There is a first time for everything. On Wednesday Jared Kushner, son-in-law of Donald Trump and bête noire of American liberals, woke up to headlines not accusing him of corruption or mocking his political naiveté. They were headlines of praise.
Kushner had helped bring about bipartisan accord almost unheard of in today’s Washington to overhaul criminal justice.
The First Step Act – which passed 87-12 in the Senate and 358-36 in the House and will now go to Trump to be signed – outlaws the shackling of women during childbirth, reduces the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions to 25 years and will potentially free up to 4,000 prisoners by rewarding good behaviour.
There were plaudits for Kushner from both sides of the aisle. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham paid tribute to the 37-year-old’s “tenacity”, while Democratic Senator Cory Booker, noting that most beneficiaries will be people of colour, said: “I don’t think this would have happened without him.”
Some observers caution, however, that while Kushner deserves limited credit for riding a wave, his reputation is already doomed by conflicts of interest and a close relationship with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.
For Kushner, criminal justice reform was personal. When he was a law and business school student in his early 20s, his father Charles Kushner was imprisoned on charges of tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations.
The husband of Ivanka Trump worked with groups including the ACLU and Brennan Center, the conservative Koch brothers’ network, former Barack Obama special adviser Van Jones and reality TV star Kim Kardashian West. He visited senators on Capitol Hill, carefully keeping track of their views and whether he had sufficient votes. It also helped that he had the ear of the president.
Grover Norquist, a tax reform activist who has been working on criminal justice reform for 25 years, said: “Jared was central. We had all this energy behind us for the last two years of the Obama administration but there was no White House oomph. What Jared gave us was a White House commitment: ‘Start to finish, I’m not giving up, this is going to happen.’”
Kushner recruited Brooke Rollins, head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, mindful that Texas had adopted similar reforms and that conservative, southern states were needed to win over sceptical Republicans. Norquist said: “How does a guy from New York pick the best, toughest person in Texas? It was a series of smart moves.
“Working with Jared, you saw a guy learning over time. He was flexible as far as strategy, tactics and how much of the loaf he was going to get, but dogged and persistent in terms of what direction we’re going. ‘You see that mountain? That’s where we’re going.’”
And yet, with the mountain peak in sight, Kushner was almost thwarted. The New York Times reported last week Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, came to the White House to tell Trump that he would not bring the bill to the Senate floor before the end of the year.
“Mr Kushner entered the Oval Office, Mr McConnell joked that he felt like he had heard from everyone Mr Kushner knew,” the paper said. “‘That’s not true,’ Mr Kushner replied, according to administration officials. ‘I have a lot more people.’”
As good as his word, Kushner asked Vice-President Mike Pence to make the case to Trump that the bill should be considered before Republicans lose their House majority, according to the New York Times, while also persuading Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan to release a statement endorsing the bill. He gave a rare interview on Fox News, the conservative network that Trump watches avidly.
It worked. Approved by the House on Thursday, as expected, it is the first major bipartisan legislative success of the Trump era, albeit only the beginning of criminal justice reform – as its name suggests. It was a change in fortunes for Kushner, a figure more usually mocked for a vast portfolio that includes bringing peace to the Middle East, apparently based on the qualification that he wed the president’s favourite daughter.
Norquist said: “I think among some people, if they just thought he was a pretty face and had a job because he married into the family business, this is a ‘The kid knows what he’s doing’ moment. The left will still criticise but the ‘He’s a lightweight’ theory isn’t the way to go. And this bill certainly isn’t a way to monetise being in the White House.”
Others are less effusive, however. Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “There’s been talk of some bipartisan effort on criminal justice reform for the last four or five years. There was interest in fiscal benefits, political benefits. Both parties wanted to be able to say they accomplished something.
“Kushner deserves some credit for seizing it. His role was to bring the White House in. I wouldn’t hold a parade for him. He was capitalising on something that was happening anyway. Mitch McConnell is not listening to Kushner; he’s listening to a number of Republicans in the Senate who insisted on it; they are his masters.”
Kushner may wish to savour the moment while he can. When Democrats take control of the House next month, they will have subpoena power. Kushner is likely to face an onslaught of investigations into his businesses, security clearance and relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince accused of ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Jacobs said: “He is standing in quick sand of political corruption and atrocious policy judgments. I don’t think momentary good press is going to save him from that. Those of us who’ve watched Washington a long time can see someone who has taken on water and is sinking.”