Posts Tagged ‘Ivanka Trump’

As Trump Cleans House, Who Gets Swept Out Next? — “There is no Chaos, only great Energy!”

March 14, 2018

A look at seven members of the administration whose futures appear uncertain

President Trump and chief of staff John Kelly in the Oval Office last month. Photo: andrew caballero-reynolds/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


WASHINGTON—The White House is bracing for more changes in the administration’s senior ranks following the recent departures of top officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council.

President Donald Trump prefaced a further shuffle as he departed for California Tuesday. “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want,” Mr. Trump said, hours after announcing via Twitter that he was replacing Mr. Tillerson with  CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Last week, on the day Mr. Cohn resigned, Mr. Trump said he was “always seeking perfection” in staffing the White House. But, he added: “There is no Chaos, only great Energy!”

In the past Mr. Trump has privately discussed ousting aides, only to reconsider, and at times he has publicly criticized cabinet members but taken no further action.

But White House officials say they are expecting more changes, which can come quickly once the president decides to show a colleague the exit. Some say Mr. Trump is keen to make the changes he wants to the lineup in advance of his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, expected by May.

Here is a look at members of the Trump administration whose futures appear uncertain, based on Wall Street Journal reporting.

Veteran’s Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, here last August, has been a target of criticism since an inspector general’s report last month said he had misspent taxpayer money. Photo: Kevin lamarque/Reuters

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

Mr. Trump has been considering replacing Dr. Shulkin since an inspector general’s report released last month said the VA secretary had misspent taxpayer money during an official trip to Europe last year. Among the candidates Mr. Trump is considering: Energy Secretary Rick Perry, with whom the president lunched on Monday, according to an administration official. For much of Mr. Trump’s first year in office, Dr. Shulkin had been a bright spot in the cabinet. But the inspector general’s report infuriated many inside the White House and set off scorching criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Hours after the news that Mr. Tillerson was out, The Wall Street Journal and others reported that Mr. Trump is now considering Mr. Shulkin’s ouster.

People familiar with the conversations say the military is actively looking for a new job for national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, here in Washington last October. Photo: yuri gripas/Reuters

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster

Gen. McMaster is working with strained alliances both inside and outside the White House and faces persistent speculation that he will be pushed out as soon as the Pentagon finds a suitable new job for him—or the White House settles on someone to take his place. Gen. McMaster has little chemistry with the president, and has often frustrated Mr. Trump with lengthy policy dissertations in the Oval Office, according to people familiar with the conversations.

The military is actively looking for a new job for Gen. McMaster, but it could take time, according to U.S. officials. That search has been made more difficult in part by his advocacy on behalf of the president’s views and actions which hasn’t always sat well with his military colleagues.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, here at a press conference last month, has been showered with presidential scorn for a year. Photo: Shen Ting/Zuma Press

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Few cabinet members have faced as much public battering as Mr. Sessions, a frequent target of Mr. Trump’s criticism since the attorney general recused himself last spring from the Justice Department’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. In his most recent public insult, the president last month called Mr. Sessions “disgraceful” for referring a probe of the Justice Department’s handling of secret surveillance warrants to the department’s inspector general—the usual venue for such allegations—rather than another office. Mr. Sessions’s retort, that he had acted with “integrity and honor,” only infuriated the president further, according to people close to the White House.

For all his apparent frustration with his attorney general, Mr. Trump hasn’t sought to replace him. His advisers have told him that firing Mr. Sessions could prolong the special counsel’s Russia probe, which Mr. Trump is eager to see conclude.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in Washington last month; Mr. Trump has accused the leadership of the Justice Department of politicizing the ‘sacred investigative process’ against Republicans. Photo: Leah millis/Reuters

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein

Mr. Trump internally has expressed displeasure with Mr. Rosenstein, who last spring—after Mr. Sessions’s recusal—appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to oversee the FBI’s probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Last month, Mr. Trump authorized the release of a memo written by House Republicans alleging surveillance abuses against a former Trump campaign adviser, in part because the president believed the memo would undermine Mr. Rosenstein’s credibility. The memo noted that Mr. Rosenstein, who was nominated to his post by Mr. Trump, had approved a renewal of surveillance of the Trump adviser, Carter Page, in the spring of 2017.

Asked last month if he had confidence in Mr. Rosenstein, the president responded: “You figure that one out.”

Some friends of Mr. Trump say he has been floating names to replace Mr. Kelly, here in the Capitol in November. Photo: Aaron p. Bernstein/Reuters

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

Mr. Kelly, who joined the White House last summer, has faced scrutiny from the president in recent weeks over his handling of domestic-abuse allegations against Rob Porter, who resigned as staff secretary last month. Mr. Trump and other White House officials had harsh words for Mr. Kelly, who initially vouched for Mr. Porter’s integrity and privately urged him to fight the allegations and remain in the job, according to White House officials, before later reversing himself.

Mr. Trump has already found workarounds to some of Mr. Kelly’s measures to limit access to the president, such as relying on first lady Melania Trump to field calls from friends. Some Trump friends said last month that the president has started to ask them about Mr. Kelly’s performance, and two people said he has sought opinions on potential replacements, such as Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

White House senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, here at a cabinet meeting in the White House earlier this month, have been losing allies lately. Photo: Kevin lamarque/Reuters

Senior White House Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump

The president has held conflicting views about what to do with Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump, his son-in-law and daughter who serve as senior advisers in the White House. Mr. Kushner’s security clearance was downgraded to secret from top secret late last month, following a push by White House chief of staff John Kelly to tighten control of classified information inside the administration. And Mr. Kushner has figured prominently in the special counsel’s Russia probe, which is focusing on a number of episodes during the campaign that involved him. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Inside the West Wing, the president has repeatedly wondered whether the couple would be better off returning to their private-sector lives in New York. Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump have also clashed with Mr. Kelly, who has sought to curtail access to the president. In recent weeks they have also lost several White House allies, including communications director Hope Hicks, deputy communications director Josh Raffel and Mr. Cohn.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at


High-level N. Korean delegates arrive in the South — Where many express hate, scorn

February 25, 2018


© YONHAP/AFP / by Jung Hawon | South Korean protesters hold placards showing a picture of North Korean general Kim Yong Chol

SEOUL (AFP) – A blacklisted North Korean general arrived in the South on Sunday for the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, which will also be attended by US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka.The visit by Kim Yong Chol, who led an eight-member high-level delegation that crossed the Demilitarized Zone in the morning, is the final piece of the Games-led diplomacy that has dominated headlines from Pyeongchang.

