Breaking History – highlights from Jared Kushner’s White House memoir
What led me to this book…
My having spent a year as a 10 Downing Street Special Advisor, learning from Dominic Cummings, then in 2020 Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister, how to jolt a bureaucracy to action – this intrigued me.
I began listening to a few interviews with Jared – having not heard from him directly before, and having an impression formed only from media spin. Going direct, I was thoroughly impressed.
In particular: on negotiating peace deals in the Middle East. How does a businessperson with no diplomatic experience approach peace-brokering?
Fascinating clip (~5 minutes):
And then his thoughts on Ukraine (~4 mins):
Everything Jared says here made sense to me.
These interviews were compelling enough I wanted to read the whole thing. And I’m glad I did. What a book.
I went in to the centre of government as a 27-year-old, not a 36-year-old; and with no comparable son-in-law connection.
But the book had great resonance. The alien environment for an entrepreneur entering government. And under similar anti-convention auspices.
Here are my favourite passages from Breaking History…
Jared’s atypical approach to foreign policy
Shortly after Trump assigned me the Middle East peace file, I asked Kissinger how he would approach the job. He recommended that rather than trying to achieve a grand deal, I should focus on creating progress through short-term agreements. In 1974, as Israeli and Arab forces fought for control of the Golan Heights, he had negotiated a cease-fire. The text of the deal made it explicitly clear that the agreement was “not a peace agreement.” Even so, Kissinger explained, it had become a new status quo over the last five decades. Permanent peace deals make for challenging domestic politics in the Middle East, he said, but if you can get rivals to agree to a short-term pact, or even a change of the status quo, it will last. Kissinger also warned me to resist efforts to run foreign policy out of the State Department. “You always have to run the foreign policy in the White House,” he said. “If the White House loses foreign policy to the State Department, you will never get anything done.”
Before we departed, MBZ made one more comment: The United States typically sent three types of people to conduct diplomacy, he said. The first were people who fell asleep in meetings; the second were people who read talking points with no ability to converse; the third were people who came and tried to convince them to do things that were not in their interests. He observed that I was different. I was the first person to come asking questions and really trying to understand their perspectives. He believed we would make peace in the region.
The old way seemed like a sure path to failure, so I decided to do something untraditional: propose a highly detailed plan and try to get both sides to react to it. Until both parties could react to a substantive plan, it seemed to me that they would keep fighting over vague concessions and hypothetical solutions, rather than coming to the table and negotiating a deal that would last long after it was signed and executed.
The meeting clarified why it would be so critical to talk directly to the leaders of these nations: they were the ones with the authority to veer from the established talking points and make the difficult decisions on behalf of their countries.
As the son-in-law of the president, and a former executive of a family business, I represented something that they [in the Middle East] found familiar and reassuring. They knew that when I spoke, I did so as an extension of the president in a way that few administration officials could.
Shortly after the president’s inauguration, Pompeo invited me to the CIA headquarters for a visit, adding, “You’re a power user of our material.” He was referring to my regular Situation Room briefings with CIA analysts, who were helping me get up to speed on the Middle East. I met with several high-ranking CIA staff members.
The briefer who I found most insightful was CIA expert Norm Roule… He explained that the best way to gather intelligence was to get on a plane, form relationships, and listen to people.
And from later in the book:
I asked Avi to call the deputy defense minister of Saudi Arabia, MBS’s brother Khalid bin Salman, with whom we had developed a close working relationship during his stint as ambassador to the United States. He promised to help. It took several more calls, but the night before our flight, the Saudi aviation authority approved the waiver. That authorization was its own major diplomatic achievement. The relationships we had built over the previous three years allowed us to break old conventions, move past bureaucracy, and chart a more constructive path forward.
Trump’s foreign policy
He [Trump] privately warned German chancellor Angela Merkel that her country’s dependence on Russian gas and support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would enrich Putin financially and give Russia leverage over the European economies. He cautioned European leaders that pressing to include Ukraine in the NATO alliance would provoke Russia and back Putin into a corner, even as Europe was in a weak position strategically. This could lead to war.
> It maddens me that ‘Trump derangement syndrome’ means these points are never brought up in mainstream debate. As I’ve written before: Trump was absolutely right on both counts.
