Transcript: Axios' Jonathan Swan's interview on 'The Investigation' podcast

This is a transcript of Swan's interview on the ABC News podcast.

ByABC News
June 4, 2019, 3:00 AM

Axios national political reporter Jonathan Swan sat down an interview for the latest episode of the ABC News podcast, “The Investigation." A transcript of Swan's interview as it appears in this episode of the podcast follows here:

ABC NEWS' CHRIS VLASTO: Welcome to the investigation. I'm Chris Vlasto, senior executive producer here at ABC News. I'm joined by my colleagues, John Santucci and Matt Mosk, both senior reporters on the Trump investigation. Today, we actually have our first journalist on the podcast: Axios National political reporter Jonathan Swan whose interview with President Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner making waves across the political sphere. Jonathan, this is a big get, before we get into talking about the clips -- why did Jared Kushner do this interview with you?

AXOIS' JOANTHAN SWAN: My sense is he's gotten through the Mueller report -- by the way I don't know exactly why he's doing it. I asked him and he didn't really give much of an answer. But my sense is he gotten through the Mueller report, you know, a lot of people speculating he was going to be indicted and I think he felt vindicated after the report and probably wants to answer some of the questions that have been hanging over him for the first two years.

VLASTO: And there were no ground rules for this interview, right? There was no area you could or could not ask?

SWAN: I've never done an interview with ground rules so I don't know. Of course not. No.

VLASTO: There were at times, when you when you read the interview it's one thing, but when you watch it that he didn't totally feel -- I don't know if it's comfortable is the right word. I mean, did you feel that when during the interview or not?

SWAN: I mean to some extent look he's a - Jared Kushner is a very private person. I mean we did it-- It was two sessions right? We did one at his home and one at the White House or the Executive Office Building. And, you know, the interesting thing was, the part where he was least comfortable was actually when it got, when it was personal, you know, things about, frankly what I would refer to as softballs -- questions about his family things things like that. He did not want to talk about that. The other reason he's, he's challenging to interview is because he is a very secretive person and I don't use that as a pejorative, but his team is very, very tight-lipped. So it's a - almost a pointless exercise. I tried my hardest to get new information out of him on the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal but he did not offer any and, you know, I was asking about the next stage of his immigration plan for example and he conceded that there was a stage two and three, but he wouldn't tell me anything about it. So, he was determined not to make news when it comes to those details. Keeps them very, very tight. So the more interesting questions with Jared Kushner are frankly the bigger, more philosophical, more open-ended questions that aren't trying to get him to break news on new policy.

VLASTO: But let's first listen - Listen, this podcast began as a look at the Mueller investigation so the one big question that you talked to him about was that infamous Trump Tower meeting:

[Clip from Swan's interview with Jared Kushner]

VLASTO: Well as a journalist that's, that's a good stuff, Jonathan, I must say. But he didn't seem to want to answer that question.

SWAN: No. And the main thing I wanted to challenge him on is -- I'd heard him, he was asked a version of this question on stage with Time magazine and his answer was quite similar to the way he started the answer with me, which was basically saying, "I wasn't thinking about this, I wasn't focused on Russia, I was focused on, you know, what to do in Wisconsin and Michigan and the mechanics of the campaign and the data operation." And I sort of wanted to -- the thinking behind the pushback was basically to say, well, "really?" I mean, we're talking about Russia here and an email that explicitly said this is part of the Russian government's attempts to help Donald Trump's campaign. So I wanted to see whether he had learned anything from the experience. Especially given that the FBI Director Christopher Wray, in congressional testimony, said that he would advise I'm paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect if he would counsel any campaign that heard from a foreign government or representative of a foreign government to let the FBI know about it. So, that was the thinking behind that set of questions. But, you know, he very aggressively defended himself and said that, you know, it was self-righteous and people playing "Monday morning quarterback" to ask a question like that.

ABC NEWS' JOHN SANTUCCI: But Jonathan, let's switch gears here because, you know obviously the big thing now that he and the rest of the Trump family are going to be dealing with is oversight from Capitol Hill. Democrats of course opening as you know all too well every investigation they can think of into the Trump administration. But you know the one thing Jared said to you that when he said it I almost fell off my chair I was watching it, he says, "at this point I have been fully vetted." He really seems to believe that doesn't he?

SWAN: He absolutely believes that, and it's not the first time he said that, he said that I think and he said that in his Time magazine interview. But again, to see it from his perspective, the way he looks at it is he has been through the whole Mueller process, through the ordeal with John Kelly, internally, the former chief of staff, which I think took somewhat of a toll on him and was a relief when that ended. This was the sort of that whole debate over his security clearance. And so I think and-- also just frankly when he talks about being vetted, I think part of it is probably the very intense press coverage of him for two years. So yeah, I think he was very sincere when he said that and he said it with a great deal of passion.

ABC NEWS' MATT MOSK: The other question I think that comes up watching this interview is whether Jared Kushner remains untouchable in the White House and whether by virtue of some of his difficulty in answering your questions he faces some vulnerability with his father-in-law. Do you have any feel for that?