The nuclear-armed North has gone on a charm offensive over the Games, sending athletes, cheerleaders and performers and with leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong attending the opening ceremony.

Analysts say it is seeking to loosen the sanctions imposed against it over its banned nuclear and missile programmes, and trying to weaken the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

But Kim Yo Jong had no interaction with US Vice President Mike Pence at the opening ceremony, even though they were just a few seats apart in the same VIP area. According to the US, a planned meeting between the delegations from Washington and Pyongyang the following day was cancelled at short notice by the North Koreans.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in — who has long pushed for engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table — also did not immediately accept an invitation passed on by Kim Yo Jong from her brother to a summit in Pyongyang, saying the right conditions must be created.

Washington, which describes its approach to Pyongyang as “maximum pressure and engagement”, announced a series of new sanctions on Friday.

Pence also condemned Kim Yo Jong as part of an “evil family clique” and “murderous regime”, prompting a denunciation from Pyongyang on Sunday — which said it would not talk to the Trump administration for “even 100 years or 200 years”.

– Overnight protest –

Kim Yong Chol’s delegation was greeted by Seoul’s vice unification minister Chun Hae-sung.

Kim, wearing a long dark coat, was later seen checking into the Walkerhill luxury hotel in Seoul with other delegates and leaving a few hours later amid heavy security involving hundreds of police officers.

Kim’s nomination as the leader of the group is controversial in the South, where he is widely blamed for a spate of attacks including the torpedoing of Seoul’s Cheonan warship in 2010 with the loss of 46 lives. Pyongyang denies responsibility.

Conservative lawmakers staged an overnight protest near the border with the North, joined by hundreds of other activists.

The protesters waved banners including “Arrest Kim Yong Chol!” and “Kim Yong Chol should kneel in front of the victims’ families and apologise!”

Kim is blacklisted under Seoul’s unilateral sanctions against the North, meaning he is subject to an assets freeze.

– ‘Crazy remarks’ –

Officials from both Seoul and Washington say there will be no meeting between Kim Yong Chol and Ivanka Trump — who is travelling with Korea specialists from the US administration and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.

But the North’s delegation includes Choe Kang Il, the deputy director general for North American affairs at the North’s foreign ministry, suggesting Pyongyang may be open for talks.

On Friday the US Treasury blacklisted 28 ships, 27 companies and one person, imposing an asset freeze and barring US citizens from dealing with them, in what Donald Trump described as the “heaviest sanctions ever” levied on Pyongyang.

The UN Security Council has already banned North Korean exports of coal — a key foreign exchange earner — iron ore, seafood and textiles, and restricted its oil imports.

Washington is also seeking to have the United Nations ban 33 vessels from ports worldwide and blacklist 27 shipping businesses for helping North Korea circumvent sanctions.

Kim Yo Jong’s trip at the start of the Games — the first visit to the South by a member of the North’s ruling dynasty since the Korean War ended in 1953 — made global headlines.

But Pence told an audience of thousands at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “The sister of Kim Jong Un is a central pillar of the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet, an evil family clique that brutalises, subjugates, starves and imprisons its 25 million people.”

Pyongyang denounced his comments Sunday, with the official Korean Central News Agency carrying a statement from the North’s Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee saying Pence would discover “what quagmire his crazy remarks threw the US and himself into”.

Trump, it said, should know that the North would “have no dealings with those viciously slandering the dignity of our supreme leadership and government”.

“We will never have face-to-face talks with them even after 100 years or 200 years.”

by Jung Hawon

Trump Announces Another Round of Sanctions Against North Korea

February 23, 2018


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North Korean Hwasong15

By Terrence Dopp and Jennifer Jacobs

 Updated on 
  • New restrictions target North Korean shipping transactions
  • Sanctions aimed at pressuring North Korea on nuclear program

President Donald Trump said Friday his administration is imposing the largest U.S. sanctions package yet against North Korea for its nuclear weapons program.

The sanctions, which Trump planned to unveil at a meeting of conservatives near Washington, aims to disrupt shipping and trading companies and vessels that deal with North Korea in an effort to further isolate the regime of Kim Jong Un.

“The Treasury Department will soon be taking new action to further cut off sources of revenue and fuel that the regime uses to fund its nuclear program and sustain its military by targeting 56 vessels, shipping companies, and trade businesses that are assisting North Korea in evading sanctions,” Trump will tell the meeting, according to excerpts released in advance by the White House.

The action targets one individual, 27 entities, and 28 vessels, according to a statement from the Treasury Department Friday. Those vessels may be located, registered or flagged in a number of countries, including North Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Marshall Islands.

While the new sanctions focus on international shipping, the administration is also working on a response to the regime’s illicit cyber activities, a senior administration official said.

Olympic Games

The latest sanctions send a message of continued U.S. determination as its ally South Korea hosts athletes and officials from North Korea in a show of detente at the Winter Olympics. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, is in South Korea for the closing ceremony of the games. “We cannot have a better, or smarter, person representing our country,” Trump said in a tweet on Friday morning.

North Korea already faces the most severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. The additional sanctions follow a year of escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over its ballistic missile testing and nuclear development programs.

Vice President Mike Pence hinted at the new sanctions earlier this month during an Asia trip, promising the administration would bring “maximum pressure” to bear on the Kim government.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement that the new prohibitions will deter North Korea from evading previous sanctions. He said they’re being lodged under 2016 and 2017 laws passed by Congress and signed by the president.


File photo: Kim Yong-Chol and North Korean soldiers marching
Kim Yong-chol

Donald Trump to Unveil ‘Largest Ever’ Set of Sanctions on North Korea

February 23, 2018

The president says the new actions will ‘further cut off’ sources of revenue and fuel for Pyongyang’s nuclear program

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration plans to levy its “largest ever” sanctions package against North Korea, President Donald Trump was set to announce on Friday.

The sanctions will target shipping and trading companies as the U.S. seeks to further cut off foreign-currency revenues keeping the nuclear-armed regime afloat, Mr. Trump will say Friday, according to excerpts of his planned remarks released by the White House.