Part of what ultimately made Trump successful in his foreign policy objectives was that leaders found him unpredictable. He built warm rapport with his counterparts and approached each situation with an open mind. He was willing to change course at any minute and take calculated risks.
Minutes later, I walked into the Oval Office. Trump had already drafted a tweet on a piece of paper, which he slid across the Resolute Desk so I could read it: “After 52 years, it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability.” It was a classic Trump tweet. It didn’t say he had made a formal decision to recognize the Golan Heights, but simply signaled his intention to do it—a vague enough statement to allow him to dip his toe in the water and see how people reacted before he took definitive action.
Secretary Tillerson’s top policy adviser Brian Hook overheard a few of the Arab leaders say among themselves, “Trump really gets us.” After nearly two decades of fraught relations between the United States and the Middle East, we were adopting a new approach—an approach that didn’t seek to remake nations in our image, but that instead sought to build coalitions based on our shared goals.
Joining us onstage at Trump’s request were the USTR career staffers who had worked tirelessly to draft the highly technical agreement at record speed—just one example of Trump’s instinct to thank people who often did not receive enough credit.
Trump has a habit of seeking information and opinions from people whose views are often overlooked. As a builder, he would visit construction sites and ask the frontline workers for their input on serious design questions.
As I talked to foreign policy luminaries to get their perspectives, I met with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a heavyweight among the foreign policy establishment. I described the general approach I planned to pursue and then asked if he thought it had any chance at success. “Nope,” he said. I asked him why he was so sure. “Simple,” he replied. “No one has made money betting on success in the Middle East over the last twenty-five years.” Haass was so dismissive that I began to realize how defeatist the foreign policy establishment had become.
When I first came to Washington, almost everyone accepted former secretary of state John Kerry’s assessment of peace with Israel: “There will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace.” I had questioned this assumption and instead embraced a new approach, based on my belief that countries would engage in new partnerships that offered more promise for their citizens than the status quo.
And from later in the book (said to Jared):
“Looking back to when we first entered office, we were dealt a terrible hand. It’s clear just how ripe the region was for new thinking and approaches. That could only come from someone like you who was outside the think tank industry, which has been using the same talking points from the 1970s. You didn’t have the baggage of what passes for ‘expertise.’”
This led to a eureka moment: maybe the reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hadn’t been solved was because it is two separate conflicts, not one. There is the territorial dispute between Israel and the Palestinians about where to compromise and draw the borders in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Then there is the broader conflict between Israel and all Arabs about access to the al-Aqsa Mosque. For decades, conflating these two issues had made the conflict unsolvable. If we focused on each issue individually, perhaps progress would be possible.
Months earlier, I had commissioned State Department focus groups in the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE. When Arab respondents were asked to describe the source of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the vast majority cited access to the mosque. The issue of territorial sovereignty, which was the fixation of “experts,” hardly came up.
If we could make peace between Israel and the Arab world, then more likely than not, a path to making peace between the Palestinians and Israel would eventually open as well.
The ultimate pay-off:
I paused a few seconds before applying my signature as the representative of the United States. I had signed lots of documents in my business life. The action was the same—pressing the pen to paper to complete a deal—but the difference in significance couldn’t have been more dramatic. This deal would lead to connections and activities that would make the world more peaceful and prosperous.
Hanging in the courtyard was a bronze plaque that read: “Kushner Courtyard: Dedicated in honor of Jared Kushner and inspired by his relentless pursuit of peace.” He told me that this was one of only a few times in State Department history that a US government official had received such an honor.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called me with a suggestion on immigration policy. I asked Lighthizer what he thought, and he curtly replied, “I’m not telling you.” When I asked him why not, he explained, “I have my dream job right now. I have been talking about these trade issues for forty years, and there is finally a president who understands them and has the balls to take them on. If I am great at my job, I have a one-in-ten chance of being successful given the difficulty of the task. The moment I start getting into other people’s issues, these odds go to one in a million.”
[Pompeo:] “If you need me, call, and I will always get back to you fast. If I have any suggestions, I’ll call you. But at least for the next thirty days, just run forward. Don’t walk, don’t go slow. Do whatever you need. I trust your judgment.”
