Jared Kushner’s
Trump Card

By
Devin Leonard
May 5, 2016

From Bloomberg Businessweek

As the fuzzy strains of the Beatles’ Revolution filled the room, Donald Trump took the stage on Feb. 9 in Manchester, N.H., to celebrate his victory in the state’s Republican presidential primary. Before reiterating his campaign promises to do away with Obamacare, construct a wall along America’s border with Mexico, and rebuild the nation’s military so that “nobody is going to mess with us, believe me, nobody,” Trump thanked his family members, including his daughter Ivanka, who stood beside him in an elegant black dress with a white floral print, and her husband, the lanky, boyish New York real estate developer and newspaper publisher, Jared Kushner.

“Jared is a very, very successful real estate entrepreneur in Manhattan,” Trump proudly declared. “But he likes this better than real estate, I think.” By this, Trump clearly meant politics. Ivanka beamed like a guest on a late-night talk show. Kushner grinned sheepishly, as if he were mildly embarrassed by his father-in-law.

Kushner, 35, has become a frequent presence at Trump’s campaign events and a member of the candidate’s inner circle. In his effort to portray himself as a staunch supporter of Israel, Trump likes to mention that he has Jewish grandchildren. He has Kushner to thank for that. When Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner married in 2009, Ivanka converted to Judaism. “Give Trump some credit,” says Shmuley Boteach, a New Jersey Jewish leader and Jerusalem Post columnist who calls himself “America’s Rabbi.” “I mean, he’s got a Jewish daughter. He has orthodox Jewish grandchildren. He could easily have said when Ivanka was marrying Jared and going through the rigorous Jewish conversion process, ‘You know, you have a famous last name. You’re a beautiful, famous woman. Do you need this?’ ”

Father and son in 2012.
Photographer: Patrick McMullan/PMC
Father and son in 2012.
Photographer: Patrick McMullan/PMC

Kushner’s involvement in his father-in-law’s unexpectedly successful presidential campaign is the latest step in a rapid ascent. He began making major decisions at his family’s real estate company, then based in Florham Park, N.J., when he was 23 in 2004, around the time his father, a prominent Democratic fundraiser and aspiring kingmaker, pleaded guilty to tax fraud, misleading federal election officials, and retaliating against a witness. The younger Kushner expanded the business, purchasing almost $7 billion in property in less than a decade, much of it in New York City.

A decade ago he bought the New York Observer, at the time a money-losing but influential newspaper known for its dishy, withering coverage of the city’s billionaire class that conferred on Kushner a bit of the reflected glow of the peach-colored broadsheet. “Jared understands being a newspaper owner moves you into a different league,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University and an acquaintance of Kushner’s. “Politicians have to cultivate you. The elite come to you for attention, as opposed to you going to them. It reverses the relationship.”

It didn’t hurt that Kushner married into one of the city’s most famous real estate dynasties. By all accounts, Kushner has a warm relationship with his father-in-law. If Trump, now the presumptive Republican nominee, wins the general election, Kushner will be a regular White House visitor if for no other reason than he, his wife, and their three young children will be frequent dinner guests.

Myers Mermel, managing partner of Mermel & McLain Management, a New York real estate development firm, and a friend of Kushner’s, sees him as a contemporary Jack Kennedy, the attractive son of a rich family with the resources to become a force behind the scenes in Washington and even a potential candidate for national office. “He has a beautiful, brilliant wife,” says Mermel, a Trump booster. “He is clearly a man of faith. These are all values that contradict the negative image put forth by the Republican Party as New York values. He has the values that the Republican Party espouses.”

People who think highly of Kushner, and those who don’t, all talk about his impeccable manners. They say he never loses his temper, at least not in public. He’s unfailingly polite. He remembers names and opens car doors for people. “He’s very humble and calm, always,” says Asher Abehsera, Kushner’s partner in three real estate projects in Brooklyn. Kushner is also extremely guarded. He grants few interviews, and when he does speak for attribution, he often comes across as purposefully bland, as if he’s trying to discourage interest in his activities—or himself.

