The prevailing narrative about when President Donald Trump launches his most reckless tirades involves the absence of the two people viewed as the great moderating influences in his life: his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner.
The couple are Orthodox Jews who observe the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday until sundown on Saturday—the time when Trump has been most likely to go off-leash.
Last Saturday morning, for instance, Trump accused President Barack Obama of tapping his phones during last year’s election — and followed up the startling allegation with a non sequitur about Arnold Schwarzenegger driving “The Apprentice” ratings into the ground. His first weekend as president, Trump phoned the National Park Service director on Saturday asking for photographs that would demonstrate the size of the crowd on the National Mall during his inauguration. Trump signed his botched travel ban at 4:48 p.m. the following Friday, after Kushner had left the White House.
Even “Saturday Night Live” has picked up on the meme: “When the Jews are away, the goys will play,” Alec Baldwin, in character as Trump, proclaimed in one skit. But some rabbis say the conceit is misguided and potentially inflammatory amid the recent rise in anti-Semitic threats. They include Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism in 2009.
“I think it’s a very foolish assumption to say that in some way, people in the Trump administration wait until the Sabbath so they can make decisions that otherwise, other members of the Trump administration might weigh in on,” said Lookstein, rabbi emeritus at the Kehilath Jeshurun congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“I think it’s playing around with religious behavior,” added Lookstein, who remains close enough to Kushner and Ivanka Trump that they invited him to deliver the invocation at the Republican National Convention last summer—an opportunity he ultimately declined. “The way in which I believe Jared Kushner and Ivanka observe the Sabbath is they observe it together with their children,” he said. “They’re disconnected—but anything could be discussed.”
Kushner and Trump have traveled with the president to Mar-a-Lago five out of the past six weekends, and there’s no reason why Kushner couldn’t discuss matters of state—or Twitter—with his father-in-law on the Sabbath, Lookstein said.
Orthodox Jews in government positions have found ways to fulfill their roles without interrupting their observance. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, walked to the Capitol from his home in Georgetown to vote on the Affordable Care Act in 2009. Jack Lew, who served as Obama’s chief of staff and later as Treasury secretary, said he’d have been willing to pick up the hotline on weekends, knowing his boss would call only in an emergency.
Kushner and Ivanka Trump are intensely private about their religious practice, and don’t discuss it even with other White House aides. In New York City, they often attended billionaire Ron Perelman’s private shul, rather than go to services at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, Lookstein’s synagogue, which is within walking distance from their apartment. In Washington, D.C., they have yet to join a congregation, in large part because they have barely spent time here on the weekends.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment for the story, as did a spokeswoman for Ivanka Trump.
Kushner told Vogue in 2015 that he and his wife turn their phones off on Shabbat.
But last October, when Trump was embroiled in a scandal involving the release of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” video that showed him bragging about kissing and groping women against their will, Kushner broke from his typical Shabbat routine and huddled with his father-in-law and other top aides to discuss strategy—though he walked from his apartment to Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan. He and his wife also attended Trump’s inaugural balls, held on a Friday night.
The rules of Shabbat “are not so black and white,” explained Rabbi Avidan Milevsky, the interim rabbi at Kesher Israel, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Georgetown. “The black and white in traditional Judaism are actions and activities: using electricity, driving, writing. When it comes to work, it’s a little bit of a gray area in terms of what’s permitted to be discussed.”
But he said it was a “dangerous misconception” to assume Kushner was out of touch and off the grid during Trump’s most inflammatory moments. “It implies that anything disastrous is somehow indirectly to be blamed on Jared’s absence—and by extension, Jews,” Milevsky said. “It’s a dangerous narrative—this idea that he’s not allowed to discuss these things on the Sabbath is absolutely false. Take a few steps, and it reaches the conclusion of, ‘Here’s another thing we can blame on the Jews.’ Jared is not locked in a room. It was a cool idea, and it got some press, but it is a dangerous and false narrative.”
Other rabbis take a harder-line view of what it should mean to observe the Sabbath. “Discussion should not be about business-related matters,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who was ordained as a rabbi in 2011. “Don’t be in the room where business is taking place. Don’t put yourself in a position where you might violate a prohibition.” He said that many observant Jews don’t even read the newspaper on the Sabbath, but admitted Kushner is in an unusual scenario. “It is an extraordinary act to remain religious and have a job like that,” he said.
Within the White House, Kushner is not seen as a moderating influence so much as a structural influence. He’s concerned with making sure the administration delivers on his father-in-law’s campaign promises and asking big-picture questions about implementation rather than weighing in on the actual policies themselves.
Trump’s friends said there’s a much simpler explanation for why the president makes his most outlandish statements on Friday night or Saturday morning: his intuitive understanding, honed from years of working the New York City tabloids, of when he can get the most attention.
“He understands the news cycle,” said NewsMax CEO Chris Ruddy, a Mar-a-Lago member and longtime friend of Trump’s. “It’s an opportunity to get out news on a Saturday, when other news organizations aren’t pushing too much new.
“He realizes that Saturday is a free media day for him.” Ruddy admitted that it’s not always helpful to the functioning of the government to have Trump tweeting based on information he has seen on television. On Wednesday, for instance, press secretary Sean Spicer had to clean up Trump’s Saturday wiretapping tweet. “There is no reason that we have to think the president is the target of any investigation whatsoever,” he told reporters at the regular White House briefing.
“So many of the comments may impact various departments of the government,” said Ruddy. Beyond relying on Kushner and Ivanka Trump as the president’s better angels, he admitted, “there may need to be a better process.”