Pompeo would often call to keep me in the loop and get my thoughts on an issue. When he did, he was always friendly, but to the point. The calls rarely lasted more than three minutes. Tillerson seldom had called and often did not promptly return calls—a frequent complaint among foreign diplomats. On the rare occasion when he did, the calls almost always took thirty minutes and accomplished little. I figured that from a mathematical perspective alone, Pompeo would be able to do ten times as much diplomacy.
Bibi told me that early in his political career, he had learned that the most important thing was momentum. Whenever he was down, he would find any bit of good news and would make it the biggest thing. In politics, wins beget more wins.
Lighthizer didn’t hold back anything. He detailed a litany of China’s trade abuses. They had broken nearly every rule governing modern trade: stealing American intellectual property, manipulating their currency, illegally dumping cheap products into our markets to make our companies uncompetitive, and forcing American companies to hand over their trade secrets as a precondition for entering the Chinese market. Trump wanted Lighthizer to send a strong message, but Lighthizer’s presentation surprised even Trump, who was typically respectful and warm to his foreign counterparts, despite his tough negotiating style.
It was interesting to read how a later deal with Mexico played out. Lighthizer and Jared asked for a break mid-diplomatic meeting, then had a side conversation between them, resumed, and resolved the issue with Mexico.
An intricate deal:
What if we included a sunset clause that automatically terminated the agreement after sixteen years, unless all three countries agreed to an extension in the interim? The parties could hold a joint review in six years to evaluate the agreement and make adjustments. If the parties agreed to an extension, the term of the agreement would reset for another sixteen years. If they didn’t, a ten-year termination clock would start to tick, and pressure would build on the parties to resolve their differences as the expiration date approached.
Jared’s diligence in briefing the President (on criminal justice reform):
…handing him [Trump] a copy of my bound, two-inch-thick book of endorsement letters from supportive groups, including law enforcement and his strongest evangelical supporters. I wanted to be ready in case he decided to come out publicly in favor of sentencing reform then and there. I even prepared a draft speech, in case he needed it.
“My number one rule about working with Trump is that you have to proactively keep him informed about your efforts,” I told him. “Otherwise, he will feel like nothing is happening and potentially take matters into his own hands. I operate under the assumption that if he calls me for an update on something, it’s too late.
> This is something I spoke about generally with #1s at the 21 Convention in 2016.
On world leaders:
These world leaders appeared calm and in control, but they all had challenges, they all had flaws. They were all human.
This is what I was most struck by in my reading of Destined for War in 2018 – just how emotional so much of geopolitics is.
As the construction ramped up, I held weekly meetings in the Situation Room.
As he listed the construction numbers from the previous week, I opened my manila folder, pulled out the schedule from the week before, and double-checked the projections.
“With all due respect, General, you’re not on schedule,” I said. “Last week, you said that you’d be at a hundred and seventeen miles, and you’re only at one hundred and fifteen.”
> From my own experience in government: you absolutely need to sit on people.
“General, unlike most of the jobs I have been assigned in government, this is one that I have a bit of experience in,” I quipped. “I’ve never had a contractor admit to missing their schedule—they just keep revising the damn schedule.”
“I know how to do this stuff. Every time we meet, I need you to give me an update on where we were the day before, and where we were projected to be. There are a lot of moving parts, and things will go better and worse than we expect. Let’s agree to have a transparent flow of information, and we will solve problems as they arise.”
I created a one-page spreadsheet, with specific tracking and updates to monitor the progress, and tasked one of my top lieutenants, an affable jack-of-all-trades named John Rader, to run point on coordinating the project.
We all accepted accountability as a team, and we started to steamroll through the project.
To get it done, I applied a formula similar to the one I’d used for USMCA, the First Step Act, and the Middle East file. I defined success, developed a plan, and built a great team that was creative, agile, and focused intensely on execution.
Keeping others in the loop:
Historically, the Russians had played a role in Middle East peace efforts, and I wanted to open a line of communication and make sure they didn’t oppose our proposal.
“Russia’s a proud country,” he [Jon Huntsman Jr., US ambassador to Russia] said in a call. “So if they’re not consulted, they’ll be against it.”