Yet Kushner has had an eventful life. The way to best understand him is through his father, with whom he had an unusual apprenticeship. Charles Kushner is a flamboyant New Jersey developer who built the Kushner Cos., his family’s business, into a billion-dollar operation with more than 25,000 apartments in the Northeast. Like his son, the elder Kushner sought influence, giving generously to Democrats, such as former President Bill Clinton and former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, and also to the occasional Republican, such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

After McGreevey won the 2001 gubernatorial race with Charles’s help, McGreevey rewarded his top fundraiser by appointing him to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the three major airports in the region along with many of its bridges and tunnels, and has long been a source of jobs and contracts for the politically wired. It was a plum position, but Kushner didn’t hold it long.

In 2003, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that Kushner had gotten into an angry confrontation with a state senator from Atlantic City at a wedding. The paper said Kushner was upset about the senator’s demand that he appear in Trenton to answer questions about allegations that he’d made illegal campaign contributions. “He was going to have his way, even if it meant having an ugly spat in the papers,” says Micah Rasmussen, McGreevey’s press secretary at the time, who fielded questions about the incident.

In 2004, however, Kushner admitted before a federal judge in Newark that he’d contributed more than $385,000 in the name of some of his business partners without their approval. He also confessed to misleading federal election officials about it and arranging for his brother-in-law to be videotaped with a prostitute in a New Jersey motel to punish his sister for cooperating with the investigation. “It was like a Sopranos episode,” recalls Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a longtime foe.

The senior Kushner was sentenced to two years in prison. By then, his son had already assumed a leadership role in the company. Although he was only 23, Jared had grown up going to construction sites with Charles. While attending Harvard, he bought and managed apartments in Somerville, Mass., just outside Boston. “I remember him constantly being on the phone and working on project development and meeting construction guys,” says Nitin Saigal, who lived with Kushner for three years in college and later roomed with him in New York. While an undergraduate at Harvard, Kushner did a summer internship at SL Green Realty, one of New York’s largest commercial property owners, where he worked on deals. “It was pretty apparent way back then that this was a special young man who was going to be going places,” says Marc Holliday, SL Green’s chief executive officer.

Once he became CEO of the family business, the younger Kushner shifted its focus from New Jersey to New York. “He knew early in his career that the way to become important was to get out of Jersey and become a Manhattan developer,” says NYU’s Moss. Kushner had no profile in the city, but that changed in 2006 when he bought the Observer for what was widely reported to be $10 million. “Jared saw it as a way to have a voice in New York,” says Bob Sommer, who was president of Observer Media from 2007 to 2009. “It helped set him up as a serious player.”

“You’re in your 20s, and you’re a mogul already!”

In 2007, Kushner paid $1.8 billion for 666 Fifth Ave., an aluminum-jacketed office tower that takes up an entire block front between 52nd and 53rd streets in Manhattan, near Rockefeller Center. At the time it was the highest price ever paid for a single building in New York. Kushner didn’t put down much of his own money. He financed the deal with a $1.2 billion loan from Barclays Capital and an additional $535 million of short-term debt. It was a lot of leverage, but many real estate investors were borrowing heavily at the time. This deal, along with the purchase of the Observer, established Kushner as a force in Manhattan. When he appeared on CNBC, an anchor old enough to be his father was astonished. “You’re in your 20s, and you’re a mogul already!”

“You’re using that term very loosely,” Kushner protested in a soft voice.

