WHITE HOUSE - Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior aide, has been front and center at the White House this week, making his speaking debut before a high-powered gathering of tech executives and heading off on a sensitive diplomatic mission to the Middle East.
Kushner, 36, a New York real estate magnate, was close by Trump's side throughout last year's political campaign, and he and his family moved to Washington in the first days of the new administration. But he has now moved even more into the political spotlight, leading some critics of Trump to suggest this may be an attempt to divert attention from the leaks and legal troubles that have beset the administration.
When novice diplomat Kushner touches down Wednesday in Tel Aviv, he will join the administration's special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, in a bid to revive direct Israel-Palestinian talks. Kushner and Greenblatt, formerly a lawyer for the Trump Organization in New York, are due to meet with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
'Furthering Middle East peace'
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the U.S. envoys' visit to Israel is a follow-up to Trump's stopover in the region in May and is intended "to further Middle East peace and make incremental changes in the right direction." Kushner and Greenblatt, who are both Orthodox Jews, accompanied the president during those earlier meetings with both Abbas and Netanyahu.
Kushner's more prominent role in the Trump White House is seen by some an an attempt by the administration to right itself after a number of bruising body blows, such as speculation about who may be targeted by a special prosecutor investigating the nature of contacts between the president's campaign organization and the Russian government. The swirling allegations of possible inappropriate or even illegal behavior — and the vociferous denials coming from Trump himself during his broadsides to the world over Twitter — have sparked rebukes even from senior lawmakers within the president's Republican Party.
However, Kushner himself has come under scrutiny for his own contacts with Russian officials during the presidential campaign. Last week, The Washington Post reported the son-in-law's business dealings were under investigation by the office of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
Kushner has said he will cooperate with both congressional and FBI inquiries, and he recently hired a prominent Washington lawyer to represent him.
His role in the Trump White House is coming under increasing scrutiny from presidential scholars and students of public management.
Elaine Kamarck, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a policy research group in Washington, and author of Why Presidents Fail, said Kushner's lack of any background in public or foreign affairs is "particularly problematic."
"Jared Kushner knows even less about the world of government and policy than the president himself does," Kamarck said. "This president, more than any other recent president, needs the assistance of somebody familiar with government, and that is not Jared Kushner."
Administration officials say Kushner is not new to Middle East issues, nor is he a stranger to the Israeli prime minister. His family is known to be close to Netanyahu, who once stayed in the Kushner home during a visit to the United States.
However, Brookings' Kamarck said Kushner's inexperience in statecraft will be a severe handicap if he expects to resolve a dispute that has stymied the world's most talented diplomats for generations.
"There have been years and years of American intervention in Arab-Israeli dialogue," Kamarck told VOA. "People who have had great expertise in this area have been unable to come to conclusions."
Breakthrough seen unlikely
"Maybe Kushner will learn something on this trip that will help him down the road, but do not expect a peace breakthrough in the near future," she added.
The president's son-in-law tested his hand as a senior administration official and his public speaking skills this week. Though Kushner has been at Trump's side, or just steps away, for almost every presidential appearance, White House reporters said this was the first time they had ever heard him speak. Reviews were mixed.
Reading from prepared remarks at a White House gathering of high-powered technology executives, Kushner spoke of the need to gather ideas for modernizing government.
"We will unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before," Kushner told the group, which included Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet chief Eric Schmitt. Both have been outspoken in opposing administration positions on issues such as climate change and immigration.
As Kushner headed to Israel, news reports said China has invited him and his wife, Ivanka Trump, to visit later this year. Bloomberg News called it the latest sign of the extended first family's growing influence over foreign affairs.
Bloomberg, quoting an unidentified U.S. official, said the Kushners hosted a dinner Sunday for the newly confirmed U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, who will leave to take up his new post in Beijing this week.