The scene in the Oval Office was remarkable: the foreign minister of Mexico — the very country that Donald Trump had turned into a campaign-trail piñata — huddled with now-President Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The men were debating what Trump would say in a speech later that day as he ordered construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Mexican diplomat, Luis Videgaray, and Kushner, a White House senior adviser, had concluded that the remarks as drafted would upend the two countries’ fragile relationship, so together they urged Trump to soften his language about Mexico.
The trio arrived at a compromise, according to a half-dozen U.S. and Mexican officials who detailed the encounter. Trump, understanding that Mexicans would hang on his every word, agreed to state that a strong Mexico was in the best interests of the United States. In Mexico City that afternoon, Jan. 25, officials welcomed Trump’s remarks as the most encouraging statement he had given to date about Mexico — and they celebrated Kushner as a moderating influence.
Relations ruptured anew only hours later, however, after a war of words between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — punctuated by an angry Twitter missive from Trump the next morning while Videgaray was back at the White House.
Trump promised a foreign policy based on unpredictability, and by that measure, he is delivering. The messy episode involving a neighbor and longtime ally encapsulates his administration’s emerging foreign policy, one that mingles the president’s public bellicosity with Kushner’s behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
Although Kushner, 36, has no traditional foreign policy experience, he has become the primary point of contact for presidents, ministers and ambassadors from more than two dozen countries, helping lay the groundwork for agreements, according to U.S. and foreign officials with knowledge of the contacts. He has had extensive talks with many of these diplomats, including in Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, the officials said.
Kushner’s back-channel communications with Mexico — the full extent of which has not been previously reported — reveal him to be almost a shadow secretary of state, operating outside the boundaries of the State Department or the National Security Council.
Videgaray had come to the White House on Jan. 25 for a full day of private meetings, but it was Kushner who gave him a heads-up that Trump would deliver a speech that afternoon at the Department of Homeland Security where he would sign an executive order on his signature border wall.
And it was Kushner who led Videgaray into the Oval Office for an unscheduled audience with the president, where together they made their case to Trump for a more measured discussion of Mexico.
The president agreed.
“We also understand that a strong and healthy economy in Mexico is very good for the United States — very, very good,” Trump said in his speech. “I truly believe we can enhance the relation between our two nations to a degree not seen before, certainly in a very, very long time.”
But Videgaray and Kushner’s victory was short-lived.
So strong were the anti-Trump political winds at home that Peña Nieto felt compelled to go on television that night to declare that Mexico would never pay for the border wall.
This angered Trump, who tweeted at 8:55 Eastern time the next morning that he and Peña Nieto should cancel their upcoming summit if Mexico refused to pay for the wall. Peña Nieto called off the visit and in a brief phone call instructed Videgaray — back at the White House for another round of meetings — to leave and come home.
The mission was aborted, according to the officials’ accounts, and Kushner seethed with frustration at the outcome. Kushner declined to be interviewed.
Some of the leaders who have dealt with Kushner said they were initially skeptical but found him to be a good listener and courteous intermediary who quickly intuits the core of their issues and can facilitate meetings throughout the administration.
One of his top ambitions is to help broker peace in the Middle East — something with which the president has publicly tasked him — and Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, quietly has taken an active role in helping select ambassadors to that region.
“Everyone is trying to get to know Jared Kushner,” said the ambassador from one U.S. ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. Many ambassadors were loath to put even their positive thoughts about Kushner on the record for fear of jeopardizing what has become their most important contact in Trump’s Washington.