Kushner married Ivanka Trump in October 2009 at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. It was the merger of two prominent real estate families and was attended by movie stars such as Russell Crowe and Natalie Portman, television personalities like Barbara Walters and Regis Philbin, and politicians such as Giuliani and Andrew Cuomo, now the governor of New York. With his glamorous new wife, Kushner became a staple in the gossip columns and even showed up in the pages of Us Weekly and Vogue. “He’s very unremarkable in his presence,” says David Patrick Columbia, co-founder of the website New York Social Diary. “She, on the other hand, is quite remarkable. It was a good move for him.” The couple socialized with Rupert Murdoch and Ronald Perelman. They made the rounds at fancy parties like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala. Kushner also threw some glitzy parties of his own, which the Observer dutifully covered.

Trump and Kushner tie the knot in October 2009.
Photographer: Brian Marcus/Getty Images

When the economy collapsed in 2008, office rents tumbled in Manhattan, and it became clear that Kushner had overpaid for his trophy property on Fifth Avenue, which was now estimated to be worth less than its debt. He managed to pay off the short-term portion by selling 49 percent of the retail space for $525 million to a partnership that included the Carlyle Group. But vultures still circled his shiny tower. Investors in distressed real estate such as Colony Capital and Vornado Realty Trust and the hedge fund Cerberus Capital Management bought portions of Kushner’s debt, hoping to position themselves either to win the building in a foreclosure or get Kushner to buy them out.

Kushner tried to make up for his weak financial position with politesse. He flew to California in 2009 to see Thomas Barrack, executive chairman of Colony Capital. Barrack expected Kushner to walk in with “17 attorneys,” ready to fight. That might have suited Kushner’s father, but his son was more diplomatic. He showed up at Barrack’s office by himself. “He didn’t have a piece of paper,” Barrack says. “He didn’t have a pen. He said, ‘I just want a little bit of time to explain my situations and my thoughts.’ ”

Ultimately, Kushner was able to buy time until the market recovered. He ended up parting with 49 percent of his remaining stake in the tower to Vornado for a mere $80 million, but he retained control of his office building.

Since then, Kushner has often invested with partners, putting less of his family’s money at risk. He’s chosen less pricey areas of the city like the East Village, Queens, and Brooklyn. He constructed six luxury apartments in SoHo on top of the historic Puck Building, former home of the 19th century satirical magazine. “It’s a gorgeous, magical building,” Kushner told the New York Times in 2013, sounding like his father-in-law. “But I wanted it to become the most incredible that it could be, let it realize its full potential.” He recently sold one of the apartments for $28 million, a neighborhood record.

The same year, Kushner and two partners paid $240 million for a factory-like complex in Brooklyn where the Jehovah’s Witnesses once published the Watchtower. They’re now transforming it into a home for tenants like Etsy, the online marketplace for artisanal goods, and WeWork, a startup that bills itself as “the physical social network,” renting office space to contract workers and freelancers. “I find Jared to be one of the most sophisticated real estate developers on earth,” says Adam Neumann, WeWork’s co-founder. To hear Neumann tell it, Kushner is also the most well-mannered. “A lot of times when I’m with Jared, I take cues from his behavior just to learn how to act,” he says. “You know, just to act a little bit better myself because it’s always good to learn.” On May 2, Kushner and three partners finalized a $700 million deal to purchase more property in Brooklyn from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, where they hope to develop another tech-oriented campus.

The New York Post reported last year that Kushner and Vornado have a plan to turn 666 Fifth Ave. into a “1,400-foot vertical mall, hotel, and residential tower.” It’s an ambitious project, but Gabby Warshawer, director of research for CityRealty, says the market for superluxury condominiums has cooled in recent months. “It would be a very expensive building because it would have unobstructed Central Park views,” she says. “But there are a lot of questions right now about whether there is an oversupply in that area at very, very high price points.” Then again, Kushner could keep the project on the drawing boards until the next real estate uptick. In the meantime, he runs his business out of an office in the tower with its own roof garden. People who visit sometimes run into Kushner’s father, who remains one of his son’s most trusted advisers.

