Book review of Breaking History: A White House Memoir by Jared Kushner


All memoirs are self-serving — it’s just a matter of degree. But Jared Kushner’s memoir, “Breaking History,” is, at its core, an extended news release that exists primarily to exculpate its author after his role in one of the most destructive presidential administrations of my lifetime. Any reader who’s inclined to plow through the more than 450 pages of often tedious and repetitive claims will, however, get a very good sense of what Kushner is really like — what he sounds like, how he views his interactions with others and what his values are.

I know this because I worked for him in 2011 and 2012, when I was the editor in chief of the New York Observer, a prestigious newspaper Kushner bought in 2006 at the age of 25. At the time, he was ostensibly a Democrat, and Donald Trump was pretending to fire people on national television. Early in the Trump administration I wrote in The Washington Post about my time working for Kushner, who starved the Observer of funding and ran it largely as a vanity project until he folded it soon after his father-in-law was elected president. In March 2017, Kushner was put in charge of a new White House office tasked with overhauling the federal bureaucracy. I hesitated to write about my previous work with him for fear of seeming unprofessional, but I was deeply concerned that someone with Kushner’s limited experience running a family commercial real estate company — a job he inherited — now had a huge portfolio within the government with real consequences for many people.

The memoir mostly covers Kushner’s time adjacent to Trump, beginning with the end of the presidential campaign and moving through the next four years. It purports to give readers an inside view of what it was like to be a senior White House adviser with unusual access to the president. Kushner, of course, conveniently elides the fact that this unusual access was primarily the inevitable result of his marriage to the president’s daughter. In describing his work for the nation — the many roles he accumulated and then abandoned — he pretends to be imbued with a special understanding of Beltway jargon, where the purview of a particular bureaucrat is referred to as a “file.” In Kushner’s telling, everyone wants to keep giving him more files because, like his father-in-law, he is the only person who can swoop in and fix a problem. (My 7-year-old son, a big Marvel fan, recently asked me what a hypothetical worst superhero would look like, and I now have an answer.)

What Kushner’s book really is, however, is a portrait of a man whose moral compass has been demagnetized. When Kushner met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the men discussed the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Kushner accepted Mohammed’s deflection, and he dispenses with the subject in a single paragraph. “The crown prince took responsibility for the fact that it happened on his watch,” Kushner writes, “though he said he was not personally involved.” The CIA came to a different conclusion in a February 2021 report, saying, “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

Kushner comes across as an overconfident tyro who condescendingly feeds uninformed advice to professionals with far more wisdom and expertise than he will ever have. The Kushner-as-savior narrative is buttressed throughout with flattering quotes from a handful of colleagues and his father-in-law. A sample, courtesy of Mike Pompeo: “I wish I had someone like you on every file.” It doesn’t occur to Kushner that this flattery is strategic politicking by the flatterers. When Trump, speaking in the Oval Office, says, “Jared’s a genius,” Kushner accepts it as an affectionate joke. But when others suggest that the White House would fall apart without him, Kushner readily believes it.

I knew Kushner as an Olympic-level social climber, and he lards his memoir with famous names, however distant the acquaintance: Bono, Billy Joel, Kim Kardashian. He is often unaware of the implications of his name-dropping. “When I heard the crowd’s reaction that night in Springfield,” he writes of a Trump rally, “it reminded me of a book that Rupert Murdoch had given me months earlier: Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.’” Kushner is oblivious to the significance of endorsing Murray, co-author of “The Bell Curve” (1994), which asserted controversial views on race and intelligence that have since been discredited. But Kushner absolutely understands the status implications of emphasizing his relationship with Murdoch.

The memoir opens with Kushner’s experience of his father’s incarceration. In 2004, Charles Kushner pleaded guilty to witness tampering, tax evasion and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Chris Christie, who would later serve as New Jersey’s governor, was at the time the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the elder Kushner. Jared Kushner refers to his father’s malfeasance as a “private family feud,” which happened to include some sordid antics involving a videotape of Jared’s uncle sleeping with a sex worker hired by Jared’s father — who had the juicy recording sent to Jared’s aunt. Discussing the ordeal, Kushner says he was angry at his family, his father, his father’s lawyers and one other person: “I was angry at Chris Christie, who knew my father had been a major backer of his Democratic rivals in New Jersey.”

