Jared Kushner’s new assignment: Overseeing the construction of Trump’s border wall

A section of border fence — built during George W. Bush’s administration — sits atop a levee on the periphery of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo County in February 2017. [Callie Richmond / The Texas Tribune]

AUSTIN, Texas – President Trump has made his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the de facto project manager for constructing his border wall, frustrated with a lack of progress over one of his top priorities as he heads into a tough reelection campaign, according to current and former administration officials.

Kushner convenes biweekly meetings in the West Wing, where he questions an array of government officials about progress on the wall, including updates on contractor data, precisely where it will be built and how funding is being spent. He also shares and explains the president’s wishes with the group, according to the officials familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.

The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser is pressing U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the process of taking over private land needed for the project as the government seeks to meet Trump’s goal of erecting 450 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2020. More than 800 filings to seize private property will need to be made in the coming months if the government is going to succeed, officials aid.

Kushner has told other West Wing officials that he is in charge of the wall, according to aides, and that it is paramount to Trump that at least 400 miles be built by Election Day.

“The point is to get as much built in the next year or so, so the president can say in the face of intense, almost demented opposition he has made reasonable progress,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that seeks to restrict immigration and supports many of Trump’s policies.

Trump campaigned on a promise to construct a wall along the southern border and to make Mexico pay for the project as part of his plan to limit illegal immigration. But Mexico scoffed at paying for a barrier it opposes, and Trump has not been able to get Congress to provide the funding he has requested because of Democratic opposition over what they have called the symbol of the president’s anti-immigrant agenda. The result is that, while some existing barriers have been replaced with sturdier structures, only limited areas of new wall have been built.

Now Trump is banking on his son-in-law to turn what has been an in­trac­table problem for his administration into a success.

Mark Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, said Kushner had expedited decisions on land acquisitions and construction issues and was key to bringing everyone together in the same room.

“He doesn’t need to know the intricacies of the wall. He understands building stuff. He understands timelines,” Morgan said.

But Kushner has clashed with the career officials who have questioned some of his ideas, such as installing web cameras to live-stream construction. He has blamed former chief of staff John F. Kelly and former homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for not focusing enough on the wall, senior administration officials said. For their part, former officials have said Kushner displays a lack of knowledge of the policy issues and politics involved in the immigration debate.

The wall adds to Kushner’s growing portfolio of responsibilities, which some of his critics have said border on comical. Since the start of the Trump presidency, Kushner has been entrusted with striking a Middle East peace deal, taking a lead role on trade policy, overseeing criminal justice reform and modernizing the government, with mixed results. Kushner is also seeking to again push an overhaul of the legal immigration system after his first attempt failed to gain much support in Congress, and he has taken on a leadership role in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Some of Kushner’s critics say he can be tone-deaf when it comes to politics and does not understand or respect the value of having multiple agencies work through an official process on a project. And they snidely joke that it is ironic that an aide Trump occasionally mocks as a Democrat is in charge of the project, which has attracted significant criticism. But he remains the most influential adviser in the West Wing and enjoys a level of trust from the president that makes him unique within the administration, according to current and former administration officials.

“My hope is Jared can put a more laser focus on the project and the process. Maybe he can light a fire under the responsible agencies, but if recent history is any indication, he will get frustrated before he gets results,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican who has frequently talked with Trump about the project.

Officials closely involved with the border wall project said Kushner has become increasingly involved in the details related to acquiring needed properties and pushing government attorneys to gain control of the parcels as quickly as possible, acting on Trump’s directive to “take the land.”

The White House declined to comment, but Kushner’s defenders in the administration said he is bringing a private sector approach to the project.

Army Corps leaders have expressed concerns about Kushner’s aggressive view of the government’s eminent domain authorities, which allow it to take over private land for public use, telling him they are committed to following established legal procedures.

During a recent meeting with officials at the border, Army Corps Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite told them to follow the law and not worry about politics, a person with knowledge of the meeting said.

