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Jared Kushner: Fifteen Lessons I Learned From Criminal-Justice Reform

17 minute read
Kushner is Assistant and Senior Advisor to President Donald Trump.

Jared Kushner was interviewed at The TIME 100 Summit on criminal justice reform, the Mueller report findings, Middle East peace, and more. To watch the interview and read about his comments, click here.

One of the proudest moments of my life was standing beside President Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office to witness him sign the First Step Act, a historic criminal-justice reform bill that would make American communities safer, improve hundreds of thousands of lives and change the way we think about prisons. As I listened to the many advocates who had tirelessly worked to make this day possible I couldn’t help but appreciate the genius of our Founding Fathers. America’s democracy is the greatest governing system in the world. It was designed to be stubborn and slow, yet open to change when enough citizens agree on needed progress. I was later told by the first man who was released from prison early because of the First Step Act that while the speeches at the signing ceremony were beautiful, he and his friends were watching it live from prison, screaming at the television, “Sign the damn bill already!” For them, it was a miraculous moment.

When first deciding whether to champion this reform, one thought kept coming back to me. I had not planned to be in politics. I was only in this position because of God’s grace. Over the course of 12 years, I had gone from the son of someone who was in federal prison to sitting in an office next to the President. This topic was too important to me not to give it attention. I had spent a lot of time with families of people in prison, thinking that I could share lessons to make what had been a very painful experience for me a bit easier for them. I knew from that experience how much those people would benefit from having someone in my office who cared about this issue.

In the wake of this legislation, hundreds of people have asked me how it was possible in the middle of such a divided political climate to bring both parties together on an issue that initially seemed to have no consensus, no champion and no pathway. Pursuing the passage of the First Step Act was one of the hardest experiences of my life. I got a close-up view of how Congress works—and how it doesn’t. Because this was neither a major issue of the campaign nor one of the first priorities of the new Administration, I did a lot of the staff work on it myself, with a small and dedicated team, and we were able to follow what I designed as a more intuitive process, instead of a standard legislative process. This ended up working even though this bill nearly died dozens of times along the way. Here are the key lessons I learned from the experience.

The first lesson is that you have to reach out and talk to the other side. You will never make a deal in politics by only talking to people who agree with you. Ivanka and I would frequently host bipartisan groups of six to eight legislators at our home for off-the-record dinners, normally on a specific legislative priority, and the first toast was always by someone saying, “We don’t do this enough. We used to spend more time with people in the other party in safe and productive environments.” Politics is a tribal business, and my reaching out to Democrats made some on the right uncomfortable. My politics have been those of an independent. Since I was new to professional politics, I did not feel that I knew the best way to solve the problems we have in this country so I sought out respected people on both sides of the aisle. I saw that when people reach out on either side of the aisle, they are subjected to criticism and even being labeled a “traitor” by those in their own party. By contrast, President Trump is a pragmatist. He looks to solve problems but is not ideologically fixed. I believed that he deserved thoughtful, researched options on how to pursue the promises that he made to the American people. There are many different ways to solve problems and no party has a monopoly on good ideas.

The second lesson is that you have to engage early with a diverse group of people. For the prison reform effort, we started out by hosting multiple listening sessions in which we assembled the right people and allowed everyone to share their perspective. This included Senators, Congressmen, governors, academics, law enforcement and many others. From these conversations we got good ideas, we saw overlapping areas of agreement, and we made people feel included in the process from the outset. Asking a lot of questions and closely listening, helped me form a more nuanced perspective. As my close friend and mentor Ambassador Bob Lighthizer would tell me during intense trade negotiations, “I don’t know anyone who ever got smarter by talking.” While being in the White House and having the President on board was powerful, we could not have gotten this done if it weren’t for the many outside groups supporting the effort. There are too many to name who worked on this issue for a decade before I got involved, but they laid the foundation for our success. When we had politicians on the fence about voting with us, we would activate these outside groups and they always knew who the most influential voices were for each Senator or Congressman. Having many supporters out on TV and in the communities in both liberal and conservative circles helped bring around others who were less familiar with the issue. This coalition enabled me to cross the most important hurdle of all, which was to get President Trump to support this effort over the objections of others.