“The Treasury Department will soon be taking new action to further cut off sources of revenue and fuel that the regime uses to fund its nuclear program and sustain its military by targeting 56 vessels, shipping companies, and trade businesses that are assisting North Korea in evading sanctions,” Mr. Trump planned to say in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The U.S. says North Korea, China and a host of other countries are allowing ships and trading companies to aid North Korea in evading an international ban on coal exports and fuel imports, a vital source of income and goods that help leader Kim Jong Un maintain power as he pursues an intercontinental ballistic missile that can target the U.S. mainland.


  • Ivanka Trump Meets South Korean Leader

Write to Ian Talley at

Trump to announce new sanctions against North Korea as South Korea readies more talks — “The largest package of new sanctions against the North Korea regime”

February 23, 2018

Tougher sanctions may jeopardise the latest detente between the two Koreas.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The United States is due to announce its largest package of sanctions yet against North Korea to further pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programme, as South Korea readies itself for more talks with the North’s officials.

Tougher sanctions may jeopardise the latest detente between the two Koreas amid their preparations to create conditions appropriate to hold a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae In.

A senior US administration official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, called the new penalties “the largest package of new sanctions against the North Korea regime”, without giving details.

The new US sanctions will be announced while President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is visiting South Korea to attend a dinner with President Moon and the closing ceremony of the Games. In addition to the dinner which will feature a kosher menu for Ms Trump’s dietary restrictions, the Blue House has planned a small traditional Korean music performance for her delegation.

US Vice-President Mike Pence had hinted at a plan for more sanctions two weeks ago during a stop in Tokyo that preceded his visit to South Korea for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Mr Kim said he wants to boost the “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue” with South Korea after a high-level delegation including his sister returned from the Winter Olympics.

Last year (2017), North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of United Nations sanctions. However, it has now been more than two months since its last missile test in late November.

Ms Trump’s visit coincides with that of a sanctioned North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, blamed for the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors. His delegation will also meet with Mr Moon.

Image may contain: 2 people

Kim Yong Chol

The Blue House has said there are no official opportunities for US and North Korean officials to meet.

Mr Kim Yong Chol is the vice-chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party and was previously chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency which South Korea blamed for the sinking of its navy corvette the Cheonan.

North Korea has denied any involvement in the sinking.

South Korea on Friday that said it approved the Winter Olympic visit by Mr Kim Yong Chol in the pursuit of peace and asked for public understanding.

“Under current difficult circumstances, we have decided to focus on whether peace on the Korean peninsula and improvement in inter-Korean relations can be derived from dialogue with (the visiting North Korean officials), not on their past or who they are,” said Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae Hyun at a media briefing.

A South Korean lawmaker briefed by the country’s spy agency said on Friday that Mr Kim was the “right person” for inter-Korean and denuclearisation talks.

“Kim Yong Chol is the top official regarding inter-Korean relations and he is being accepted (here) as the right person to discuss various issues like easing military tension, improving inter-Korean ties and denuclearisation,” said Mr Kang Seok Ho to reporters.

Mr Kim Yong Chol currently heads the United Front Department, the North’s office responsible for handling inter-Korean affairs.

South Korea’s decision on Thursday to allow Mr Kim Yong Chol, currently sanctioned by the US and South Korea, across the border has sparked protest from family members of the dead Cheonan sailors and opposition parties.

Some 70 members from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party staged a protest in front of the presidential Blue House on Friday, demanding the government withdraw its decision.

“President Moon’s decision to accept the North’s facade of peace is a serious issue and it will go down in history as a crime eternal,” said the party in a statement.

A group of family members of those killed in the Cheonan sinking has said it will hold a press conference against the decision on Saturday.

Acknowledging public angst over Mr Kim Yong Chol’s pending visit, Mr Baik said the South’s stance that the Cheonan sinking was instigated by the North has not changed.

“However, what’s important are efforts to create actual peace on the Korean peninsula so these kind of provocations don’t occur again,” said Mr Baik, adding that the government would make “various efforts” to assuage the public’s concerns.

South Korean MPs demand execution of North’s Olympic delegate — “Kim Yong Chol is a diabolical war criminal”

February 23, 2018

North Korea will send one of its highest ranking figures, General Kim Yong-chol, to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.


South Korean lawmakers protested Friday over a visit by a top North Korean general for the Pyeongchang Olympics, labelling him a war criminal over the 2010 sinking of a warship and calling for his execution.

Kim Yong Chol will head an eight-member delegation to arrive on Sunday for the Games’ closing ceremony — which will also be attended by US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka.

Kim is widely blamed for a spate of attacks against the South including the torpedoing nearly eight years ago of the Seoul’s Cheonan corvette, with the loss of 46 lives.

File photo: Kim Yong-Chol and North Korean soldiers marching
Kim Yong-chol 

Some 70 lawmakers of the conservative Liberty Korea Party staged a protest outside the presidential Blue House, urging President Moon Jae-in to scrap the visit.

“Kim Yong Chol is a diabolical war criminal who attacked the South… He deserves death by hanging in the street,” the party’s parliamentary floor leader Kim Sung-tae said in a statement.

“Even if the heavens split in two, we cannot allow such a heinous criminal — who must be sliced to death — to be invited to the Olympics closing ceremony,” he said.

Unification ministry spokesman Baek Tae-hyun said the South Korean government was aware of widespread misgivings about Kim Yong Chol’s visit to the South, but accepted it as the “chances for improving inter-Korean ties and a peace settlement might be improved”.

The Pyeongchang Olympics have seen a charm offensive by the North, which sent leader Kim Jong Un’s sister to the opening ceremony as it seeks to loosen sanctions against it and weaken the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

US Vice President Mike Pence was also present for the start of the Games, and sat only a few seats away from Kim Yo Jong, without exchanging words with her — having earlier visited a memorial to the Cheonan and condemned the North for abusing human rights.

Officials from both Seoul and Washington say there is little or no prospect of a meeting between Ivanka Trump — a businesswoman and former model turned key adviser to her father — and the North Korean representatives.

But Seoul authorities are still struggling over how to manage their presence at the same event.