Under Arthur Carter, the Observer’s previous owner and a former investment banker, the paper lost an estimated $2 million a year. Even so, Carter enjoyed publishing a paper that tweaked the rich people with whom he rubbed shoulders. The paper regularly shot rhetorical spitballs at Donald Trump. “I called him the prince of swine,” says Michael Thomas, who wrote a column called “The Midas Watch” in the paper for almost two decades. The Observer’s reporters and columnist were egged on by the late Peter Kaplan, its longtime editor-in-chief. He sermonized about how stories needed to have heroes and villains and lapsed into long silences if he was searching for the right word or had lost his train of thought. (I was a staff writer at the Observer from 1996 to 1999. I also wrote a jazz column for the paper in 2009.)

A spokesman for Kushner says he transformed the Observer into a profitable business with a higher editorial budget and a rapidly growing Web audience. However, Kushner didn’t appear to enjoy using the Observer to afflict the comfortable as had Carter and Kaplan. Former Observer staffers say he complained—politely, of course—when the paper wrote unflatteringly about his friends. They say he was also perturbed when the paper didn’t report as harshly as he might have liked on his family’s old foes in New Jersey, such as Chris Christie, who had prosecuted his father as a U.S. attorney and was elected governor in 2009.

After Kaplan’s departure in 2009, a revolving masthead of editors struggled to please the paper’s owner. In 2011, Kushner hired Elizabeth Spiers, founding editor of Gawker, a corrosive website that made the Observer seem like the Christian Science Monitor by comparison, to give the paper a much-needed jolt. Soon after she arrived, however, Trump began toying with the idea of running for president. He was no longer just another narcissistic New York character. With his eye on the White House, he transformed himself into the most vocal figure in the far right’s birther movement.

Kushner bought the New York Observer in 2006.
Photographer: Joshua Lutz/Redux

This was obviously a story the Observer had to cover, but how? When it came to his father-in-law, Kushner had difficulty keeping his composure. Spiers didn’t respond to several interview requests, but she discussed her experience at the paper earlier this year in an interview on Story in a Bottle, a tech-oriented podcast. Spiers said she’d had numerous fights with Kushner about the paper’s Trump coverage, which he wanted to be “neutral.” Once, she said, she left the door to her office open in the middle of a screaming match on the telephone because she thought it might be a good thing for the reporters to hear. She considered resigning, but then Trump abandoned his quest, and the paper no longer needed to cover him as assiduously. A Kushner spokesman disputes her account.

That’s not to say that Kushner didn’t continue to be a presence in the newsroom. Former Observer staffers say he pressed first one reporter and then another to pursue a negative story about another wealthy real estate figure and even accompanied them to a meeting with a source whom he promised had some juicy information. However, the source backed out, and the story was never completed. A Kushner spokesman says it was the source and not the publisher who originally suggested the story. Spiers left in 2012.

Kushner now had to find yet another editor-in-chief. In January 2013 he brought in someone who would stick around. His name was Ken Kurson. Most recently, he’d been working in New Jersey for a political consulting firm that handled Republican candidates.

In 2013, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued Trump, alleging that he had run an “unlicensed educational institute,” once known as Trump University, which defrauded 5,000 customers out of $40 million with his “hard-sell tactics.” In an advertisement cited in the case, Trump said, “In just 90 minutes, my handpicked instructors will share my techniques, which took my entire career to develop. Then copy exactly what I’ve done and get rich.”

The Observer published an almost 8,000-word unflattering profile of Schneiderman in February 2014, arguing that he was trying to use his office as a springboard from which to run for governor. That wasn’t a shock; Schneiderman’s immediate predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and Cuomo, had done the same. However, the Observer exhausted quite a few of those words on what it described as the “weak case” against Trump, and it gave him ample space to defend himself and attack Schneiderman. Employees of the paper at the time say they were stunned when the story materialized on the paper’s website. It was the first they’d heard of such a project. After some of them read it, they headed out for drinks, and not the celebratory kind. “It was more like, ‘Holy s---, let’s get some Scotch!’ ” recalls Matthew Kassel, a former Observer staff writer. “People seemed pretty disturbed about it.”

