For a reclusive 36-year-old with no prior government experience, Jared Kushner’s power and potential drawbacks in his role as President Trump’s trusted adviser were on full display Monday.
The president announced he was appointing Mr. Kushner, his son-in-law, to run a new White House office aimed at reforming the federal government. It’s a massive job for anyone, let alone someone who’s been working in Washington for all of 66 days.
On the same day, Mr. Kushner agreed to meet with investigators for the Senate Intelligence Committee, who want to question him as part of the panel’s broad probe into ties between Trump associates and Russian officials.
The White House revealed that Mr. Kushner had met during the transition with the head of a Russian bank that the U.S. had placed on its sanctions list after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed military action in eastern Ukraine. While no one has accused Mr. Kushner of wrongdoing, it’s a highly sensitive issue now extending into the president’s inner circle.
Add those high-profile subjects to Mr. Kushner’s already-bulging portfolio, which includes a role as potential broker of Middle East peace, the president’s unofficial campaign manager and political sounding board. He was also among a select group of advisers, including Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who dined with the president at the White House in late January when Mr. Trump approved a special operations raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier.
Mr. Kushner said the new office on government reform “will bring a creative and strategic approach to many critical issues and intractable problems that affect Americans’ quality of life.”
“We have an opportunity to identify and implement solutions by combining internal resources with the private sector’s innovation and creativity, enabling the federal government to better serve Americans,” he said.
Having been thrust into all of this with no previous government experience is “a little bit more of a learning curve,” said Anita McBride, who served as an assistant to President George W. Bush and chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.
“There’s a lot of different responsibilities that he’s been given,” said Ms. McBride, who is now at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “Working in the White House, you’re always drinking from the fire hose anyway. You’ve always got multiple tasks going.”
Mr. Kushner is married to the president’s daughter, Ivanka, and they have three young children. Until joining his father-in-law’s presidential campaign, Mr. Kushner had been running his family’s billion-dollar real estate company.
Mr. Trump trusts him completely and values his advice enough to have appointed him as a senior presidential adviser after he won the election. The president relies on Mr. Kushner’s judgment so much that there were reports of Mr. Trump being angered last week when his son-in-law left Washington for a brief ski vacation with his wife and children in the Rocky Mountains during the crucial buildup to House consideration of a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, a huge test that the new administration lost when GOP leaders pulled the bill.
The White House on Monday downplayed Mr. Kushner’s discussions with the Russian bank chief, saying Mr. Trump had designated his son-in-law as the transition team’s main liaison with foreign governments before the inauguration.
“Throughout the campaign and the transition, Jared served as the official primary point of contact with foreign governments and officials until we had State Department officials,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “He met with countless individuals. That was part of his job. That was part of his role, and he executed it completely as he was supposed to.”
Asked by a reporter if Mr. Kushner believes he owes the public an explanation, Mr. Spicer replied heatedly, “For what, doing his job?
“You’re acting as though there’s something nefarious about doing what he was actually tasked to do,” Mr. Spicer told a reporter. “Based on the media frenzy that existed around this, he volunteered” to talk to Senate investigators.
The administration has been trying to beat back accusations since the campaign that Russians hacked into Democratic campaign officials’ records and emails to help Mr. Trump win the election. Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, resigned after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the extent of his conversations with a Russian diplomat during the transition.
The White House acknowledged Monday that Mr. Kushner had met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, at the request of Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. A White House official told The New York Times that nothing of consequence was discussed.
Ms. McBride said Mr. Kushner’s offering to talk to Senate investigators was “absolutely the right thing to do.”
“The son-in-law doesn’t want to be a distraction to the father-in-law. No one in the White House wants to be a distraction to the president of the United States,” she said. “It’s smart to get out there and share whatever knowledge he has to help the investigation.”
Mr. Kushner got another hat to wear Monday as the president announced he will lead the newly created White House “Office of American Innovation,” which will try to bring more efficiency and cost-effectiveness to government operations and services. Mr. Spicer said the office will focus on “modernizing the technology of every federal department, identifying transformational infrastructure projects” and reforming systems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mr. Kushner will work with business leaders such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Tesla founder Elon Musk to address chronic inefficiencies in government.
“When you look at some of the business acumen that Jared and some of the other individuals who he is bringing into this process — I think it is a great service to this country,” Mr. Spicer said. “There are so many individuals that Jared has talked to that have done so well and been so blessed by our nation. [They] wanted to give back in some way, shape or form, and are using this opportunity to help our country and serve our country in ways that they believe they can use their expertise to do.”
Mr. Kushner shuns the media spotlight and is described as soft-spoken. He’s also been described as learning quickly how to succeed in West Wing power struggles.
During the transition, the president even expressed confidence that Mr. Kushner would help to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can,” Mr. Trump told his son-in-law at a dinner in Washington before the inauguration. “All my life I’ve been hearing that’s the toughest deal in the world to make. And I’ve seen it, but I have a feeling that Jared is going to do a great job.”
Mr. Kushner’s father, Charles, founded the family real estate company in 1985. The son took over as CEO in 2008 after his father was sent to prison on his guilty plea for tax fraud, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations.
The federal prosecutor in the case was Chris Christie, now governor of New Jersey and a Trump ally.
When Ivanka Trump married Mr. Kushner in 2009, she converted to Judaism from Presbyterianism. As Orthodox Jews, the couple observes the Sabbath, refraining from using technology or working between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.