Reince Priebus on the Donald Trump White House

February 15, 2018
Months after his chaotic resignation as chief of staff, and with his successor on the hot seat, Priebus comes clean about everything: the inauguration crowd-size fiasco, the decision to fire Comey, the Mooch, the tweets, how he helped saved Jeff Sessions’s job, and his mercurial former boss. “I still love the guy,” he says.
Reince Priebus (right) with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, January 2017.
Photograph by Andrew Harnik/A.P. Images.
Just after six a.m. on January 21, 2017, at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, Reince Priebus was watching the cable morning news shows, getting ready to leave for the White House. Suddenly his cell phone went off. It was Donald Trump. The new president, sworn in less than 24 hours earlier, had just seen The Washington Post, with photos showing Trump’s inaugural crowd dwarfed by that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The president was livid, screaming at his chief of staff. “He said, ‘This story is bullshit,’ ” recalled Priebus. “He said, ‘There’s more people there. There are people who couldn’t get in the gates. . . . There’s all kind of things that were going on that made it impossible for these people to get there.’ . . . The president said, ‘Call [Interior Secretary] Ryan Zinke. Find out from the Park Service. Tell him to get a picture and do some research right away.’ ” The president wanted his chief of staff to fix this story. Immediately.

Priebus tried to talk Trump off the ledge. “It doesn’t matter,” Priebus argued. “It’s Washington, D.C. We’re in an 85 percent Democrat area. Northern Virginia’s 60 percent. Maryland’s 65 percent. . . . This is a Democrat haven, and nobody cares.” But Trump was having none of it. Priebus thought, “Is this something that I really want to go to battle over on day one? Who needs a controversy over the inauguration?” Priebus realized he faced a decision: “Am I going to go to war over this with the president of the United States?”

Hours later, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stepped into the White House briefing room. “What happened,” Priebus remembered, “was Spicer decided to say that actually, if you combine online and television, radio, and in-person, it was the most watched inauguration.” The trouble with that reasoning was that Spicer’s response—a belligerent, Orwellian performance beamed around the world—was a lie. From the very start, the credibility of the Trump presidency became a laughingstock, immortalized by actress Melissa McCarthy in her devastating parody of Spicer on Saturday Night Live.

On day one, instead of going to war with Donald Trump, Priebus had gone along.

Adapted from a new edition of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple, published in paperback on March 6, 2018, by Crown.

Priebus cannot say he wasn’t warned. Just a month before the inauguration, he had been invited to lunch by Barack Obama’s outgoing chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Following the example of a memorable breakfast hosted eight years earlier by George W. Bush’s chief Josh Bolten—when 12 former White House chiefs had come to give advice to Obama’s incoming chief, Rahm Emanuel—McDonough was joined by 10 chiefs, Republicans and Democrats, in his West Wing office. And as they gathered around a long table, none doubted the enormity of the challenge facing Priebus. “We wanted to help Reince in any way we could,” said Jack Watson, who served President Jimmy Carter. “But I don’t think there was a chief in the room that thought he was going to be able to do the job, given Trump as his president.” Most of the former chiefs believed Trump was intellectually and temperamentally unfit for office—and few thought Priebus could rein him in or tell him hard truths. “We were thinking, God bless him. Godspeed. Good luck,” said Watson. “But he doesn’t have a prayer.”

Priebus was hobbled by two other factors. A former Republican National Committee chairman from Kenosha, Wisconsin, he barely knew his new boss, and he was part of the establishment that Trump had vilified. Moreover, during the campaign, the two men had been known to feud. Trump had been especially resentful of Priebus’s reaction to the campaign’s existential crisis just a month before Election Day: the release of the tawdry Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump had made graphic misogynist comments that were caught by an open microphone.

The morning after the video surfaced, Trump’s candidacy had been pronounced all but dead in the media. In response, the beleaguered nominee’s top aides—campaign C.E.O. Stephen Bannon, former New York mayor Rudy Giu­liani, New Jersey governor Chris ChristieJared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump—gathered at Trump Tower for a war council to advise the candidate on whether he should stay in the race or quit.

The nominee, sleep-deprived, surly, his jaw clenched, posed the crucial question: in light of the videotape, what were his chances of winning? Priebus went first: “If you decide to stay in, you will lose in the biggest landslide in American political history.” One by one, Trump’s other advisers danced around the question—until finally it was Bannon’s turn. “One hundred percent,” he declared. “One hundred percent you’re going to win this thing. Metaphysical.” (Priebus recalled things differently, saying no one was that emphatic.)

Trump, of course, pulled off an astonishing upset. And a month later, McDonough met his successor as chief of staff in the West Wing lobby and escorted him to his office. As the former chiefs went around the table, giving Priebus advice, they were unanimous about one thing: Trump would be unable to govern unless Priebus was empowered as first among equals in the West Wing. Trump’s incoming chief dutifully took notes on a yellow pad.

Suddenly there was a commotion; Barack Obama was entering the room. Everyone stood and shook hands, then Obama motioned for them to sit. The 44th president’s own chiefs—Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley, Jack Lew, McDonough, and Pete Rouse (who served unofficially)—were all pres­ent, and Obama nodded toward them. “Every one of these guys at different times told me something that pissed me off,” Obama said, flashing his familiar grin. “They weren’t always right; sometimes I was. But they were right to do that because they knew they had to tell me what I needed to hear rather than what I wanted to hear.” Obama looked at Priebus. “That’s the most important function of a chief of staff. Presidents need that. And I hope you will do that for President Trump.” With that, Obama said his good-byes and departed.

The chiefs were not sure Priebus got the message. “I caught the eye of several of the others and we exchanged worried expressions,” one Republican in attendance remembered. “He seemed much too relaxed about being able to navigate a difficult job. I think he struck a lot of us as clueless.” Another was even more blunt about Priebus’s nonchalance: “He was approaching the job like it was some combination of personal aide and cruise director.”

Former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Priebus; Priebus and Spicer.

Left, by Martin H. Shannon/Redux; right, by Susan Walsh/A.P. Images.

Dining alone with Priebus a few weeks earlier, Bush’s chief Josh Bolten had been alarmed: Priebus seemed to regard himself as Trump’s babysitter and had given little thought to governing. “I could tell that he was nervous about leaving Trump alone and was kind of candid about ‘If I’m not there, Lord knows what happens,’” Bolten recalled. In his view, Priebus seemed “neither focused on organizing his White House staff nor in control of his own life. He was just responding to the fire of the day.”

And there was another ominous sign. Obama’s staff had spent months preparing voluminous transition briefs, thick binders designed to help the next administration get up to speed on subjects ranging from Iran to Cuba to climate change. Every previous incoming team had studied such volumes with care. But as the inauguration drew near, McDonough realized that the binders had not even been opened: “All the paperwork, all the briefings that had been prepared for their transition team, went unused,” he said. “Unread. Unreviewed.”

