According to an excerpt from Jared Kushner’s forthcoming book exclusively provided to Breitbart News, then-President Donald Trump told his son-in-law and senior adviser that Trump would go to the mattress to fight for border wall funding.
In Breaking History: A White House Memoir, Kushner tells the story of how Trump had to fight some of his own aides and congressional Republicans to try to get border wall funding. Kushner writes that it was then-White House chief of staff John Kelly and then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen who directly undercut the president’s agenda during border wall negotiations and that some congressional Republicans were more than willing to let the president’s agenda to be undercut.
It is, of course, not new for Trump to talk about how the swamp constantly tried to undermine his agenda. Trump has repeatedly told people he did not realize when he got to Washington just how deep the bureaucracy really was—but that he knows now. Kushner’s book sheds additional light on the many hurdles the then-president faced, even with a Republican-controlled Congress.
Kushner writes that Kelly and Nielsen pushed Congress in 2017 and 2018—when both the House and the Senate were controlled by Republicans and could have done more—for only $1.6 billion in border wall funding, an obviously inadequate number to achieve the president’s agenda.
Kushner writes in the book:
By law, the president must submit a budget to Congress each year. It includes his funding requests for everything from roads and bridges to health care for veterans. In both the 2017 and 2018 submissions, Kelly and Nielsen had asked for $1.6 billion for the wall. When I asked Kelly and Nielsen why they had submitted such low requests, they argued that $1.6 billion was sufficient and implied that Trump simply didn’t understand how the process worked and that there were too many bureaucratic hurdles to build the wall any faster. In a best-case scenario, it would take ten years to build the wall, they claimed. If we asked for more funding, we wouldn’t be able to spend it before the next fiscal year.
According to Kushner, establishment Republicans in Congress were also not doing anything to help Trump fix this mess—Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan just went along with what Kelly and Nielsen had proposed, even though they obviously knew that just going along would hurt Trump’s chances of finishing the wall by 2020.
Kushner writes that when he saw Trump shortly after his conversation with Kelly and Nielsen, Trump was “seething” at McConnell and Ryan. But Kushner says he told Trump they delivered exactly what Nielsen and Kelly asked for.
By this point in the Trump presidency in late 2018, Kushner writes, Trump and Kelly were “barely speaking” to each other anymore, so he says Trump did not even waste his time calling Kelly.
“Around the West Wing, it felt like Kelly had checked out of the day-to-day operations for months, and it only worsened after Trump’s announcement on December 8 that the chief of staff would leave at the end of the year,” Kushner writes.
“A few hours later, I went back into the Oval Office, where the president was still seething over his predicament,” Kushner writes. “He was particularly furious at Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell for sending him a bill without the wall funding.”
Kushner says he told Trump to be upset with Kelly and Nielsen, not McConnell and Ryan. “Don’t be mad at Paul or Mitch,” Kushner says he told Trump. “They got you exactly what Nielsen and Kelly asked for in our budget.”
Kushner then says he advised Trump against vetoing the spending bill, which is the route Trump chose pushing to fight a government shutdown showdown with congressional Democrats in his push for more wall funding. Kushner says he told Trump:
You have a terrible hand to play here. If you veto the spending bill, the Democrats will blame you for the shutdown. They won’t cave on the wall and have no reason to, since they will control the House on January 3. Let’s retreat today and find another way forward. We can look at ways to get the funding without a shutdown.
In response, Kushner writes: “Trump listened, but his resolve stiffened.”
“You are giving me rational advice, but I’m still not going to sign the bill,” Trump said in response, according to Kushner. “Throughout my life, I have taken on all kinds of fights with bad hands, and somehow I figure it out. Jared, if I go down, I’m going down with my boots on.”
During the ensuing shutdown, Trump spent weeks fighting for even scraps more of border wall funding. Kushner recounts the negotiations with congressional leaders in the book, writing that he, then-Vice President Mike Pence, and then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney meet with GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. Kushner wrote:
Over the next four weeks, I traveled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue with Pence and Mulvaney. On the Hill, we talked with Democrats and Republicans and tried to find a path forward. During one meeting with Paul Ryan and other House Republican leaders, we discussed a possible compromise to end the shutdown.
Kushner then describes negotiations with Ryan:
Ryan interrupted: “How do we know if the president says ‘Yes,’ that he’s actually going to follow through?”
Taken aback, I replied: “With all due respect, I think you’ve misunderstood the president. If you give him all the information and brief him on the facts and the situation, he will make a firm decision. If you try to get him to agree to something without giving him all of the facts, however, he will likely change his mind when he learns them.”
I attributed Ryan’s disconnect with Trump to his lack of private-sector experience. He’d been in Congress for nearly two decades—since he was twenty-eight. In business, negotiators often agree to a deal in concept, and then have lawyers work out the details. New issues can surface during this second step of the process. Ryan had assumed that he could just call Trump and get him to agree to a conceptual framework without his approval on the final details. As a former businessman, Trump didn’t work this way.
He writes that these discussions illustrate that one “of the greatest tragedies of the first two years of Trump’s presidency, when we had majorities in both chambers of Congress, was that neither Ryan nor McConnell understood the president “ Kushner continues:
Like many establishment Republicans, they resented his disruption of the system they had grown used to. They found themselves in a dilemma: they did not fully agree with Trump’s style, but they couldn’t defy him because their own voters loved him. They had become generals without an army. I often wondered why establishment Republicans didn’t seem to respect the sixty-three million voters who elected Trump. Instead of working with Trump to pass legislation that delivered on his promises to voters, a Republican Congress wasted two years ducking the new leader of their party.