Kurson insists that Kushner had nothing to do with the story, but the New York Times and BuzzFeed reported that Kurson had originally assigned it to a would-be writer who worked in a New Jersey ice cream parlor and later begged off because he thought Kurson wanted a hatchet job. After that, Kurson assigned it to an Arizona-based writer who’d written extensively about poker. “He’s a friend of mine from 15 years ago, a writer I trust, I’ve hired a million times,” Kurson says. “I didn’t just, like, bring in some hit man.”

Kushner stands by the Schneiderman profile, saying that nobody has challenged the story. A Schneiderman spokesman declined to comment. However, in 2014, the attorney general’s office said there were so many things wrong with the story that it wasn’t worth the effort. Meanwhile, Schneiderman and Trump continue to enthusiastically fight it out in court with both sides trying to spin decisions at both the superior court and appellate level as knockout blows.

With Observer editor Kurson in 2015.
Photographer: J Grassi/PMC

After Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, Kushner became a campaign rally regular. In January he joined Ivanka at one in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Trump assailed the media and the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Then he invited his family up. Trump’s wife, Melania, spoke first. A former model from Slovenia, she slouched in her cream-colored coat as if she was at a fashion shoot and addressed the crowd in heavily accented English. She was followed by Ivanka, who wore a dark, silver-buttoned jacket, and Kushner, clad in a blue suit. Trump pointed out that his daughter was 8 ½ months pregnant. “She’s very tough, by the way, I have to tell you,” Trump said. “Right, Jared?”

Kushner wagged his head and gave her father a you-don’t-have-to-tell-me look.

“Politically, wouldn’t it be great if she had her baby in Iowa?” Trump asked the crowd, which roared in approval.

Ivanka laughed and patted her father’s shoulder. Kushner gave Trump a good-natured shrug as if to indicate his father-in-law had a point.

“That would guarantee victory!” Trump continued.

It’s not clear if Kushner supports Trump’s more outlandish ideas, such as banning Muslim immigrants from entering the country to prevent terrorism. He’s said virtually nothing publicly about his father-in-law’s presidential aspirations other than telling the New York Times last year that he thinks Trump would “be great.” But Kushner has been laboring behind the scenes to get him elected. He helped set up a meeting in January with Trump and about a dozen Republican leaders to try to build a relationship with the party’s establishment. Earlier this year, Kushner also attempted to smooth things over between the Trump campaign and his friend Rupert Murdoch, who was unhappy with the candidate’s attacks on Fox News.

In March, people in the Observer newsroom began to suspect that Kurson was also working for the Trump campaign after a video appeared online of their editor-in-chief in the background at the March 8 event in Florida where Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski allegedly manhandled reporter Michelle Fields. (Lewandowski has been cleared of the charge.) Kurson says he went to the rally with Kushner as a journalist: “I cover politics.”

Then in early April, New York magazine reported that Kushner and Kurson had helped Trump prepare the speech he delivered to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in which he strongly defended the Jewish state and condemned Obama. “Jared asked me if I’d eyeball this draft, and I did,” Kurson says. After the article appeared, Observer staff members crowded into his office and asked him to explain himself. Kurson says he agreed not to dispense any more political advice. “It didn’t just apply to Trump,” he says. “If some other campaign wants input here, we’ll have to pass.”

Kushner didn’t seem bothered by the Observer controversy. In late March he and his wife brought their third child home from the hospital to their penthouse on Park Avenue. Theodore James Kushner was born days before in New York. It may have been too late to help Trump in Iowa, but the New York primary was coming up on April 19. On the eve of the contest, the Observer endorsed Trump, who won handily. He and his family were one step closer to the White House.

—With David M. Levitt

Editor: Bryant Urstadt
Title Image: Rick Wilking/Reuters