Jared Kushner is sure that his father-in-law, President Donald Trump, is not a racist. But as for whether Trump launched his political career on a racist premise? Eh … he’d rather not say.
That’s the big takeaway from Kushner’s interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan that aired Sunday night on HBO. Kushner was given multiple chances to weigh in on whether the birther campaign that questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States - a campaign that Trump led - was a racist one. And Kushner’s answer was decidedly not “No.”
Here’s a quick transcript:
SWAN: Have you ever seen him say or do anything that you would describe as racist or bigoted?
KUSHNER: So, the answer is un — uh, no. Absolutely not. You can’t not be a racist for 69 years, then run for president and be a racist. What I’ll say is that, when a lot of the Democrats call the president a racist, I think they’re doing a disservice to people who suffer because of real racism in this country.
SWAN: Was birtherism racist?
KUSHNER: Um, look I wasn’t really involved in that.
SWAN: I know you weren’t. Was it racist?
KUSHNER: Like I said, I wasn’t involved in that.
SWAN: I know you weren’t. Was it racist?
KUSHNER: I know who the president is, and I have not seen anything in him that is racist. So, again, I was not involved in that.
SWAN: Did you wish he didn’t do that?
KUSHNER: Like I said, I was not involved in that. That was a long time ago.
So that’s four instances in which Kushner emphasized that he hadn’t personally participated in Trump’s effort to question the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president, and zero instances in which he denied the entire effort was racist.
Kushner’s insistence that this “was a long time ago” is also pretty difficult to digest. For those who might have forgotten the 2016 campaign, Trump’s birtherism charge made a comeback and lingered for weeks before he eventually backed off - kind of.
So this isn’t some long-ago historical fact with no bearing on where we are today; in fact, you could make a pretty compelling case that we wouldn’t have a President Trump today if not for the birther campaign.
Michelle Obama reserved some of the harshest words in her 2018 book for this saga. “The whole [birther] thing was crazy and mean-spirited, of course, its underlying bigotry and xenophobia hardly concealed,” she said. “But it was also dangerous, deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks.”
That last part is key. Trump certainly relies upon support from the more extreme elements of the Republican Party base these days, but back when he was touting birtherism and launching his 2016 campaign, that was his launching pad. At the time, only around half of Republicans actually liked him, and most everybody else didn’t. He was a remarkably unpopular new entry into the presidential field, and those early poll numbers gave people like yours truly license to immediately write him off. How could a guy whom everyone knows but only 49 percent of Republicans like even win the Republican primary?
By going hard for the base, that’s how. Trump’s presidency has been a series of transparent base plays. He has gone further than most any other politician would dare in catering to that base, and it’s kept him relevant as an unpopular president. He has instilled the fear of God in fellow Republicans who would dare to cross him.
And in many ways, the birther campaign was the first real testing ground for that strategy. He showed the GOP base, much of which embraced the bogus theory, that he was willing to stick by a birther campaign that riled them up and drove the establishment crazy. It was the first big conspiracy theory of his conspiracy theory-laden political career.
So for Kushner to dismiss it as trivial is to bury his own head in the sand. Kushner may not be a senior White House adviser without it.
But of course, he didn’t really dismiss it; he actively sought to distance himself from it - which pretty much says it all.
Aaron Blake is a columnist with The Washington Post.