It was jarring to learn that back in 1967, some 16 of 22 senators from former Confederate states opposed the confirmation of the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. For the first Black woman nominee 55 years later, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the Old South produced 18 “no” votes from those 22 seats. Is “post-racial America” worse than the old racial America?

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How is Jared’s fishy-as-heck $2 billion Saudi windfall not a crime?

There was a notorious 20th century criminal by the name of Willie Sutton who’s best remembered for what he told an interviewer who asked him why he liked to rob banks. “Because,” Sutton replied, “that’s where the money is.”

The Willie Sutton mindset was apparently in full force for Donald Trump and his family after they unexpectedly landed in the White House. In a world brimming with big problems, Team Trump made its No. 1 project getting to know the oil-rich despots of the Persian Gulf — none more so than the monarchs of Saudi Arabia, whom the American president blessed with his first foreign visit in early 2017.

Trump’s eager point man on the Saudi project was his son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose brief career bringing his family’s East Coast real estate empire to the brink of bankruptcy made him the perfect candidate to bring peace to the Middle East after 75 years of trauma. Kushner barely budged the region’s core conflicts like resolving the future of Palestine, but he did dote on his new best friend Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, the Saudis’ young crown prince and de facto ruler.

Kushner palled around with bin Salman in the marble luxury of Riyadh and chatted late at night with the prince on encrypted platforms like WhatsApp — coincidentally or not, right as MBS was deciding which rivals to lock up and detain in a swank-hotel-turned-prison. When bin Salman’s goons disappeared the body of Saudi-dissident-turned-Washington-Post-columnist Jamal Khashoggi with the help of a bone saw, Kushner ran interference to preserve America’s special relationship with the blood-soaked regime. When some in Congress began to question why U.S. weapons were powering Saudi war crimes in the endless conflict in Yemen, Kushner and his father-in-law touted an $110 billion U.S. weapons deal (the actual amount is disputed) with Team Bone Saw.

There’s another criminal saying which I just made up: Every outrageous quid deserves a quo. That shoe dropped Sunday night when the New York Times reported a development as predictable as a Flyers’ third-period collapse: A Saudi-government-backed wealth fund has invested some $2 billion in a venture-capital outfit founded by Kushner called Affinity Partners. The Times noted that the Saudi fund developed an affinity for Kushner’s venture even though the 41-year-old son of a felonious New Jersey developer has zero experience in his chosen new field, has drawn few investors outside of the Persian Gulf, and is charging excessive fees — not to mention the “public relations risk” for the butchers of Riyadh in associating with the Trump family.

The timing on the Times’ Kushner scoop was somewhat remarkable, as the ne’er-do-well offspring and in-laws of our presidents seem to be having a moment in the spring of 2022. Surely you’ve heard by now about President Biden’s son Hunter and the Delaware laptop-from-hell. And while the junior Biden’s foreign business deals are the subject of a federal probe, the laptop affair arguably isn’t even the second worst case of White House familial misconduct in the news. That honor belongs to Donald Trump Jr., who texted his dad’s chief of staff Mark Meadows two days after the 2020 election won by Biden to say “we have multiple paths” to keep the 45th president in power despite the results — also known as a coup.

But I focused this week on Kushner for two reasons:

  1. Even in a total vacuum, the casual mixing of official United States policy moves and massive personal profit should shock the conscience. Call a foreign government’s $2 billion investment and the usurious fees that allow Kushner and the ex-president’s daughter Ivanka to live in Florida beach luxury an “emolument-after-the-fact,” but “bribery” feels more accurate, or maybe even “treason,” since Kushner’s profit motives may have caused the United States to take positions against its own interests, leaving a trail of dead bodies from Istanbul to Sana’a.

  2. The bigger question here, though, is, what actually constitutes a crime at the highest levels of our government? The much-discussed matter of Hunter Biden’s business misadventures as reportedly captured on that stray laptop — clearly trying to cash in on his powerful father’s nameis under federal investigation for lower-hanging crimes like income tax evasion. But, barring new revelations, the keystones of a major political scandal — government action as a quid pro quo for Hunter’s partners, or payments to Joe Biden himself — simply aren’t there.

In the Jared Kushner matter, Americans have grown comfortable with ex-high-ranking officials cashing in — way too comfortable, it seems. In typical Trump family fashion, Kushner’s actions skate remarkably close to the edge of bribery, which Cornell Law School defines as “the offering, giving, soliciting, or receiving of any item of value as a means of influencing the actions of an individual holding a public or legal duty.”

Kushner had a public duty to steer U.S. foreign policy in the best interest of its citizens, not his family bank book. The dominant official in the Saudi government, MBS — who, according to the Times, overruled the investment panel to steer the $2 billion to Kushner’s unqualified firm — offered him something of value. Did the future prospect of this payout influence the aide’s White House actions? I believe prosecutors should find out.

There’s good reason to suspect that won’t happen. Right now, the Justice Department and the American body politic is slow-walking — at best — the case of a president and his top aides and allies who plotted and nearly pulled off a coup against the U.S. government. No wonder Jared Kushner is laughing all the way to the Saudi investment bank. In a nation that jails turnstile jumpers and squeegee men, the prodigal son-in-law has internalized our most important legal aphorism — if you’re going to steal, steal large.