One person involved in the construction of the wall, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said Kushner has annoyed officials involved in the process because they said he displayed a lack of knowledge about the government procurement process and the “realities” of the project.

“So he took a much more hands-on role in figuring out, mile by mile, how to get more wall up,” this person said. “It didn’t help put wall up faster and cheaper. His interventions actually just created more inefficiency in the process.”

The Trump administration has completed 83 miles of new barriers so far, according to the latest CBP figures, but nearly all of that is classified as “replacement wall,” typically swapping out older, smaller structures for a row of steel bars 18 to 30 feet in height.

Kushner insists the administration remains on target to meet the president’s goal of 450 miles by the end of next year, a pace that will require construction to accelerate at least fourfold, according to government data reviewed by The Washington Post. The president’s son-in-law has set a goal of 30 to 35 miles of new barriers per month by spring, requiring crews to average a new linear mile of fencing every day.

In recent months, the project has picked up momentum in Western states where crews are able to build on remote desert land already controlled by the government.

Administration officials acknowledge that building in those areas amounts to the lowest-hanging fruit for the border wall project. In Texas, the project is significantly more complex.

There, the border runs more than 1,200 miles along the sinuous course of the Rio Grande, and nearly all of the land where the government needs to build is privately owned.

The Trump administration’s plan includes 166 miles of new barriers in Texas, and nearly all of that will have to be built on private land. For Kushner to meet Trump’s timeline, the government will have to obtain hundreds of privately owned parcels and complete construction in the next 13 months.

The area presents engineering challenges to the administration, as well as real estate ones, because the Rio Grande flood plain requires much of the structure to be installed along river levees, at a significantly higher cost.

Former officials closely involved with the project disputed that Kushner will have an easier time making progress than past officials who ran point on the issue and disputed the claim that Nielsen and Kelly lacked focus or urgency, insisting that the pace of construction has been determined by the availability of funding and the acquisition of private land.

One former Department of Homeland Security official said the administration, to date, has been careful to follow established guidelines for the use of eminent domain. “We weren’t taking people’s land willy-nilly,” said the official.

Another official who defended Nielsen said she struggled to get former defense secretary Jim Mattis to view the wall project as a priority, and his frustration with the president’s plans to use military funding contributed to a lack of urgency at the Pentagon and the Army Corps.

The president’s frequently shifting design requests also sapped momentum, former officials said, and it usually fell to Nielsen to explain why some of his ideas were not feasible. Trump grew irritated at Nielsen’s naysaying and he fired her in April.

Trump regularly changes his mind about the project, according to current and former aides. Growing frustrated with contractors, he has at times encouraged aides to eschew the traditional contracting process — and just go with a firm he knows from New York — which has drawn resistance, these aides said.

Trump has called for irregular requests, like building large ditches, using pointy spikes or painting the wall matte black so it will be hot to the touch.

After Kushner took control of the project, he elevated the regular meetings to executive-level gatherings at the White House requiring the attendance of Cabinet-level officials. He also demanded a new project plan with timetables and construction targets. Kushner has talked with other officials about securing money for the wall — even mentioning using military construction funds again, a notion that is likely to attract resistance from Capitol Hill.

Morgan said Kushner asked detailed questions and “nitty-gritty details” about specific parts of the project in the meetings, which often stretch more than an hour.

“There are very real concerns,” Morgan said. “We’re being sued on a regular basis on multiple fronts. Land acquisition is a very, very challenging process. We’re trying to become more efficient and get more done. There are real challenges.”

In early January, Kushner asked then-acting CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan whether closing border loopholes or building the wall would do the most to curb illegal immigration, and McAleenan said closing loopholes would do far more to curb immigration.

Still, Kushner has told others that a wall has to be built because his father-in-law promised it would be.

“Kushner said something to the effect of, ‘We’ve basically wasted two years,’ ” said a person with knowledge of the meeting with McAleenan.