Jared Kushner might have gotten some of his chutzpah from his father. Charlie Kushner used his cunning and his wit to attain fortune and power, with little regard for the rules and regulations along the way. In some ways Jared Kushner’s career with Trump was a realization of his father’s dreams of political dynasty.
In this installment of analysis of Vicky Ward’s Kushner Inc. Greed. Ambition. Corruption., we explore both the Kushner family and Jared Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump’s rise to power. Whereas Jared Kushner and his father are ruthless real estate moguls, Ivanka really has no expertise outside of self-promotion. Jared and Ivanka do share one thing in common: They have a powerful father whom they hope to please, and to whom they give unflagging loyalty.
Charlie Kushner Builds His Empire
Charlie Kushner’s father Joe was a Holocaust survivor who helped dig a tunnel out of the Jewish ghetto and then hid in the woods of Poland, waiting out the Nazi occupation. Charlie went on to become a real estate mogul in New Jersey, with a reputation for generously helping out his fellow Jewish friends and family.
Kushner grew his real-estate empire with no small amount of financial shenanigans. He moved money from one company to another, and improperly used company funds to pay expenses such as political donations, parties, and to pay for speeches by famous politicians such as Benjamin Netenyahu. All manner of personal expenses were written off as capital business expenses in one of Kushner’s many LLC’s:
“Those ranged from Charlie’s home improvements to vacations, New Jersey Nets tickets, Superbowl packages, even the alcohol Charlie and Seryl Kushner bought for holiday celebrations” (15).
There was conflict within the family business, with some of his brothers not content to follow his leadership. Charlie infamously set up his brother-in-law with a prostitute and then videotaped it as a way to coerce his sister to his side in the legal dispute with his brothers.
The scandal and investigation by the FBI into Charlie Kushner was so wide-ranging and intricate that it ended up taking down New Jersey Governor McGreevy along with Charlie. According to Ward, Charlie was rumored to have a secret double life in which he cruised for gay sex partners and prostitutes in New York, using an alias, John Hess. Ultimately, he was indicted and pleaded guilty to eighteen counts of “preparation of false tax returns, retaliating against a cooperating witness (Esther), and making false statement to the Federal Election Commission” (27).
The Kushners bought the New York paper Observer as a way to get leverage over their rivals. Charlie Kushner planned to arrange hit pieces on his enemies and kill stories that reflected badly on him or his allies. Yet their editor, Elizabeth Spiers, was not particularly cooperative. Indeed, from my observation of her presence on social media, she seems like an unlikely accomplice in helping the Kushners in this way. Ward describes Spiers as mostly trying “to protect her reporters from Kushner’s interference” (64), which was a pretty brazen strategy considering he owned the newspaper and signed her paychecks.
Jared, meanwhile, cultivated a clean cut and well-mannered image to contrast with his father, who by this point had served time in prison and was notoriously hot-tempered. Jared and Charlie had a good-cop bad-cop routine to woo clients and business. The impression is that while Jared started out a little callow, he eventually found his bearings in the real estate industry and was respected.
The most ambitious real estate deal for Charlie Kushner transpired after he got out of prison: 666 Fifth Ave at 1.8 billion dollars. The deal was financed with 97 percent debt (44). Yet this level of risk did not make Charlie Kushner nervous. Jared Kushner was the public face of the deal. But according to Ward, it was unlikely he was a major player in it, given his youth and inexperience. That the deal was done in 2007 and the financial crisis would hit one year later did not help matters. Now the Kushners were in a perilous position. They feared that the building could be foreclosed upon by creditors, who were now breathing down Jared Kushner’s neck.
It emerged in 2018 that the Kushner Companies was being investigated for filing false documents related to selling buildings without indicating that there were rent controlled units in them. Apparently the Kushners pushed residents out of these rent controlled units and then were able to sell them at enormous profit.
Despite Charlie Kushner’s many failings, Jared remained loyal and a staunch defender of his father, to an extent that is actually touching. You might say personal loyalty is one of Kushner’s saving graces, though of course his father is no saint.
Ivanka Trump: Not a Political Expert
Charlie Kushner was not thrilled about Jared marrying a non-Jew. Understandably considering his parents’ experience in the Holocaust, he felt that he wanted to continue his Jewish lineage (a hope which was thwarted by both his sons’ choice of wives).