The inept start of the Trump presidency—with the flagrant lying about crowd sizes—confirmed the ex-chiefs’ worst fears. “It told me that Reince wasn’t in control,” observed Jack Watson. “It told me Reince had no power to say to the president, ‘Mr. President, we can’t do that! We are going to get killed if we do that.’ ” George W. Bush’s first chief, Andrew Card, watched with a sinking feeling: “I said to myself, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no process. And they don’t have discipline. You must taste your words before you spit them out!’”

In late October 2017, almost three months after he resigned as chief of staff, Priebus met me for dinner at a posh but empty restaurant near the White House. Wearing a blazer, tieless, and without his usual American-flag pin, he had been off the radar and had given no extensive interviews since his abrupt departure six months into his job as Trump’s chief. Unlike his friend Sean Spicer, who had struggled to find employment after his turn as Trump’s disgraced White House spokesman, Priebus had landed back at his old Washington law firm, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP—as president. He was drumming up paid engagements on the lecture circuit. And he was conferring frequently by phone with Donald J. Trump.

The president, Priebus said, speaks with him often on a phone that is unmonitored by John Kelly, who replaced him as Trump’s chief of staff—sometimes just to chat, sometimes for counsel. Trump often called Bannon too—at least before his excommunication following his comments in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. Priebus insisted, contrary to Wolff’s description, that he never called Trump an “idiot.” In fact, for all the humiliation he endured, he said, “I still love the guy. I want him to be successful.” While visiting South Korea last November to give a speech, Priebus made a side trip to the demilitarized zone between South and North, and recommended to Trump that he go there during his Asia trip. (The president and his party tried but were forced to turn back due to bad weather.)

Even so, Priebus’s account of his tenure as Trump’s chief confirms the portrayal of a White House in disarray, riven by conflict. “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus said as we sat down. Being White House chief had been even more arduous than it looked from the outside. “No president has ever had to deal with so much so fast: a special counsel and an investigation into Russia and then subpoenas immediately, the media insanity—not to mention we were pushing out executive orders at rec­ord pace and trying to repeal and replace Obama­care right out of the gate.” Priebus was nervous, repeatedly asking, “This is all off the record, right?” (He later agreed to be quoted.)

“People mistake me for a laid-back guy from the Midwest,” he continued. “I’m much more aggressive, and much more of a knife fighter. Playing the inside game is what I do.” Before Priebus, 45, accepted the job, he had had an impressive, if modest, track rec­ord. “I took the R.N.C. from oblivion,” he explained. “Our team raised a ton of money, built the biggest full-time political-party operation ever, ran two conventions, won more races than anyone else, and hit all the marks—without drama, mistakes, or infighting.”

At first, Priebus had been stung by the relentless criticism of his White House run and was especially sensitive to the brickbats hurled by the pundits. But with time he had understood where they came from—including a jab or two thrown by me during interviews on television news shows. “You got me real good one time on Fox,” he said. “My point is, I know what you were saying. You were saying that Trump needed someone in control, and that we had set up a weak structure. But you have to remember: the president was the Trump campaign. The R.N.C. was the organization—but he accomplished almost everything in his life by himself. The idea that he was suddenly going to accept an immediate and elaborate staff structure regulating every minute of his life was never in the cards.

“One of the things all [the chiefs] told me,” Priebus said, “was: don’t take the job unless you’re designated A number 1, in charge of everything, beginning to end.” All of that was right for a typical president, Priebus thought, but Trump wasn’t typical; he was one of a kind.

As it turned out, there was a moment on Election Night when it looked as though the chief’s job might go to Bannon, who eventually became Priebus’s ally in the West Wing. (Others would be considered as well.) But he didn’t look the part. “Trump looked around and I remember I had a combat jacket on and I hadn’t shaved in a week,” said Bannon, who spoke with me at length just before the release of Fire and Fury. “I had the greasy hair [hanging] down. . . . I’m the senior guy—but look, it was obvious Reince had to be chief of staff.” Priebus, however, would be chief in name only: Trump, instead, anointed Bannon as Priebus’s co-equal, with Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, getting top billing.

Priebus with ousted communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

By T. J. Kirkpatrick/Redux.

From the beginning, Priebus would face a challenge unique to this presidency: how to curb the commander in chief’s tweets. “We can get thrown off our message by tweeting things that aren’t the issues of the day,” he told Trump. At first Priebus thought he had succeeded in wresting Trump’s phone from him. “I talked about the security threat of having your own cell in the West Wing and got the Secret Service to go along with me to mothball his phone.” Priebus had managed to silence one device. But it turned out Trump had another.

Early on, the staff wrote daily tweets for him: “The team would give the president five or six tweets every day to choose from,” said Priebus, “and some of them would real­ly push the envelope. The idea would be at least they would be tweets that we could see and understand and control. But that didn’t allow the president to be fully in control of his own voice. Everybody tried at different times to cool down the Twitter habit—but no one could do it. . . . After [last year’s] joint session [of Congress] we all talked to him, and Melania said, ‘No tweeting.’ And he said, ‘O.K.—for the next few days.’ We had many discussions involving this issue. We had meetings in the residence. I couldn’t stop it. [But] it’s now part of the American culture and the American presidency. And you know what? In many ways, the president was right. And all of us so-called experts might be totally wrong.

“[Trump] is a man who fears no one and nothing,” continued Priebus, “and there is absolutely nothing he’s intimidated by. . . . And that’s very rare in politics. Most people in politics are people who have sort of an approval addiction. Now, granted, President Trump does too, but he’s willing to weather one storm after the next to get to an end result that most people are not willing to weather. . . . He doesn’t mind the craziness, the drama, or the difficulty, as long as an end goal is in sight. He will endure it.”

Soon after the inauguration, the president began to lash out wildly at members of the Justice Department who were poised to open probes into possible misconduct or overreach by members of his administration. On his 11th day in office, he fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to enforce his controversial travel ban. Then Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for New York’s Southern District. Next up: F.B.I. director James Comey.

Priebus and White House counsel Donald McGahn tried to stall the freight train coming toward them, sensing that sacking Comey would be a fateful political mistake. But Jared Kushner supported Trump’s decision, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo—criticizing the F.B.I. director’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation—gave Trump the pretext. On May 9, Trump fired Comey. It would trigger the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel and would prove to be among the most politically disastrous decisions since Richard Nixon fired Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.


