorse that.”
Kushner has seen enough relationships break that he now has a word for it: “Exfoliation.”
He is shedding dead relationships like skin cells being scrubbed from a body.
And one particularly bad break-up last July may have inspired it.
A relationship sours
In September 2015, Jared Kushner met startup founder Wiley Cerilli. Kushner approached him about a business he was launching in the hope that Cerilli might agree to run it.
Cerilli declined the offer but told Kushner he wanted to find a way to work with him. He felt Kushner was sharp and had a healthy outlook on life.
That way would be a food delivery startup Cerilli launched that winter. In January 2016, Kushner invested in his seed round — the first money a founder raises from outside investors. Sources familiar with the deal say Kushner’s investment was a relatively small amount for a venture capitalist, no more than a few hundred thousand dollars.
Over the next few months, the pair didn’t talk much. But Cerilli watched as Donald Trump took to the campaign trail and delivered increasingly divisive speeches. He often noticed Kushner photographed by the candidate’s side, but he never heard Kushner speak out against what was said.
Cerilli, a life-long liberal, grew increasingly concerned. In June, Trump went on an 11-minute rant about federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, attacking him over his Mexican heritage and saying he could not fairly preside over a case involving Trump University because of Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigration and build a wall along the Mexican border.
That’s when Cerilli, who said he viewed the comments as racist, cracked.
Cerilli consulted a group of CEOs and investors for advice. They encouraged him to rid himself of his Kushner association, if only because it had become a distraction to his business. Also during that time, Trump had become the Republican presidential nominee.
In late July, Cerilli Kushner scheduled a phone call. Kushner thought he was getting an ordinary business update.
Instead, he was getting dumped.
‘I don’t give a shit. Send me the paperwork. I’ll sign’
It’s not easy to get rid of an investor.
Once early-stage angel investors like Kushner give money to a startup, they own a piece of the company. There are written terms that can make it easier for a founder to divorce a spouse than part with a venture capitalist.
To remove Kushner from his startup financially, Cerilli had to inform his board and other investors of the decision. Then he had to persuade Kushner to sign paperwork that would give away his rights.
Cerilli was nervous to address his concerns with Kushner. He wrote down a script and took notes of Kushner’s reaction. Cerilli later sent those notes to his investors so that he could give them an accurate update. Business Insider obtained a copy and confirmed the document’s authenticity.
“If you can hear me out for a few minutes,” Cerilli said, according to the notes, “then I would be happy to listen to you.”
He continued: “A lot has changed in this country since you invested. … I am personally and now professionally overwhelmed and concerned with the rhetoric and public discourse on a number of fronts with regard to Trump.”
Cerilli said that even if Kushner didn’t agree with offensive comments Trump had made, he found his silence unacceptable.
“Your involvement is something that is not incredibly clear to me, but what is is your unwillingness to speak out against it,” Cerilli said. “This is not a conversation about what he or you believe, or what he and you do and feel behind closed doors. This is about what he says and does publicly, and what is not said and done publicly by you.”
Cerilli said that while he once felt his and Kushner’s values were aligned, that no longer seemed to be the case.
“You seem like a good person. A smart person,” he said. “I am not saying that you are a bad person, or that the way you act is wrong. I am saying that I don’t agree with it, and me, [my cofounder], our team, and our investors … would like to give you your money back.”
Kushner listened until Cerilli was finished. He told him the call came as a shock — and that it was “cowardly.”
Then, according to Cerilli’s notes of the call, Kushner unleashed.
He conveyed that the process of campaigning with Trump had “allowed him to exfoliate” people he once considered friends. “I am seeing which friendships break in the wind,” he said, according to the document.
“We live in a world and time that are interesting. There are a lot of issues that need to be discussed,” he added.
He told Cerilli he was doing what he thought was right, with “complicated facets,” and that he was “navigating it appropriately.”
Cerilli’s decision to distance himself, Kushner said, was a “childish thing.” He questioned Cerilli’s character, describing his messaging as “somewhere between incredibly immature and incredibly intolerant.” The decision to oust Kushner seemed emotional, not based on facts. He questioned whether Cerilli knew about his actual involvement in Trump’s campaign or where he stood on key issues.
“You clearly don’t have the depth to take on a big challenge when something like this bothers you,” Kushner said, “and so clearly your team doesn’t either.”
After a few minutes, Kushner concluded: “I don’t give a shit. Send me the paperwork. I’ll sign.”
Who is Jared Kushner?
Those who know Kushner say he never intended to go into politics. His heavy involvement, these sources told Business Insider, spiraled from the fact that Trump ran a non-traditional campaign with few experienced advisers, often relying on people close to him like Kushner for guidance.
But now that he’s involved, former friends wonder who’s changed more: Trump or Kushner?
Kushner and Ivanka have stayed relatively quiet during some of Trump’s most controversial moments, which has fed critics’ frustration. A recent “Saturday Night Live” skit summed up the sentiment. It was of a spoof ad for a perfume called “Complicit,” starring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump. The tagline?
“The fragrance for the woman who could stop all of this but won’t. Also available in a cologne for Jared.”
Kushner’s allies have two responses to those who fear he’s making a Faustian bargain in exchange for power: He isn’t the president. And look harder.
A source familiar with Kushner’s White House role says he did not go to Washington to focus on some of the more controversial Trump policies, like healthcare or the ban on immigration from several majority-Muslim countries. Instead, he is focused on issues like creating peace in the Middle East. But that doesn’t mean Kushner hasn’t inserted himself when he feels it’s necessary.
Kushner, this person said, was instrumental in killing an executive order that would have affected the LGBT community. They also say he was the force that pushed the administration to remove Iraq from the second iteration of the travel ban.
Other Trump associates have faced tremendous criticism, too. SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, who is a member of Trump’s economic advisory council, acknowledged on Twitter that the blowback has been difficult to deal with. Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, couldn’t take the heat and resigned from Trump’s council.
“Activists should be pushing for more moderates to advise the President, not fewer,” Musk tweeted. “How could having only extremists advise him possibly be good?”
But once you’ve associated yourself with Trump, the only way to win might be to lose.
As one Kushner defender put it: “If you’re doing well in politics, only 45% of people hate you.”
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