Yet Charlie acclimated to the idea, when considering the Trump family’s power and wealth. It accorded with Charlie’s vision of a political dynasty. Plus, the situation was ameliorated by Ivanka converting to Judaism. Jared and Ivanka are both now fairly observant Jews (modern Orthodox) who avoid doing work or using electronic devices on the Shabbat (Saturday), which was somewhat befuddling to their colleagues in the fast-paced world of a national election campaign. Ironically, Jared himself was outraged when his brother Josh was dating a “shiksa” (his word), a Victoria Secret Model, Karlie Kloss.
Ivanka Trump had in some ways a similar relationship as Jared to her own father, Donald Trump. They both wanted to be their father’s favorites, and both sought their father’s favor unconditionally and regardless of their respective questionable business practices. In Trump’s case, Ward claims there were shady real estate and licensing deals, which Ivanka herself facilitated with little compunction.
The fact that Trump moved to licensing rather than building in the ‘90s and 2000’s meant that he was one step removed from the actual builders, some of whom were investigated for money laundering. According to Ward, the fact that Trump charged high rates for his licensing fees meant that he was more likely to do business with people who could pay those fees through illicit means. Sometimes buyers felt deceived as to the Trumps level of involvement in developing the property; when in fact they had merely lent their name to it.
Ivanka is not portrayed sympathetically in Kushner, Inc.. Some of that may be the author Vicky Ward’s obvious distaste for Donald Trump himself, a distaste she doesn’t quite succeed in concealing. Nevertheless, it is not so forefront that one cannot enjoy this book if they do not share Ms. Ward’s apparent political orientation. That said, Ward’s description of Ivanka Trump as a shallow socialite rings true. This is not to say that Ivanka is not a hard worker or a successful business person/ marketer in her own right. Yet in the field of politics her ignorance is beyond dispute. Ward recounts an amusing anecdote from after her marriage to Kushner, but before her time in the White House:
“Ivanka was adamant that “libertarian” and “liberal” were the same thing, and would not be dissuaded. When Mack suggested they look it up, she said, “I’ll take that under advisement.” (55)
According to Ward, it’s Ivanka who is the leader in the relationship with her husband. Even Steve Bannon noticed that Ivanka had a “commanding, towering presence” (77). Yet this image was quickly shattered when he realized how ignorant she was not just about politics but also campaign fundraising, or really any way to make herself useful during her father’s 2016 campaign for president.
During the campaign, Ivanka did what she must have considered damage control. When the media got worked up about Trump’s latest supposedly misogynistic comment, it was Ivanka who would tout Trump’s record on hiring women, etc. Moreover, she cultivated her “working mom” image, which she was probably successful in, seeing as that many women are familiar with her and her products. Indeed, while in the White House, her fashion line yielded her 1.5 million per year. Towards the end of her time in the White House, however, sales were down. In my opinion, this is probably due to consumers who disliked her father avoiding her products, which is hardly Ivanka’s fault.
Ivanka continued to hold events about “empowering women” (though the pay gap trope had been debunked many times, she does not seem to absorb new information). She continued defending her father from the media. Whether he was misogynistic or just a traditional alpha male is a matter of interpretation; at any rate, Ivanka characterized it as an unfair portrayal by the media.
It’s a tad presumptuous that Ivanka openly claimed to be a “moderating” force on the Trump campaign. It suggested, first of all, that Trump needed to be moderated. According to whom– his political enemies? It seemed to suggest that Ivanka was in collusion with the media to accomplish something other than what Trump promised to his voters. The media and elites, for their part, doubted that she would accomplish any moderating influence. Not only would she fail to be a good influence, the line became that she was “complicit,” and this is a view clearly shared by Vicky Ward.
One policy win for Ivanka was the child tax credit– an expansion to 2,000 dollars was attached to the GOP tax bill in 2017. Yet Ivanka still gave the impression of being “out of her depth” on policy, given her inability to intelligently discuss the tax bill itself. Furthermore, a child tax credit isn’t necessarily something that every conservative would embrace.
In Part II, we will take an in depth look at the Trump campaign, and how Kushner insinuated himself as a close advisor to the future president.