While Priebus and Bannon watched the fiasco explode as the pundits excoriated the Trump White House on every cable news show, Kushner did a slow burn. He was livid, furious that the communications team could not defend Comey’s firing. Bannon blew his stack. “There’s not a fucking thing you can do to sell this!,” he shouted at Kushner. “Nobody can sell this! P. T. Barnum couldn’t sell this! People aren’t stupid! This is a terrible, stupid decision that’s going to have massive implications. It may have shortened Trump’s presidency—and it’s because of you, Jared Kushner!

The screaming matches and white-knuckle showdowns continued. Eight days later, Priebus got an unexpected visit from the White House counsel—a story he has not told publicly before. “Don McGahn came in my office pretty hot, red, out of breath, and said, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ I responded, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Well, we just got a special counsel, and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions just resigned.’ I said, ‘What!? What the hell are you talking about?’ ”

It was bad enough that Trump, having fired Comey, would now be the target of a special prosecutor. Even worse, unbeknownst to Priebus, the president, only moments before, had subjected Sessions to a withering tirade in the Oval Office, calling him an “idiot” and blaming Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation for the whole mess. Humiliated, Sessions said he would resign.

Priebus was incredulous: “I said, ‘That can’t happen.’” He bolted down the stairway to the West Wing parking lot. He found Sessions in the backseat of a black sedan, with the engine running. “I knocked on the door of the car, and Jeff was sitting there,” Priebus said, “and I just jumped in and shut the door, and I said, ‘Jeff, what’s going on?’ And then he told me that he was going to resign. I said, ‘You cannot resign. It’s not possible. We are going to talk about this right now.’ So I dragged him back up to my office from the car. [Vice President Mike] Pence and Bannon came in, and we started talking to him to the point where he decided that he would not resign right then and he would instead think about it.” Later that night, Sessions delivered a resignation letter to the Oval Office, but, Priebus claimed, he ultimately persuaded the president to give it back.

In June, Trump was still on a tear. He considered dumping special counsel Mueller, according to The New York Times, but was dissuaded from doing so. And by July, Trump was back on Sessions’s case, tweeting insults and calling him “weak.” “Priebus was told to get Sessions’s resignation flat out,” said a White House insider. “The president told him, ‘Don’t give me any bullshit. Don’t try to slow me down like you always do. Get the resignation of Jeff Sessions.’ ”

Once more, Priebus stalled Trump, recalled a White House insider. “He told the president, ‘If I get this resignation, you are in for a spiral of calamity that makes Comey look like a picnic.’ Rosenstein’s going to resign. [Associate Attorney General] Rachel Brand, the number three, will say, ‘Forget it. I’m not going to be involved with this.’ And it is going to be a total mess.” The president agreed to hold off. (Sessions didn’t comment on the resignation letter and last July publicly stated that he planned to stay on the job “as long as that is appropriate.” Brand, in fact, resigned this month.)

The Trump presidency’s first six months were the most incompetent and least accomplished in modern history. And its very survival was clouded by the gathering storm of the special prosecutor’s probe.

When it came to Mueller’s investigation, Priebus insisted he personally had nothing to worry about. But Bannon warned that the hounds had been loosed. “You’ve got Mueller’s team, which has got 19 killers who are all experts in wire fraud, money-laundering, and tax evasion,” Bannon said. “Doesn’t sound like collusion to me. But they’ve got unlimited budgets and subpoena power. And here’s what we’ve got on our side: two guys who’ve got legal pads and Post-Its.

Trump, Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, Bannon, onetime communications director Sean Spicer, and embattled national-security adviser Michael Flynn.

By Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.

“It’s like [certain members of the administration think that] no one took down the Gambino family,” Bannon continued. “Mueller’s doing a roll-up just like he did with the Gambinos. [Former campaign manager Paul] Manafort’s the caporegime, right? And [Rick] Gates [Manafort’s deputy] is a made man! [George] Papadopoulos is equivalent to a wiseguy out in a social club in Brooklyn. This is like a Wagner opera. In the overture you get all the strands of the music you’re going to hear for three hours. Well, Mueller opened with a bang. He totally caught these guys by surprise. So if you’re not going to fight, you’re going to get rolled over.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign to eradicate Obamacare went nowhere. “Repeal and replace” crashed and burned—not once but twice, the second time when John McCain delivered a dramatic 1:30 a.m. thumbs-down on the Senate floor. The debacle proved that Priebus could not count—or deliver—votes. “When McCain voted against it,” Bannon recalled, “I said to myself, Reince is gone. This is going to be so bad. The president is going to get so lit up.”

Priebus soon became a target of Trump’s ritual belittling as the president took to referring to him as “Reincey.” At one point, he summoned Priebus—to swat a fly. Priebus seemed to have been willing to endure almost any indignity to stay in Trump’s favor. There was that scene right out of The Manchurian Candidate when, at a Cabinet meeting, the president’s most powerful advisers virtually competed to see who could be more obsequious; Priebus won hands down, declaring what a “blessing” it was to serve the president.

By the summer, however, Priebus knew that his job hung by a thread. According to insiders, he was already in the crosshairs of “Javanka/Jarvanka”—as Bannon would take to calling the president’s daughter and son-in-law—for refusing to help Kushner in his efforts to oust Bannon. And then came the last straw: the sudden arrival of a new, flamboyant communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. Priebus had opposed his hiring. Scaramucci immediately turned the West Wing into a circular firing squad, calling Trump’s chief of staff a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” in an interview with The New Yorker. He went on, in a tweet, to all but accuse Priebus of leaking classified information about Scaramucci’s finances (which were publicly available). “When he accused me of a felony,” recalled Priebus, “I thought, What am I doing here? . . . I went in to the president and said, ‘I gotta go.’ ” Trump would say nothing publicly in Priebus’s defense. The president accepted his resignation.

Priebus had hoped to exit gracefully within a week or two, but the next day, as Air Force One sat on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, Trump tweeted, “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American. . . . ” The sudden shake-up was vintage Trump; the timing blindsided Priebus, who stepped off the plane into a drenching rain and was whisked away by car.

