Amid the typical anarchy of ominous headlines on the Drudge Report this week, something unusual stood out: a distinguished portrait of a grinning Jared Kushner, arms crossed, triumphantly placed above links to three positive stories about the criminal justice reform bill that has become his pet White House project.
Matt Drudge, the website’s proprietor, is among several conservative media figures in Kushner’s vast social network who have helped to promote the bill, known as the First Step Act. The bill got a major boost on Tuesday when, after uncertainty about its fate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he will bring it to a floor vote this month. If it becomes law, Kushner’s efforts to court conservative media figures who wield enormous influence with President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers will be a big reason why.
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In recent weeks, the president’s son-in-law has promoted the measure in conversations with several Fox News personalities, including the prime-time trio of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, poring over interview transcripts from their shows and following up with personal phone calls to assuage their concerns, according to a source familiar with the conversations. On Monday evening, he made a rare television appearance on Hannity’s show to tout the legislation.
While Trump himself is well-known for his frequent phone calls to hosts like Hannity, and has stocked his administration with Fox News veterans, Kushner has far more quietly become a key conduit between the White House and conservative media, according to administration officials, Republican lawmakers, and members of the conservative press.
His efforts reflect not just the social network he has tapped to press policy priorities from the West Wing, but also his understanding of the power of conservative media over the president’s thinking.
Kushner has also backed up the media campaign with old-fashioned lobbying, directly urging Republican senators to support the bill — which would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for many non-violent offenders and establish programs to help integrate them into society when they are released from prison — and negotiating sweeping changes in the effort to bring about more GOP support, according to interviews with a half dozen senators.
One of the bill’s primary cosponsors, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), said he’s spoken to Kushner approximately five times a day in recent weeks to get the bill done. In an interview he credited Kushner for assisting “in getting the conservative media behind this bill and in countless other ways.”
“He’s helped us navigate 1,000 storms,” Lee said of Kushner. “It’s hard for me to describe the extent to which he’s not just helpful, but indispensable.”
One striking development was a rare statement issued last week by the Fox Broadcasting Company, the parent company of Fox News, expressing support for the measure. The move was interpreted as a clear sign that Fox News hosts would not attack the bill, which critics have derided as a “jail break” measure, or go after Republican lawmakers who supported it. The statement came just two months after Fox hired former White House communications director Hope Hicks, a key Kushner ally, as its chief communications officer.
Kushner is in frequent contact with others in the Fox orbit, including Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corporation, and Robert Thomson, the company’s CEO.
Two influential Republican lawmakers, Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and David Perdue (R., Georgia) declared their support for the bill after the Fox statement — although there is no clear evidence the events were connected.
Many lawmakers dismissed the importance of conservative media in their decision to get behind the bill. It was of utmost importance to the president, however, who fretted at points that some police groups were not behind it and constantly monitors how his policy initiatives are received by the news media.
Tending to the conservative press has also allowed Kushner to shape the news consumed by the president’s political supporters, and to make the case directly to the president — who has publicly embraced the measure — that the bill would not roil his political base.
The bill frees judges from some of the federal sentencing guidelines that have dictated prison terms for many offenders, particularly those convicted of drug-related crimes, and focuses on ways to ease them back into society when they are released from prison in order to reduce recidivism rates. It has become something of a passion project for Kushner, who has focused on racial disparities in sentencing and touted the bill as a remedy. Conservative critics, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), have argued that the legislation will put criminals back on the streets — and said Republicans will pay a price for that at the polls.
On Monday evening Kushner took to Fox for a rare television appearance of his own. On Hannity’s 9pm show, which attracted well over three million viewers — most of them loyal Trump supporters — Kushner described the “amazing bipartisan coalition” that had joined ranks around the bill. “Hopefully we’ll be able to have a big bi-partisan celebration before Christmas,” he added.
Hannity, in turn, described Trump’s decision in June to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who had been imprisoned for a drug-trafficking offense, as “one of the greatest moments in the president’s history.”
“I will consider confirming or denying whether I have ever had contact, or perhaps no contact, with a potential source, as soon as Politico reveals any and all sources including anonymous sources to me. Merry Christmas!!” Hannity told POLITICO. Carlson and Ingraham did not respond to a request for comment.
Kushner’s overtures have gone beyond Fox News. He has also spoken privately with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, according to a source familiar with the conversation. Hewitt had been an initial skeptic of the bill, saying on his radio show and on Twitter that he objected to several of the bill’s provisions, including that it would make Fentanyl dealers eligible for reduced sentences.
On Wednesday, Hewitt’s position softened after the bill was modified to bar Fentanyl traffickers from receiving credit for time spent behind bars while awaiting trial. “The draft legislation is improving,” Hewitt wrote on Twitter. He declined to comment for this article.
Kushner’s overtures to Republican lawmakers have been as aggressive as his effort to win over members of conservative media. Their praise for him is particularly noteworthy given the White House’s often tense relationship with Capitol Hill, where even Trump allies have expressed exasperation at the fleeting attention Trump often devotes to policy matters and his tendency to flip flop on issues.
Kushner stepped up his efforts behind the bill this fall, when it became clear that more Senate GOP support was needed before McConnell — who insisted on majority support within his conference and an assured 65 votes on the Senate floor — would bring it to a vote.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) became one of the latest co-sponsors of the bill after several talks with Kushner, starting six months ago when the bill’s chances looked dim. The two men privately discussed expanding literacy programs in the legislation during conversations in which Kushner used a light touch over pressure.
“He was very sympathetic. He said whether I support it or not, he thought it should be part of the bill,” Cassidy said.
Kushner also spoke directly with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) about the bill’s treatment of methamphetamine dealers. That conversation led to harsher punishments for those dealers, he said. Daines recently became one of the bill’s most recent GOP supporters.
Kushner’s outreach has not been universal. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) is leaning against the bill, worried that too many categories of violent criminals will be released early. “I’ve still got some concerns,” he said in an interview. Kushner has not called him, he added.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has been quietly working to make the legislation more palatable to conservatives, has spoken to Kushner frequently in recent weeks. They’ve been trading phone calls and texts as they work to get the bill to the finish line: It now appears likely to pass early next week.
“The best word I could use to describe Jared is relentless,” Cornyn told POLITICO on Thursday. “He’s been pretty aggressive.”