There are some wonderful stories on Jared’s meeting Ivanka…
Around the time of my 666 Fifth Avenue purchase, Donald Trump suggested to his daughter Ivanka that she talk to the guy who was actively buying buildings to see if I was interested in purchasing any of their properties. In the spring of 2007, we had lunch. We spoke about business, but the conversation soon turned to NASCAR, New Jersey diners, and other unlikely interests that we had in common.
On Sunday mornings we would take our backgammon board to a new restaurant and sit there for hours as we played games, read the papers, and sipped coffee.
When I realized that I was falling in love with Ivanka, I grew concerned about our different religions. As hard and painful as it was, I broke up with her. Ivanka told me it was the worst decision of my life. She was right.
Several months later, our mutual friend Wendi Murdoch invited me away for a weekend with her and her husband, Rupert Murdoch—the owner of News Corp, then the parent company of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal—on their boat Rosehearty. I had first met Wendi and Rupert through my work with the Observer, and they had become good friends. To my surprise, Ivanka was there. She was equally shocked, but it wasn’t long before we got back together.
As our relationship turned more serious, Ivanka suggested that I should try to get to know her father, so I called Trump and asked if I could see him. He suggested lunch the next day in the grill at Trump Tower—an unusual offer, as he rarely met people for lunch.
A few months later, I made a clandestine trip to Trump Tower to ask for Ivanka’s hand in marriage, and I mentioned that I had planned a surprise engagement. Later, I learned that right after I left, Trump picked up the intercom and alerted Ivanka that she should expect an imminent proposal.
During our early years of marriage, both Ivanka and I were busy growing our respective companies and building relationships with members of New York society, but most often we preferred to have dinner just the two of us. We took turns planning date nights exploring the city. We’d go rock climbing at Brooklyn Boulders, trapeze at the South Street Seaport, take cooking lessons at a local restaurant, or play shuffleboard at a new bar in a trendy neighborhood.
Blending family with diplomacy…
She [Arabella, Jared and Ivanka’s eldest daughter] had grown up learning Mandarin thanks to the encouragement of our good friend Wendi Murdoch and to XiXi, our beloved nanny and tutor, who has been with us since Arabella was an infant.
The flattering gesture put him [President Xi] at ease and the video circulated like wildfire in China. It was a major sign of respect that the granddaughter of the president of the United States knew Mandarin.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and was impressed throughout.
In the opening chapters: what a prodigy Jared was, and what big deals he was doing so young (regardless of having a father in the industry).
‘I graduated from Harvard with honors, while making millions of dollars from my real estate investments.’
After twenty months of executing my plan, we sold the building for nearly $150 million. After that success, I went on a major buying spree, acquiring more than twelve thousand apartments across the country and completing $14 billion of transactions in roughly ten years.
The calculating way in which he built his network was interesting:
I also met New York’s top business leaders through another investment I had made in 2006. That July, I visited Arthur Carter, the owner and publisher of the New York Observer, a weekly newspaper read by New York’s elite. I told him that I wanted to buy the paper. He said that Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal were far along in negotiations but were raising new issues at the last minute. I put a check for $5 million on the table. He said if I closed by Monday, it was mine. I worked all weekend on the due diligence to finalize the deal. In the Observer, I saw an opportunity to bring a sophisticated paper into the digital age, while making helpful business connections in the process.
Much as I came to like Jared from the book, there are sections where I can understand why certain White House staff would get pissed with him.
e.g. ‘It was clear that Kelly was rattled that the president had fired Tillerson—a top cabinet member and Kelly’s close ally—without consulting him [the chief of staff].’
From my own time in government, I agree: you can have a portfolio of about three things. (For Jared being: criminal justice reform, Middle East peace, and America’s strained relationship with Mexico. And then Covid coming in as #4.)
Him going in as a thirty-six-year-old real estate investor, he clearly managed his position (as senior advisor and son-in-law) admirably well.
Government all-around would benefit from more such outsiders daring to take such a plunge.
If Trump does get back in in 2025 (which seems ~50% likely to me at the moment), I will be very curious to see if Jared joins him.
PS. For anyone who enjoyed this, you might further enjoy highlights of The China Mission: George C. Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947: