Jared Kushner, ex-President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and former White House adviser, isn’t the first one to get a big payout after leaving his position as a senior adviser in the White House. Nor is he the first family member of a president or ex-president to use his position to get money. But the $2 billion stake invested by the Saudis in Kushner’s new private equity firm dwarfs all previous post-presidential money grabs in both size and scope.
The New York Times reported on April 10 that a Saudi sovereign wealth fund led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman contributed $2 billion to Kushner’s Affinity Partners over the objections of advisers who warned of Kushner’s “inexperience” and the risk involved due to “unsatisfactory” due diligence (a hallmark of Trump’s personal business investments) and “excessive” asset management fees.
In his role as White House adviser to Trump, Kushner was a close ally of the crown prince, offering him advice and defending him after Saudi military and intelligence officers murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in Instabul.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe that bin Salman ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi regime. While Kushner remained in the White House, he kept in touch with the crown prince through off-the-books WhatsApp text messages.
As with so many things done by Trump and his family, Kushner’s $2 billion Saudi payout highlights a preexisting malady in American life by taking it to its extreme. In this case, that malady is the commercialization of the post-presidency that has taken hold over the past 40 years.
The “commercialized former presidency,” as the writer Thomas DeFrank called it, began in the late 1970s, at the dawn of the neoliberal age, when Gerald Ford took positions on corporate boards and hit the paid speaker circuit following his brief stint as an unelected President of the United States.
“[E]very former president should go visit his grave in Grand Rapids and thank him for ensuring that they will be instant zillionaires,” said DeFrank, who wrote a biography of Ford.
And most former presidents followed suit. Before his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease, Ronald Reagan accepted multimillion-dollar speaking engagements from Japanese corporations. Corporations paid top dollar to George H.W. Bush for speeches and he took a paid honorary position at a Canadian mining company.
Bill Clinton took the commercialized post-presidency even further by making more than $100 million from paid speeches since 2001. And while George W. Bush, hampered by his deep unpopularity, did not pull in the same kind of money as Clinton, he took in $15 million in speaking fees in his first three years out of office.
After leaving office in 2017, Barack Obama hit the speaking circuit and charged $400,000 per speech. He and his wife, Michelle Obama, also created a media production company and signed a multi-year deal with Netflix to produce scripted and unscripted programming for an undisclosed amount.
Family members of presidents and vice presidents have also sought to make money off of their connections. Decades ago, this normally involved siblings, like Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy registering as a foreign agent for Libya or then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham’s consulting business.
Now that presidents are much older, their children are increasingly in the spotlight: for example, Hunter Biden’s consulting and lobbying work when Joe Biden was vice president and his art sales now that his father is president.
There are a number of reasons why the Saudi investment in Kushner stands out from past commercial opportunities for ex-presidents and their families.
First, it is significantly larger than other payments. This is $2 billion with a “B,” not millions. Yes, Kushner will only make $25 million per year from the management fees, plus a share of the profits earned (if there are any), but the injection makes up almost all of the capital Kushner raised, according to the Times, making it absolutely crucial for his financial success.
Second, unlike the money made by other ex-presidents or their family members, this is a gigantic lump sum coming from a foreign government with discrete policy interests in the U.S. government that Kushner was happy to support when in the White House.
Third, and probably most importantly, all of the former presidents who commercialized their post-presidencies were either constitutionally prohibited from running again or did not plan on it. (Ford considered running in 1980 and refused corporate board seats at the time, but ultimately decided not to.) Trump, however, is likely to run again in 2024 and is considered the front-runner for the Republican Party nomination.
Were Trump to return to the White House, the payments to his son-in-law by a foreign government with major interests in influencing U.S. foreign policy would far exceed any conflict of interest concerns created by the sale of Hunter Biden’s paintings.
But Kushner’s big payday is still in the same category of problems raised by the commercialization of the post-presidency. All of these payouts and corporate deals create the appearance of corruption, as powerful corporations, the global rich and fossil fuel-rich autocracies slop money on the former leaders of the U.S. during an era in which corporations grow larger, the rich get richer and burning fossil fuels brings the world to the brink.
This problem lacks an available solution. The For The People Act, a voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reform bill that passed the House in 2021, would have required new disclosures for presidential family members when in office and included a two-year cooling-off period before any executive branch official could lobby their former colleagues, but none of this addresses the issue of post-presidential buck-raking.
Former Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Schaub, now at the government transparency nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, recommended the enactment of a version of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause for former government officials in an interview with Bloomberg.
In lieu of legislation, the public can only hope for a change in culture — a vibe shift — among our ex-presidents that prioritizes the appearance of serving the public good over their personal self-interest.
Or there is always the policy jokingly proposed by former President William Howard Taft, who gave his own prescription for curing the problem of ex-presidents: “The proper and scientific administration of a dose of chloroform or of the fruit of the lotus tree, and the reduction of the flesh of the thus quietly departed to ashes in a funeral pyre to satisfy the wishes of his friends and the families, might make a fitting end to the life of one who has held the highest office, and at the same time would secure the country from the troublesome fear that the occupant could ever come back.”
“His record would have been made by one term and his demise in the honorable ceremony would relieve the country from the burden of thinking how he is to support himself and his family, would fix his place in history, and enable the public to pass on to new men and new measures,” Taft went on. “I commend this method for consideration.”
Taft did not comment on the children of ex-presidents or their spouses.