SWAN: I don't think that's true. I think I think he's in a very, very strong position. I mean, we said you know when we wrote the story that he's the most powerful family member of a president since Bobby Kennedy. I don't think you could mount an intellectual argument, intellectually honest argument, to counter that. Now, he's not invulnerable and there have been times throughout the last two years where the president has been irritated with him mostly when, you know, he attracts negative news coverage. There's been a couple of stories-- one in particular when Jared's sister or Jared Kushner's sister was in China from recollection--

SANTUCCI: The visas, yeah.

SWAN: Yeah, Trump was furious about that. So he's not invulnerable. But, but I mean he's family and yeah. Okay. So there were there were a few tense moments in the interview. But if you just look at it as a big picture, he defended the president at every turn. And I don't see any reason why his role will be anything but what it has been and what it probably will continue to be. The other interesting thing I sort of picked up which you probably don't get from the interview is he's very happy and comfortable in Washington now. I mean I think he really is settling into Washington. And I would be surprised if Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump left Washington before the end of the Trump administration, whenever that is. I feel like they're laying down roots here and really kind of enjoying the roles that they have.

SANTUCCI: Well let's talk a little bit about that role and you know just going by what you said about how the family connection-- He stopped short of calling "fake news" when you start to run through some of the reporting over the last several years between us, some of the major papers out there, you as well, in regards to his finances and different banks that he's had relationships with. I know you talked to him about Deutsche Bank and you also had an exchange with him about Citibank and a meeting that he had with one of their chief executives in the spring of 2017. Let's listen to that:

[Clip from Swan's interview with Jared Kushner]

SANTUCCI: But Jonathan as you well know and you said it in the interview with him, you know, for him to say he didn't know what the Kushner company and others are up to is very hard to believe. I mean he took over the company at what 22, 23 years old when Charlie Kushner went to jail?

SWAN: Yeah, I mean, yes the meeting that I found the hardest to believe was the Citibank one because - okay if you take him at his word the meeting he took to meet - the meeting with Joshua Harris from Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm. So Jared Kushner meets him in the White House and then you know later that year Apollo Global Management lends $184 million dollars to Kushner companies. I could see a situation where he has, you know, if you take him at his word, completely recused himself and is not involved in the company, doesn't know that they're doing business. Citibank was a previous lender to them and that's the meeting that really you wouldn't take. And I think I could see from the way he responded that if he had to do it again, he wouldn't do it again. He didn't say that, but seemed to me that that was a meeting that he realized the optics of it were not great. I mean, that was a huge loan that they gave. And he met with the CEO in the White House.

SANTUCCI: Do you think he's been more careful?

SWAN: Do I think he has been more careful with meetings?


SWAN: I don't know the answer to that question. The-- my guess is yes because we haven't seen another story like that since, I think that story came out in 2017 from the New York Times is my recollection or maybe early 2018. We haven't had another story like that. So my guess is yes he has been more careful.

VLASTO: Jonathan, one issue that you discussed which is a very sensitive and actually a big issue involving this president is his perceived racism. You mentioned the birther-ism and you also mentioned the Muslim ban. Let's listen to what Jared had to say about this.

[Clip from Swan's interview with Jared Kushner]

VLASTO: I mean, everyone knows there's daylight between the two of them. Why don't you think he tries to protect his own reputation?

SWAN: Because I think -- firstly I think people misunderstand Jared Kushner a little bit. The view of him coming into the administration that was propagated in some circles was he's this big liberal from Manhattan, this white knight that's going to be moderating the president. People who know him well and who work with him say that he actually agrees with Donald Trump on far more than he disagrees with him, far more. And, you know, you could go through the issues. It really is only a few issues that I've been told that he has genuine discomfort. It's pretty clear to me that I well - sorry. I've been told that gun control is one of them. I asked him about abortion. I think that's probably-- seemed like another one because he was fairly uncomfortable there. And I wanted to ask him, look the whole exchange on racism I thought was an important question because there is a chorus of – it’s almost entirely Democrats you know with some very prominent voices like [Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio Cortez [D-New York] who is, who are calling the president a racist. So I asked him a very open-ended question which was you know have you ever seen him say or do anything that you would consider racist or bigoted. I didn't want to ask him to explore what was inside the president's heart. I was wanting to him to see whether he thinks that the president has done or said anything that he considered racist and he gave a very full-throated defense of President Trump. And then I asked him about the two, I thought it was a fairly obvious follow up, probably the two instances which when people have this conversation they bring up as a data point, you know, when you hear people like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez say the president’s a racist, the data points and evidence that they use are things like Birther-ism, you know, the Muslim ban, the comments about Judge Curiel in Mexico -- you know what he said "the Mexican judge," who was actually American born but during the campaign -- So I asked him about two of those as data points. It seemed to me that he was pretty uncomfortable. But yeah, as you say, he didn't, he didn't call out the president or go against the president and that doesn't surprise me one bit because loyalty is the most prized asset in Trump world.

VLASTO: Thank you Jonathan.

SWAN: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.