John Kelly, a four-star Marine general who had run the Southern Command, was 22 years Priebus’s senior. At the start, he had the president’s full confidence and wasted no time transforming the West Wing into a tighter ship. All visitors to the Oval Office—including Bannon, Kushner, and even the president’s adviser-daughter, Ivanka—were now vetted by the chief. Kelly also started heaving loose cannons over the side: Scaramucci was fired within 72 hours of Kelly’s appointment; Sebastian Gorka, another overzealous White House staffer, would soon follow; even Bannon himself would be gone within a month. Kelly declared that he was not put on earth to manage the president; instead, he would impose discipline on the staff and streamline the flow of information to the Oval Office.

Still, expectations were high that Kelly would be the “grown-up in the room,” who would smooth over Trump’s authoritarian edges. And yet, week after week—during the president’s fulminations against “fake news,” his sympathetic comments toward white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, his taunting of “Rocket Man” before the U.N. General Assembly, and his racist slurs against “shithole countries”—Kelly stood at Trump’s side. He not only reinforced the president’s worst instincts; he doubled down on them. He maligned Congresswoman Frederica Wilson from the White House Press Briefing Room with a false story after she criticized Trump’s handling of a Gold Star widow. In early February, the news broke that Kelly’s deputy Rob Porter—accused of beating both of his ex-wives (Porter denied the allegations)—had served in the sensitive post of staff secretary for more than a year without a permanent security clearance. The debacle surrounding his abrupt resignation showed that Kelly could not manage the West Wing, let alone Trump.

Suddenly Kelly’s future looked uncertain. And Priebus looked more effective in hindsight. “Reince was better than his press,” said Bannon. “If Reince had the exact track record that Kelly has, he would be deemed the worst chief of staff in the history of politics—and that’s not a slam on Kelly. . . . Folks felt [Priebus] didn’t have the gravitas. He’s always the little guy from Kenosha, right?”

Adapted from The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple, to be published in paperback on March 6, 2018, by Crown, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC; © 2017, 2018 by the author.

Kushner Firm Sued by Tenants Ordered to Reveal Who Partners Are

January 27, 2018

Kushner Firm Sued by Tenants Ordered to Reveal Who Partners Are


By Peter Blumberg

Jared Kushner

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

A rental apartment management firm run by presidential adviser Jared Kushner’s family was ordered by a federal judge to disclose the identities of its business partners in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Maryland tenants.

At the behest of media organizations, U.S. District Judge James Bredar in Baltimore ruled Friday that Westminster Management’s desire to keep the names secret is outweighed by the public interest in the class-action case. Westminster is accused of charging tenants illegal fees on top of the monthly rent, then threatening to evict them if they don’t pay.

Before joining the administration, Kushner was chief executive officer of the Kushner Cos. Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, divested his interest in his family’s business when he joined the administration. He isn’t named as a defendant in the case.

Bredar directed Westminster Management to file an unsealed document identifying its partners by Feb. 9.

U.S. Officials Worried Jered Kushner Under Influence of Chinese Campaign

January 25, 2018
 JANUARY 25, 2018 16:59


The crux of the concerns center on Kushner’s numerous encounters with Chinese Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai.

Jared Kushner

Jared Kushner . (photo credit: REUTERS)

NEW YORK – The US security establishment is reportedly concerned that senior White House adviser and son-in-law to the president of the United States, Jared Kushner, may be the subject of a Chinese influence campaign due to his personal business interests.

Those worries were revealed this week after The New Yorker reported that the 37-year-old has repeatedly held private meetings with Chinese government officials since the outset of the Trump administration.

The crux of the concerns center on Kushner’s numerous encounters with Chinese Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, with some meetings being accompanied by disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Cui and Kushner have also met alone on at least one occasion, according to The New Yorker, which intelligence officers say is a flagrant breach of security protocols.

The US usually conducts high-level talks with foreign governments in large groups, with experts on the American side present to ensure its interests are not manipulated or undermined.

But Kushner’s alleged eschewing of the diplomatic procedures have “made some people in the US government uncomfortable,” leading experts to believe that Beijing could be using the political neophyte to influence American policy.

“He went in utterly unflanked by anyone who could find Beijing on a map,” one security official told the Manhattan-based magazine. “It was a dream come true. They couldn’t believe he was so compliant.”

Those concerns were first raised following a private meetings Kushner held with Cui last year at Donald Trump’s sprawling Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, where he reportedly discussed his own business interests along with policy.

That’s when intelligence officials “became concerned that the Chinese government was seeking to use business inducements to influence Kushner’s views.” It’s unclear what was said between Kushner and the Chinese envoy, with one former official briefed on the matter describing the talks as “inconclusive.”

In response, a Kushner spokesperson told The New Yorker that there “was never a time — never — that Mr. Kushner spoke to any foreign officials, in the campaign, transition, and in the administration, about any personal or family business. He was scrupulous in this regard.”

Security officials note, however, that the president’s son-in-law owes hundreds of millions of dollars on a 41-story Manhattan office building his company purchased in 2007.

Over the past two years, Kushner has sought financial backing overseas – courting firms in South Korea, Israel and France – all to no avail as a substantial mortgage payment looms just months away.

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Kushner was also warned by security officials to be careful when speaking to family friend Wendi Deng Murdoch, who they suspect has ties to the communist government in Beijing.

Murdoch, the former wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, is a powerful Chinese-American business woman who has been close friends with Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, for years.

Security officials were reportedly concerned that Deng would use her contacts in the administration to further a construction project in Washington funded by the Chinese government, an anonymous source told the Journal.

The high-profile project is a proposed plan to build a Chinese garden less than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from both the Capitol and the White House.

The garden, estimated to cost $100 million, was reportedly designated a national security risk because the design included plans for a tall tower that could be used for surveillance.

A spokesman for Deng told The Guardian that Deng “has no knowledge of any FBI concerns or other intelligence agency concerns relating to her or her associations.”

He added: “[Deng] has absolutely no knowledge of any garden projects funded by the Chinese government.”


U.S. Warned Jared Kushner About Wendi Deng Murdoch

January 16, 2018

Officials said the businesswoman could be trying to further Beijing’s interests, people familiar with the matter say

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and suit

WASHINGTON—U.S. counterintelligence officials in early 2017 warned Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, that Wendi Deng Murdoch, a prominent Chinese-American businesswoman, could be using her close friendship with Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, to further the interests of the Chinese government, according to people familiar with the matter.