Yo, do this

  • I know, I know ... a book about COVID-19 might sound like the last thing that you’d want to read right now. But award-winning ProPublica journalist J. David McSwane’s new tomePandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick— isn’t so much a story about a virus as a tale about America, and the inevitable scam artists and ambulance chasers who raced to the scene once the train wreck of a pandemic was underway. His investigation of what really happened to a lot of the tax dollars supposed to help us get well will probably make you ill.

  • Spring is arguably the best time of the year for a sports fanatic, as shown last Saturday when the 76ers, Phillies, Union, and Flyers all played home games on the same date for just the second time ever. The Union and the new-look Phillies have the most potential; the Sixers are a bit of a question mark as the post-season finally begins. Will the old James Harden ever return? Has the vaccine weirdness of Matisse Thybulle cursed another season? Tune in Saturday at 6 p.m. as the playoffs start with the Toronto Raptors, on ESPN.

Ask me anything

Question: Who would you like to see run for President 2024 on both sides? — Via @Suziq75462912 on Twitter

Answer: That’s a good question, Suziq, because the political situation is such a mess that it’s hard to give a well-reasoned answer. On the Democratic side, I’ve already written that — depending on how things blow up over the next two years — I’d love to see a fresh face like Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, who has emerged as the pro-democracy hero that America needs in the post-Jan. 6 world. But the reality is that anything short of a healthy and popular Joe Biden running for a second term (at age 81) would also mean his party has come to the brink of disaster. For the GOP: Sure, a true moderate like former Texas Rep. Will Hurd would be a major upgrade over Trump or Trump Lite (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis). But not only is that impossible with today’s QAnon-fried Republican base, but even a President Hurd would end up implementing the American version of sharia law that will emerge from an extremist Congress.

Backstory on Amazon’s worker win and the Democrats

It’s long been conventional wisdom, starting with FDR’s New Deal and true middle-class prosperity in the mid-20th century: When unions are strong, the Democratic Party is strong. So the recent David and Goliath story that played out in New York’s Staten Island — where workers at a massive Amazon warehouse won an upset victory to unionize the facility, the first-ever such loss for the Jeff Bezos-funded retail giant — should have been great news for the political party that’s still, decades later, ostensibly pro-union. And it looked that way on the surface, with the congratulatory tweets from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as even President Biden exclaimed publicly, “Amazon, here we come!”

But what exactly are the Democrats coming with? It was telling that shortly after Biden’s boast, his press secretary Jen Psaki essentially walked it back, telling reporters: “What he was not doing is sending a message that he or the U.S. government would be directly involved in any of these efforts or take any direct action.” That jibes with the reality that Biden has failed to act on all but one of the recommendations by his own labor task force that would have aided pro-union campaigns like the one at Amazon. Labor journalists have noted that the vast majority of Democrats on Capitol Hill have NOT congratulated the Amazon workers, and some — like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — only did so after getting called out publicly.

In fact, the labor movement — both at 21st century worksites like Amazon warehouses or Starbucks coffee shops, and more established unions — has issues with both wings of the Democratic Party. Its pro-corporate centrist flank — remember Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema? — has actually blocked a couple of Biden’s most pro-union nominations for key administration posts. Yet the new Amazon union also had a public spat with the far left’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, prompting analysts to note that a wave of collective bargaining wins could actually undermine democratic-socialist goals like Medicare for All. An even deeper issue is that top strategists for the Democrats look and sometimes think more like Amazon’s top executives than its blue-collar workforce. There’s even a revolving door between Team Biden and the Seattle-based behemoth, punctuated by the embarrassing news that a key Democratic polling firm was working in the Amazon election ... for Team Bezos. To sum up, what should have been a win instead merely highlighted a growing gap between Dem elites and the diverse, working-class people who should be the party’s backbone.

Recommended Inquirer reading

  • In my Sunday column, I looked at the horrific mass shooting in downtown Sacramento that killed six people, and how a surge in homicides in California’s capital city — home of an outspoken “law-and-order” DA — should help us reconsider the off-the-rails political debate over “progressive prosecutors” (like Philly’s Larry Krasner) and the rising tide of gun violence. I pointed to numerous studies showing that policies like bail reform have nothing to do with local murder rates.

  • Over the weekend, I wrote that the sudden, accidental death of media critic Eric Boehlert — a friend — wasn’t only a personal tragedy but also a horrific setback for those fighting right-wing disinformation as well as journalistic passivity as anti-democratic forces continue to gain in American politics. I not only reviewed Boehlert’s life work but called for an army of new media critics to somehow fill the void he leaves behind.

  • It would be worse than a tired cliché to involve the old Jaws “just when you thought it was safe...” line about the coronavirus — because some of us never really thought it was totally safe, even after 25 months of this. The Inquirer has been all over the news that the current uptick in infections sparked Philadelphia to become America’s first large city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate for public places, and that the City of Brotherly Love is also entering the brave new world of poop monitoring. Imagine trying to navigate these last two years without local journalism informing you about COVID-19 in the places where we live. You keep the tap of information flowing when you subscribe to The Inquirer.