Columns

Kushner: Trump Receptive to Prison Reform as 'There's Nobody More Forgotten' Than Inmates

Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner, right, attends a press conference with President Donald Trump to discuss a revised U.S. trade agreement with Mexico and Canada in the Rose Garden of the White House on Oct. 1, 2018. (Oliver Contreras/Sipa via AP Images)

White House senior advisor Jared Kushner said President Trump became receptive to the cause of bipartisan prison reform after being told that inmates are the ultimate forgotten people in this country.

“The president trusts me. I think he knows that every task you’ve given me from the start of the campaign through, I’ve been able to do it quietly, I’ve been able to do it effectively, I’ve been able to deliver results. I don’t make a lot of noise — it’s just sometimes noise is made about me, but I try to keep my head down,” Kushner told Van Jones in a sit-down at CNN’s CITIZEN conference today in New York.

Kushner said of his push for prison reform, “I wished that there way somebody who was in my office in the White House who cared about this issue as much as I do.”

He said he walked the issue through the phases of “try to understand what the issue is and what’s been tried and what can be done,” “develop a strategy,” and “really vigorous execution.” He said it was “actually quite surprising” to find the level of bipartisan support “in the sense that a lot of the conservative states had been leaders on this issue saying that the prisons have become too full or sending too much money on warehousing people.”

“We should be figuring out how to improve people so that when they get out, they can become productive citizens again,” he added, as opposed to “learning how to become better criminals” behind bars.

Kushner said he made it through the strategy phase without “really” talking to Trump about his plans.

“We are in a place where we make sure the president’s properly briefed and has all the different sides on all the issues … and we went through the issue,” he noted, adding that in the conversation “somebody said to him, you know, when you campaigned, you said that you were going to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country and there’s nobody more forgotten or underrepresented than people in prison.”

“I talk to the president all the time. I know sometimes when I tell him something and he’s listening but he’s not really wanting to listen to me, I know when he’s listening to me and it penetrates. I could tell right then that that really hit him in his heart. And since then, he’s actually spent a lot of time on the issue.”

Kushner is promoting the bipartisan Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, or FIRST STEP Act, introduced by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), which “creates a risk assessment for each prisoner and then it gives some kind of prescription for them to earn their way down to become a lower risk.”

“It passed huge in the House, but there’s still people on the right who say that you’re letting out drug dealers in an opioid crisis, a quick response to those critics?” Jones asked.

“If you have somebody in prison for 10 years you can say, would you rather them go back after 10 years of no programming, to the streets? Or would you rather them leave after nine or nine and a half years having spent those nine or nine and a half years earning that six months to a year off by participating in all of these programs that will give them a much higher probability of becoming a productive citizen,” Kushner replied. “And I think that once you explain that to people, we find that everyone gets on board… what I would tell these people is that look, this bill will help 100,000 people find a way to not become future criminals.”

“These people have families, if these families can have these people back, spending their time improving themselves and back sooner — that’s a win,” he added.

Kushner said while describing his father-in-law, “But I could never be elected president.”

“I just have open dialogue. I mean, one of the things people don’t realize that he’s very receptive to different view points and he’s a very flexible thinker. I think he’s a pragmatist. And he’ll have very strong opinions,” he said of Trump. “But if you get the opportunity to come and sit with him and make your case to him, he’ll definitely listen, he may agree, he may not agree. But I find that he’s incredibly receptive to thoughtful arguments.”

Asked if he was having fun in the administration, Kushner replied, “I wouldn’t say fun.”

“I mean, I have a lot of joy in my life, and I feel very blessed to be there everyday fighting for the things I’m fighting for,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility to do jobs that we have, but I’d say more invigorated by it. I think that it’s obviously the challenge of a lifetime, and again, like I said, every day we’re in the arena and we’re fighting forward.”

Trump, Kushner said, has been “a black swan all of his life — and I just see him in politics and business, I just don’t like betting against him.”