From there, Kushner goes into detail about how, when it became clear not much else was coming from Congress, he and other White House officials sought ways around Congress to get the wall—a path Trump ended up taking to end the shutdown. Kushner writes:
After a series of dead-end meetings on the Hill, I began looking for creative ways to fund the wall that didn’t require approval from Congress. I collaborated with the president’s new White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, a talented Washington litigator and principled conservative who had taken over when Don McGahn had departed in October, and his deputy, Pat Philbin, an understated but remarkably intelligent former Supreme Court clerk. Stephen Miller, Mick Mulvaney, and Russell Vought, who was running the budget office in Mulvaney’s absence, and his deputy Derek Kan also joined the effort. With the federal government spending about $4.5 trillion a year, we figured that we could cobble together a few billion dollars for the wall. After spending a few weeks researching the president’s authorities and the federal government’s budget accounts, the team came back with a list that included $600 million in a Treasury forfeiture account, $3.6 billion in an account for overseas military construction, and potentially another $6.3 billion through a general transfer and by pulling from a counternarcotics defense spending account.39 This was incredible. They’d found the government equivalent of nickels and dimes and come up with $11 billion in existing funding in the federal bank accounts.
Kushner describes how they found a way Trump could “reprogram military funds” to pay for the wall, and so they took the idea to him.
“We’ve got to end the shutdown,” Kushner says he told Trump. “It’s going to look like you’re taking a loss on this, but what matters is that in June of 2020 there will be a big, beautiful wall, just like you promised. And we’ve now found the funding for it.”
Kushner writes that Trump “crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair,” then told him: “Jared, if I agree to do this, then you have to personally make sure the wall gets built fast. But let’s play this out a bit more with Congress and see where we get.”
“By the end of January, it was clear that our only path forward was the emergency declaration,” Kushner writes.
What happened next, over the course of the next several months, according to Kushner, is the president’s son-in-law led a series of meetings with military and other officials, including in the White House Situation Room, to oversee the building of the wall this way instead of through Congress.
As I took up the project—one of the largest American infrastructure endeavors since the building of the U.S. highway system—I organized meetings in the Situation Room with key officials from within the Office of Management and Budget as well as the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security,” Kushner writes. “I had them brief me on the details of exactly what we were building. Was it concrete, steel slats, or barbed wire? It soon became clear that no one had settled on the exact type of structure we intended to erect. As a former builder, the president would have a strong perspective, so I organized a briefing. The experts recommended a thirty-foot-high barrier made of long steel slats, with anti-climb panels lining the top. Trump didn’t like the look of the anti-climb panels, but he approved the design at the strong recommendation of Border Patrol. We also needed to identify the stretches of our border that were most vulnerable to illegal crossings and to the smuggling of people, narcotics, and weapons so that we could focus our construction efforts on priority locations. Much of the land along the southern border was privately held, and the Army Corps of Engineers needed to engage in a cumbersome process of land acquisition, which at times could involve eminent domain, a less-than-ideal legal proceeding that gave the federal government the authority to force private citizens to sell parcels of their land. The Army Corps estimated that this step alone would take six to twelve months to complete. We didn’t have that long.
Then, Kushner notes, the White House decided to “define success as building 450 miles of a new state-of-the-art border wall by the end of 2020.” That is not the full wall, obviously, as the border is nearly 2,000 miles long. But after the intransigence Trump faced from Congress and his own senior advisers undermining him, that was what he says they decided they could get by the end of a first term through the executive action workaround. Kushner describes that target as “aggressive but achievable” and details meetings he had with military officials to check in on progress along the way, including one notable exchange where Kushner describes holding a general’s feet to the fire over not being on schedule:
“We are right on schedule,” said Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the impressive three-star general who ran the Army Corps of Engineers, in one of these weekly meetings. As he listed the construction numbers from the previous week, I opened my manila folder, pulled out the schedule from the week before, and double-checked the projections.
“With all due respect, General, you’re not on schedule,” I said. “Last week, you said that you’d be at a hundred and seventeen miles, and you’re only at one hundred and fifteen.”
“That’s the old schedule,” he said. “I’m talking about the updated schedule.”
“General, unlike most of the jobs I have been assigned in government, this is one that I have a bit of experience in,” I quipped. “I’ve never had a contractor admit to missing their schedule—they just keep revising the damn schedule.”
Everyone laughed. “I know how to do this stuff. Every time we meet, I need you to give
me an update on where we were the day before, and where we were projected to be. There are a lot of moving parts, and things will go better and worse than we expect. Let’s agree to have a transparent flow of information, and we will solve problems as they arise.”
Kushner writes that General Semonite rose to the challenge “and did an outstanding job.” All in all, after failure under Nielsen and Kelly’s tenure when only 35 miles of “new and replacement border wall” were constructed, Kushner notes that his approach led to 415 miles built in 2019 and 2020–something he wrote went “much faster than the experts predicted.” Technically, at that rate, in a second Trump term—or if Trump had been doing it this way his entire first term—the entire border would have a wall.