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On immigration, Mideast and more, Kushner keeps pushing

By CATHERINE LUCEY, JILL COLVIN, LISA MASCARO and MATTHEW LEEFebruary 14, 2019
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White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner is pictured at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. The Polish capital is host for a two-day international conference, co-organized by Poland and the United States. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
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White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner is pictured at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. The Polish capital is host for a two-day international conference, co-organized by Poland and the United States. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The ink wasn’t dry on a border security compromise before Jared Kushner had moved on to another enormous challenge.

As lawmakers fine-tuned a border agreement that the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser had been unable to extract from Capitol Hill in earlier talks, Kushner was at an international conference in Poland discussing his efforts to produce a Mideast peace plan. That’s not all that’s been crowding Kushner’s plate: In recent months, he has scored a hard-fought win on criminal justice reform and kept one foot squarely planted in high-stakes trade negotiations.

It’s all evidence of Kushner’s hefty policy portfolio and his coveted seat at President Donald Trump’s right hand — but also of the education in the ways of Washington that he’s getting along the way. He stumbled in efforts to end the government shutdown and found immigration reform to be a long-term endeavor but keeps a low profile as he plows ahead.

As he spoke to a closed-door audience in Warsaw on Thursday, Kushner acknowledged the magnitude of the Mideast challenge, saying that the region’s history has shown that pessimists about Israeli-Palestinian peace were “usually right.” But, he added: “It’s the optimists that bring the change.”

It was a revealing comment from the 38-year-old adviser charged with some of the thorniest issues facing the administration, demonstrating his willingness to swing big even at the risk of failure. Two years into the administration, Kushner continues to be tagged for his political naivete but also has won praise for his willingness to work across the aisle and act as an honest broker.

“We’ve had a good relationship, good conversations, and he’s kept his word,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who worked with Kushner on criminal justice. But Durbin added that immigration was a much heavier lift, saying there were forces in the White House that were “just unmovable on this issue.”

Kushner’s greatest asset may be his close relationship with Trump, who views him as loyal and trustworthy in an administration marked by rapid turnover and tell-all books. That bond gives Kushner a unique ability to advise the president — he persuaded Trump to back the criminal justice effort — and to speak with rare authority on Trump’s behalf.

But Kushner is also shadowed by the flurry of investigations in the offing from newly empowered House Democrats digging into a range of his activities, including his business dealings, his security clearance and his relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi royal suspected of ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

During his remarks in Warsaw, Kushner said Trump had asked him to take on the Israeli-Palestinian assignment to give the long-elusive goal of a peace agreement “a shot.” He did not give details of the as-yet-unveiled peace plan but spoke in broad generalities about its goal to bring security to Israel and economic opportunity and prosperity to the Palestinians, according to a diplomat who attended the presentation.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about a private discussion, paraphrased Kushner as telling an audience eager for details, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the plan would be released sometime after Israel’s April 9 elections. He said he would not discuss specifics because after studying previous failed peace efforts, he and his team had determined that leaks damaged their prospects by forcing the parties to respond publicly to partial and often inaccurate reports of what they contained.

If there’s one thing Kushner knows something about after two years in the White House, it is damaging leaks.

“Privately, people are much more flexible,” he said.

Kushner was set to continue onto the annual Munich Security Conference, where he was again expected to discuss the plan, according to officials familiar with the outreach effort. While the briefings may please supporters of the Trump administration’s broader Mideast policy, including Netanyahu and the Gulf Arabs, they are unlikely to impress Europeans and others who have seen numerous peace efforts fail and are keen to know exactly how the plan will handle the key divisive issues between the two sides.

So far, Kushner’s record on other complex issues is mixed.

He was credited with getting a major bipartisan criminal justice reform bill over the finish line in December, working with lawmakers, special interest groups and the president. Kushner was able to bring a skeptical Trump on board through his understanding of his father in-law’s pressure points. For example, to address Trump’s concerns the legislation would make him look weak on crime, Kushner convened groups of red-state governors and law enforcement officials to convince him otherwise.

But his efforts were less successful during the partial government shutdown, when Trump tapped Kushner to work with Vice President Mike Pence and others on a compromise deal as he struggled to get funding for his long-sought border wall. Bolstered by his recent work on criminal justice, Kushner met with lawmakers and outside groups — holding lengthy private sessions on immigration reform — trying to tap his relationships and chart a path forward.

Yet, Trump ultimately agreed to reopen the government without winning any concessions — and the compromise struck this week falls far short of the $5.7 billion Trump was seeking for border barriers.

Capitol Hill insiders said Kushner may have overestimated his influence and didn’t fully grasp the complexities of working on immigration. People close to Kushner countered that he was always aware an immigration deal was going to be a heavy lift, arguing that much of what he was doing was just trying to hear key parties out on what may be possible long term.

“It’s maybe not a tougher deal — because criminal justice reform was a pretty difficult negotiation, so he’s got the qualification to do it — but it’s just more political,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who led the justice reform bill to passage. “And another thing is, criminal justice reform was bipartisan. This was a highly partisan thing.”

Another hot-button issue for Kushner in coming months will be the trade talks with China. He has kept a hand in White House trade policy over the past two years, particularly in backstage discussions as part of Trump’s attempts to renegotiate trade deals with China, Mexico and Canada.

Meeting and phone calendars recently obtained by The Associated Press in freedom of information requests to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer show that Kushner and the administration’s top trade official have met or talked by phone at least two dozen times from June 2017 to last month. Most details of the meetings were not provided by the trade office, but some information, along with the names of other attendees, sketched out Kushner’s expansive role in prepping before presidential negotiations and broaching talks in private sessions.

Lighthizer’s schedule listed talks with Kushner and Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Videgaray in July 2017 before the U.S. and Mexico announced a successor arrangement to the North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump had vowed to scuttle. The three men met again in December 2017, in a session also attended by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Lighthizer later credited Kushner publicly for his behind-the-scenes negotiating role, saying, “This agreement would not have happened if it wasn’t for Jared.”

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Associated Press writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.

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