The third lesson is to study what was tried and assess why it failed. Our system was designed to make change hard, and I remind my team all the time not to be afraid to follow intuition over ceremony and to try new approaches. We started by looking at the 2016 legislative effort and sought to understand who supported it and why the effort had failed. We were told that the Senate would not put a new bill on the floor since there was still too much disagreement. The leading opponent in 2016 was then Senator Jeff Sessions, who in 2018 was the Attorney General. Following dozens of discussions with interested parties, I engaged with him and after several meetings I was able to get him to agree not to block prison-reform efforts in exchange for us not working on the sentencing reforms he opposed. I told him that I would assume that we would work in good faith to achieve our shared goals of reducing crime. To that end, we would take all of his comments under advisement and try to incorporate them to the degree possible. This angered Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin, who had spent considerable time crafting the compromise language on the old bill. They were skeptical of Sessions’ working in good faith on this issue and thought we were disrespecting their work. After several heated meetings, I told them that we were going to start working in the House on a prison-reform bill.

The other side of this is to study what has worked. The best thing about the federalist system is that the states are laboratories of democracy where ideas are tested. On prison reform we analyzed the many red states where reforms have succeeded. For instance, in Texas in 2002, Governor Rick Perry saw that the costs of incarceration were rising fast. He determined, with the help of his then policy director Brooke Rollins—who later led this effort with me from the White House—that you can change the prison system to focus it on locking up the worst violent criminals and that by being more targeted with these efforts you can lower incarceration costs and also lower crime rates.

The fourth lesson was to develop a full legislative strategy early, and be prepared to modify as things progressed. We started working with Representatives Doug Collins and Hakeem Jeffries in the House, who had been the co-sponsors for the previous prison-reform bill. What we hoped would be easy got complicated very quickly. When the White House engaged, this raised the profile of the effort making it more political than it was the last time. We received criticism on all sides. Law-enforcement groups insisted that the current version of the bill was inadequate and in need of major revisions; Congressman Jeffries was taking heat for working with Trump’s White House; and Senate Democrats even claimed that our version of the bill was potentially racially discriminatory in how it would be implemented. We had our work cut out for us.

The fifth lesson is that the details really matter. It’s easy for politicians to disagree on big concepts, but you find compromise and solutions in the details. During the negotiations we had many moments where both sides almost quit. At one point, those at the table who were against the bill had put so many poison pill provisions into the draft legislation that I got an emergency call from Ja’Ron Smith, the talented legislative staffer who volunteered to work on this with me. Ja’Ron told me that Jeffries’ team had walked away. The poison pills did not matter to our primary objective, while putting undue pressure on the Congressman, who was already getting a lot of criticism from the left. I didn’t want to let him down. We reviewed the provisions and determined which ones were reasonable and which were not.

This taught me the sixth lesson: you need to build trust. In Washington, it is much easier to scare people out of doing something courageous and kill things than it is to build consensus. Trust can only be built with privacy. The more one trusts your ability to keep something secret, and not have their suggestions appear in the press, the more collaborative, creative and solution-oriented one will be. Trust was paramount, and I never divulged the contents of private discussions or even that I was having them. My operational default has been to keep my circle small. While this has led to some people angrily going to the press to complain that they are not included, I was careful to make sure that those who needed to know information knew it.

The seventh lesson is that nothing significant in Washington gets done without the President’s buy-in. After a year of research and planning, we were confident that this was a worthwhile effort but could not take any further steps without President Trump’s blessing. The President was a bit skeptical going into the meeting, saying “Jared, this sounds like a pretty liberal issue.” So I scheduled a policy meeting in January 2018 with external conservative leaders who could better explain how these reforms would advance his agenda. Before it began, Sarah Sanders noted that her father had passed similar reforms in Arkansas and that they were some of the most impactful and popular things he had done. When the President entered the room he was pleased to see many familiar conservative faces. I made a few introductory points and quickly passed it off to others to make the case. Having conservative governors, activists and law-enforcement leaders there helped a lot. But the most important statement made at that meeting was by aide Reed Cordish who said to President Trump, “You promised during your campaign to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country. There is no one more forgotten or underrepresented than the people in prison.” I could see that this statement hit the President and moved him deeply.

After we had gone through the statistics and policy, the President said, “That’s really sad. These people make a mistake, do their time, get out and then have all of these challenges. In some ways, what do we expect them to do?” He saw immediately why both parties should support these reforms and told me: “I am all in. Let’s get it done, but work with Jeff to make sure this isn’t soft on crime.”

After this, the President made countless phone calls to key Republican members of Congress, including some of the bill’s most ardent opponents. His efforts helped tamp down opposition from the right and overcome key legislative roadblocks. His leadership also acted as a marker to the left that this was the bill—and that efforts to drag it further to the left would probably be fatal to the entire enterprise.