Kushner has an ease with blaming others for problems that he or the White House caused. He lashes Steve Bannon for the blowback to Trump’s executive order barring people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, a move that came to be known as a “Muslim ban.” In Kushner’s view, the ensuing brouhaha erupted because “the facts got lost in the chaos that flowed from Bannon’s botched rollout.” Another Kushner target: Rex Tillerson, who he says was responsible for exacerbating the mess in the Middle East. “While Tillerson had entered the administration with sky­high expectations,” Kushner writes, “his tenure was a failure by any measure.” Alex Azar is responsible for pandemic missteps; “I was livid that the secretary had not done more to prevent the [ventilator] shortage.” Most significant, onetime White House chief of staff John Kelly is repeatedly held responsible for nearly everything that goes wrong, not because Kelly has obvious and well-documented flaws, but primarily because he kept Jared out of meetings. The memoir is a burn book of sorts, heavily populated by petty grievances and conflicts that could have easily been avoided with less ego and more maturity.

While insisting he doesn’t need credit, Kushner takes credit for the hard work of others. The Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries — arguably his biggest accomplishment — are presented in granular detail, and Kushner recounts the extent to which both Israel and the United States credited him with making the deal happen. He recalls a tribute by then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the dedication of a Kushner Garden of Peace: “It is fitting that we choose to honor Jared Kushner in this way … We will ensure that future generations will know what your contribution has been.” But Kushner’s emphasis on himself obscures the significance of Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, who was instrumental in removing obstacles to the Abraham Accords.

Kushner also isn’t shy about reminding readers of a Kushner Courtyard at the American Embassy in Jerusalem. A plaque, he lets us know, reads, “Dedicated in honor of Jared Kushner and inspired by his relentless pursuit of peace.” In a similar credit-grab, Kushner gives only a small amount of ink to the role of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill. Grassley’s work on the issue long predated Kushner’s tenure in the White House.

The best memoirs invite the reader to understand the author’s experience in all of its complexity and depth. That requires vulnerability on the part of the writer and a willingness to admit fear and instances of shameful behavior. It means wrestling with what you don’t know and can’t understand, as well as contradictions in yourself and others. Above all, it means being honest.

I’m not sure Kushner is capable of any of these things, least of all the last. He’s the only boss I’ve ever had who asked me to lie on his behalf, and when I refused, he was genuinely confused. He was accustomed to yes men, and a failure to say yes was viewed as insubordination.

If he were a different person, he could have written an insightful memoir, and one that would serve the public. But if he were a different person, his time in the White House would have been very different, too. His relationship with his father is complex and formative, in a way that somewhat mirrors Trump’s relationship with his own father. That alone is material for an honest, fascinating memoir.

When I was still at the Observer, the New York Times published a sprawling Style section profile of Jared and Ivanka. The piece noted Charles Kushner’s incarceration and the fact that his son, as a teenager, had flown to a federal prison in Montgomery, Ala., to see him every weekend — something that I thought made Jared seem more sympathetic and human. I expected him to be angry that that detail was in the story, and he was. He called the reporter and yelled at him. Around that time, I had a conversation with a relative of Kushner’s and said I knew it must be hard for the family to be reminded of Charles Kushner’s incarceration, even though it was a necessary part of the story. I expressed sympathy. I could understand because my late younger brother was incarcerated off and on for a decade. I knew how devastating it was for my parents. My brother was a veteran with severe mental illness and was coincidentally treated by a psychiatrist at the same military facility in Montgomery where Charles Kushner was incarcerated.

“Well, I feel bad for your family,” Kushner’s relative told me. “Your brother was mentally ill. Our family’s pain is often self-inflicted.” This, in a nutshell, is the memoir Kushner could have written.

On the last page, Kushner indicates what his time in Washington taught him: “I learned to stay away from petty fights and power struggles to make fewer enemies and more friends, and to talk less and do more.” The problem is that the book contradicts every one of those claims. His memoir is a litany of petty fights, a constant takedown of enemies and a cascade of self-aggrandizing prattle.

Elizabeth Spiers is a progressive digital strategist and writer.

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