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Kushner will take a diminished role on Trump's China trip

Back in December 2016, the Chinese foreign minister traveled to Manhattan to meet privately with Jared Kushner for emergency discussions after president-elect Donald Trump’s unorthodox phone call with the president of Taiwan.

Those secret transition meetings – which also included former chief strategist Steve Bannon, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and trade adviser Peter Navarro – unfolded inside the Kushner family flagship property at 666 Fifth Avenue, rather than at the transition headquarters inside Trump Tower, according to a person familiar with the planning.

It was a sign of the lead role that Kushner occupied as Trump’s chief diplomatic contact for the Chinese. But now, as Trump heads to Asia for the first time as president next month – a trip that will include a high-stakes reunion with a newly empowered Chinese President Xi Jinping on his home turf – Trump’s son-in-law is expected to see his diplomatic role greatly diminished.

Kushner’s shrinking role on the international stage is seen by some White House officials as another sign of Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, standardizing a previously unorthodox power structure. Other White House aides say it’s evidence of a lean administration finally filling out and now running at full power. Kushner, they say, was moving away from the China portfolio pre-Kelly, dropping responsibilities he held as recently as April, when he helped plan Xi’s visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

For Trump’s longest foreign trip yet – a 12-day jaunt through Asia that includes stops in Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines – the president will be accompanied by a parade of senior aides and Cabinet officials who are expected to play more prominent roles than his family members.

But unlike his first big trip abroad last May, where the majority of the feuding West Wing traveled with the president to Saudi Arabia, Kelly is purposefully excluding some key players from the manifest aboard Air Force One.

Navarro, according to two administration officials and two outside advisers to the president, isn’t currently slated to go on the trip. Navarro’s grounding has incensed the president’s conservative allies, who see him as one of the last remaining China hawks in the White House and one of the administration’s fiercest China critics.

Navarro, the author of the book “Death by China,” has long clashed with Trump’s more moderate advisers over trade policy, while remaining a favorite who the president often refers to as “my Peter.” In a move that many saw as an attempt to diminish Navarro’s influence, Kelly recently folded his trade office into the National Economic Council, where he now reports to director Gary Cohn.

Other White House officials and Trump advisers said the president may still reverse efforts to block Navarro from joining the Asia tour once he finds out the favored aide has been kept off the trip. Trump demanded that Navarro join him for his April meeting with Xi at Mar-a-Lago, for instance, despite other aides’ efforts to exclude him. And the president called Navarro into a recent meeting in the Oval Office when he realized he wasn’t there, according to two outside advisers who were briefed on the issue.

But National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are expected to serve as the main faces of a trip that will focus primarily on the North Korean nuclear threat and trade issues. Deputy National Security adviser Dina Powell is also expected to go on the trip, as well as Matt Pottinger, who has been serving as the administration’s top Asia policymaker.

Cohn, however, who played a key role in Trump’s previous foreign trips but is currently immersed in trying to pass tax reform legislation, is notably expected to stay back in Washington. Everett Eissenstat, Cohn’s no. 2, is expected to travel with the president.

The White House did not comment.

White House aides cautioned that the final manifest for the trip has not yet been finalized, and like everything in Trump’s orbit, it was all subject to change on a presidential whim. Many administration officials flying to Asia with the president are also not expected to stay for the entirety of the trip.

Ivanka Trump is also scheduled to speak at a women’s event in Tokyo on Nov. 3, where she will focus on her pet issue of women’s entrepreneurship. And while she has been eager to participate in the China portion of the trip, she and Kushner are expected to drop off after the Beijing stop, a White House aide said.

Kushner, for his part, still participates in China policy meetings at the White House, administration officials said. But now, instead of serving as the point man, he’s one voice at a table that includes more than a dozen Cabinet secretaries and senior White House officials who are considered to have a frontline role in managing the U.S.-China relationship. That group includes everyone from the Agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, to Cohn, to Lighthizer. “There are 15 people on the frontline of the relationship,” said one administration official. “In the beginning, when we were understaffed, Jared was one of maybe three.”

Kushner’s seat at the table, now, is more a product of his past with Trump than his current involvement in trade issues and nuclear threats posed by North Korea — he is there because he was the person who has been in contact with the Chinese since the transition, the administration official said, while also maintaining a hand in economic issues.

His shrunken diplomatic role might be intentional on the part of the Trump administration, where officials say they never intended him to play that part long term. But it could also come as a surprise to the Chinese, who have been courting the powerful son-in-law and daughter as backchannels into the White House. Kushner and Ivanka Trump were invited to visit China as official U.S. government representatives last June, a White House aide said, but decided on their own to forego the trip.

In April, at the formal dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club honoring China’s first couple, Kushner and Ivanka Trump occupied prime seats next to Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan and Xi. Their daughter, Arabella, provided the post-dinner entertainment, singing a piece of Mandarin poetry for the visiting world leader.

That kind of familial diplomacy, China experts said, was seen as a boon for the Chinese and a risk for the United States. “A trip organized by the books with a closer eye to diplomatic protocol and real national security imperatives, rather than personal chemistry, will hopefully result in a clearer-eyed sense of what can be accomplished,” said Harry Krejsa, the Bacevich Fellow at Center for a New American Security. “The Chinese felt they had a sort of inside line with the Kushners, because of the ties being cultivated both by Jared and his family, and the big, public display made of his daughter learning Chinese.”

While Kushner and Ivanka Trump were playing host to the world leaders at the family-owned resort, Ivanka Trump’s company was awarded approval for three new trademarks from the Chinese government, to sell her jewelry, bags and spa services in the country.

“There was some concern after the Mar-a-Lago summit that that President Trump and his circle came away a little too starry-eyed with President Xi,” Krejsa said.

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