In the end, some people were very surprised the President endorsed the bill. But it was his support that helped the bill fly through the House with a 360-59 vote. We got all but two Republicans and lost only a few dozen Democrats who said that the bill didn’t go far enough. We were fighting against a lot of misinformation. When the bill reached the Senate, it was the President’s leadership that helped it move out of committee and onto the floor, with just a few days to spare before the end of the legislative session.

The Senate is where the eighth lesson came in: don’t take anything personally in politics. It’s very easy to find things to be offended by in government and when people attack you, it’s usually that they don’t like your politics or what you are trying to accomplish. Unlike in my former businesses where I was able to prioritize and build with a time horizon of forever, government is a limited-duration experience. I decided to take on as many tasks as I felt I could responsibly manage. Early on I was criticized for doing too much, but your job is to focus on accomplishing your priority objectives while the opposition will try to knock you off, set you back or slow you down.

The ninth lesson was on how to deal with these hurdles one at a time. Sequential thinking and problem-solving is essential toward conservation of political capital and concentration of effort. No one wants to take a tough vote or compromise on a longstanding position until it’s either safe or they are forced to. A great example of this was getting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the bill to the floor. We still had some vote-counting issues and some outside-group issues but there was no sense dealing with them until people knew that they were going to be taking the tough vote. We didn’t focus on McConnell until we had a final deal with Grassley and Durbin and a 70+ whip count.

The 10th lesson is that in order to get the politicians to back you, give them cover. All Senators care about some issues more than others. On issues they care about they are studied and have an opinion, on issues that they don’t have a strong opinion on they trust the opinion of their most knowledgeable colleagues and local experts. Similarly, it’s important to show people the costs of not voting with you. It was very effective to identify a legislator’s closest friends, biggest supporters and most influential constituent groups and enlist their help. Politicians don’t always do what these groups want, but they don’t like telling their supporters no. We had Republican supporters who felt strongly about this issue call undecideds. This made a big difference.

The 11th lesson I learned from the reform was that you can’t be afraid to fail. I went all in and put my reputation on the line. Not being from the political world, it’s very easy to say that I lacked experience or qualifications to do my job. I was able to succeed because I was committed to a goal and resourceful about finding ways to achieve it. Political capital is a funny thing—you never know quite how much you have, so spend it all towards noble causes and you might find out that spending it wisely earns you more.

The 12th lesson is one of the most essential: you need to ignore the noise. Washington is full of opinions and emotions. The trick is knowing when problems are genuinely big and when they appear big but are actually small. I avoid social media and have been fortunate to rely on a few trusted sources that help me navigate this hyperpartisan and hysterical period in our government. D.C. is filled with “experts” who did not achieve the task you are trying to achieve, but who will opine on why you are wrong not to go about it in the same way they did.

The 13th lesson I learned is that you need intense focus to achieve goals. When you try to do everything in government you end up doing nothing. My initial six months in the Trump Administration was an extended transition with a lot of chaos. Once we got into office there were real consequences to the decisions the President was making. A lot of the policy and campaign people thought the President should just do things the way they wanted him to and I was always fighting for more process, more debate and more voices at the table. A lot of these efforts were more tactical than strategic and in some instances that hurt our ability to achieve. President Trump will make the right decision when given the right information and thoughtful options. As the White House settled in, I was able to refocus my efforts on a clear set of priorities. As the USMCA negotiations heated up, I was in a conference room with Ambassador Lighthizer and his team, seven days a week for over 15 hours a day for two months straight working through many complicated issues. As the First Step Act was being finalized, having 80% of my focus on navigating the land mines, securing votes, and overcoming the hurdles was essential.

A former world leader came to see me and said how much he admired that I was working on some very hard challenges. He said that when looking back on his time in government he didn’t remember the day-to-day nonsense, but rather the few big changes he enacted. Had I stayed focused on being traffic cop or on easier reforms I would have stayed a mile wide and never gotten deep enough to make as big a difference on the core issues I care deeply about.

The 14th lesson is the most important one: stay optimistic. In government, there are few tangible rewards to your success. It’s about solving challenges because you believe in the mission and want your country to succeed. You must be sober about the challenges, but accepting them as fixed reality is often self-defeating. One of my favorite lines about efforts in the Middle East goes like this: “In the Middle East, the pessimists are usually right, the optimists wrong. But it’s the optimists who drive the change.”

The final lesson is to know why you are in government and who you are serving. In my old life I had less stress and much more freedom to pursue what I wanted. But there is no platform like government. The challenges are hard, the variables to accomplish anything are vast and the climate is negative and combative. But, on my worst days, I think about the people we are fighting to help and all of the change that will come to individuals, families, and the world if we are successful.

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