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To Gain Support From Republican Politicians, Kushner Leveraged Ties With Right-Wing Media

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Senators from both parties held a press conference today to crow about their vote to approve the First Step Act. That's the criminal justice bill that would revise sentencing guidelines and reduce the prison population. Minority Whip Senator Dick Durbin cited what he called the key breakthrough in getting this bill to a vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DICK DURBIN: The election of Donald Trump as president - what does that have to do with us? He brought his son-in-law to town. And his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has a passion for prison reform because of a family experience. We worked with him throughout this whole endeavor.

KELLY: Eliana Johnson is a Politico reporter who examined Kushner's involvement in this legislation. Hey, Eliana.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Hey there. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Glad to have you on. So this family experience that we just heard Senator Durbin refer to is Charles Kushner, Jared Kushner's father, who served time in federal prison for illegal campaign contributions and tax evasion. How big a factor was that in his son Jared pushing for this bill?

JOHNSON: That was an enormous factor. As you mentioned, when Jared Kushner was a young man, his father was sent to federal prison in Alabama and spent 14 months there after pleading guilty. And Jared Kushner had - as a wealthy young man, had firsthand experience with the federal prison system, and it was something that he spoke about in emotional terms while he was lobbying senators, Republicans in particular, to support a bill that was controversial in Republican ranks. And a lot of senators said that his having firsthand experience was important, and he was not shy about talking about it when he lobbied senators on the bill.

KELLY: Now, speaking of Kushner talking about this, I'm going to play a little bit of him. This is him speaking last week on Sean Hannity's show on Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

JARED KUSHNER: We're putting too much money towards warehousing people who we don't need to be warehousing. That money instead should be going to law enforcement on the front lines to keep our communities safe. And if we do this right, as we've seen in a lot of these Republican states, we've been able to reduce crime and also reduce costs.

KELLY: Eliana Johnson, pick up there with this point that - this is Kushner speaking on Fox. And this was part of an effort that you write about. He personally lobbied conservative media personalities to get behind this bill.

JOHNSON: That's right. You know, Jared Kushner obviously knows his father-in-law, President Donald Trump, well and knows how attuned he is to the way his policy proposals are playing in conservative media. And Kushner, who grew up in New York, has a lot of connections in the media and used them in trying to convince Donald Trump to back this bill. So he made a rare public appearance on Sean Hannity's show but also lobbied these people behind the scenes, everybody from Hannity himself to Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, Fox News host, as well as talk radio hosts like Hugh Hewitt, who conservatives listen to.

And I think the last time we saw Jared Kushner speak this way in public was over a year ago when he addressed reporters in front of the public after testifying before Congress - not a common thing. He's much more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes influence peddler than he is a public promoter of the policies that he's pushing for.

KELLY: Right. For somebody who, as you note, has a lot of media connections, he doesn't come on to the media very often and actually speak to us. He also, though, lobbied lawmakers. Another thing of note that you report is that one of the bill's primary co-sponsors - this is Mike Lee, Republican of Utah. Senator Lee says he spoke to Kushner about five times a day these last few weeks to get this done. How unusual is that?

JOHNSON: That's very unusual. You know, normally this is the job of the White House's legislative affairs shop. And while we know that Kushner lobbies the president and he's done so unsuccessfully on many issues, like the Paris climate accord and we know that he has firsthand dealings with many foreign leaders like Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, another rather unsuccessful relationship, he hasn't had as many firsthand lobbying interactions with Republican senators in Congress. And so this was a departure from that, and we've heard Republican senators say he was absolutely critical in that regard.

KELLY: Eliana Johnson, reporter for Politico, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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