U.S. officials have also had concerns about a counterintelligence assessment that Ms. Murdoch was lobbying for a high-profile construction project  in Washington, D.C., one of these people said.

The project, a planned $100 million Chinese garden at the National Arboretum, was deemed a national-security risk because it included a 70-foot-tall white tower that could potentially be used for surveillance, according to people familiar with the intelligence community’s deliberations over the garden. The garden was planned on one of the higher patches of land near downtown Washington, less than 5 miles from both the Capitol and the White House.

Ms. Murdoch in 1999 married Rupert Murdoch, who is the executive chairman of News Corp, which publishes The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Murdoch filed for divorce in 2013. Ms. Murdoch still uses her married name.

The counterintelligence officials didn’t provide Mr. Kushner with details about their assessment of Ms. Murdoch, the people familiar with the interaction said. The warning was part of an effort by national-security officials to highlight to Mr. Kushner, who was new to government, the need to be careful in his dealings with people whose interests may not align with those of the U.S., the people added. Ms. Trump, who in late March announced she would take a formal White House role, wasn’t present for the counterintelligence warning. Neither Ms. Murdoch, Mr. Kushner nor Ms. Trump has been accused of any wrongdoing.

It is common for counterintelligence officials to warn senior members of a new administration about interactions with people with foreign connections, and such briefings sometimes refer to specific people, according to people familiar with the protocols.

A spokesman for Ms. Murdoch said she “has no knowledge of any FBI concerns or other intelligence agency concerns relating to her or her associations.” He added that she “has absolutely no knowledge of any garden projects funded by the Chinese government.”

A representative for Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump described Mr. Kushner’s interaction with officials warning him about Ms. Murdoch as a “routine senior staff security briefing.” He added that Mr. Kushner “has complied with all ethics and disclosure recommendations and has played a helpful role in strengthening the U.S.-China relationship so as to help bring about a better resolution to the many issues the countries have.”

In response to questions from the Journal about Ms. Murdoch and the garden, a representative from China’s Embassy in Washington called the Journal’s information “full of groundless speculations.”

U.S. officials have been concerned about Chinese government efforts to use people with close ties to the administration and with interests or family in China to try to influence policy. For example, Las Vegas casino magnate and Republican National Committee finance chairman Steve Wynn, whose Macau casinos can’t operate without a license from the Chinese territory, last year delivered a letter to Mr. Trump from the Chinese government about an alleged fugitive Beijing wants the U.S. to return, the Journal has reported, citing people familiar with the matter. A representative for Mr. Wynn has denied the episode

Ms. Murdoch, who is a U.S. citizen, has been friends with Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner for years.

Ms. Trump posted a photo on Instagram of her travels in Croatia with Ms. Murdoch in 2016. Ms. Murdoch posted a photo of Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner at Mr. Kushner’s birthday party in 2016, and one of her with Ms. Trump at an inauguration event last year with the caption “Congratulations @ivankatrump” followed by two hearts. Ms. Murdoch was photographed arriving at the couple’s Washington home in February 2017.

Ms. Trump also previously served as a trustee for funds set aside for the children of Mr. Murdoch and Ms. Murdoch, according to people familiar with the matter. Ms. Trump stepped down from that role in December 2016, the people said.

The representative for Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump said the two “have been friends with Rupert and Wendi Murdoch for a decade before coming to Washington and their relationship is neither political nor about China.”

The Chinese garden project at the arboretum in Northeast Washington had been planned for more than a decade as a symbol of goodwill between the two countries, akin to Beijing’s gift of pandas to the National Zoo in 1972.

The 12-acre project was to feature a lake and multiple gardens and structures that could be used to host cultural programs. In 2003, Jiang Zehui, a cousin of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, signed a letter of intent with a U.S. Agriculture Department official to build the garden. In January 2011, then-President Hu Jintao traveled to the U.S. and was presented with a model of the project by Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, then the vice president and secretary of state, respectively. In October 2016, following an agreement by then-President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, there was a groundbreaking ceremony.

The project has since been shelved because of the counterintelligence concerns, according to people familiar with the national-security issues.

Representatives for the USDA and the Chinese Embassy both said they continued to work on the project but declined to provide details of any developments since the groundbreaking. “The two sides are working closely preparing for the actual construction work,” said the Chinese Embassy representative, without elaborating. Journal reporters who recently visited the arboretum couldn’t locate any evidence of construction. An empty meadow sat at the planned site.

Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump emerged in early 2017 as important points of contact for Beijing in the new White House after early tensions between the two countries, the Journal has reported. Ms. Trump attended a Lunar New Year party at Beijing’s embassy in Washington last February and later posted a video of her daughter singing a New Year’s song in Mandarin, which went viral in China. Mr. Kushner was instrumental in setting up the meeting last spring between Messrs. Trump and Xi at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and accompanied him to Beijing in the fall.

The Kushner family real-estate company, Kushner Cos., also has pursued business in China, holding advanced talks with Anbang Insurance Group Co. for an investment of as much as $1.25 billion in a New York real-estate project. The talks broke off in March 2017. Mr. Kushner had earlier sold his stake in the project and other properties to family members.

Ms. Murdoch has previously surfaced on the radar of counterintelligence professionals, according to a person familiar with the issue.

After reports that she was romantically involved with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair while still married to Mr. Murdoch, British security officials discussed with U.S. counterparts whether the alleged relationship could be cause for concern, according to a person familiar with the matter. At the time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said there was reason to be watchful about Ms. Murdoch, but that they hadn’t looked into her in detail, the person said. Mr. Blair and Ms. Murdoch have denied any impropriety in their relationship. Representatives for Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Blair, Ms. Murdoch, the FBI and the U.K. Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the matter.

Generally, U.S. counterintelligence officials have been warning of potential attempts by the Chinese government to exploit ethnic Chinese living in the U.S. who have both access to power and family back in China, giving Beijing leverage.

Ms. Murdoch, the daughter of a factory director, came to the U.S. in 1988, studied at Yale University’s business school and later landed a job at News Corp.’s Star TV in Hong Kong, where she met Mr. Murdoch. After marrying the media magnate, Ms. Murdoch helped arrange business deals for News Corp in China and met with top politicians including Jiang Zemin, the Journal previously reported.

Ms. Murdoch’s spokesman said she occasionally traveled to China with Mr. Murdoch but played down her role in business dealings there.

Write to Kate O’Keeffe at and Aruna Viswanatha at