There's a primal scene. It takes place in neither green Eden, where the snake spoke sweetly, nor the master bedroom of your first house, the one by the railroad tracks, where, spying from a closet, you watched your parents in flagrante delicto, but at the Fontainebleau, on Miami Beach, where Sam Giancana talked Castro with the C.I.A., Jerry Lewis got into all kinds of mischief in The Bellboy, and Tony Montana scoped bikinis on the pool deck. If you're a Jew of a certain vintage, the Fontainebleau means swank. It's the fantasy showroom of the American Dream.
Passover, 2000. Jared Kushner's father, Charlie, a New Jersey real-estate tycoon, had gathered at the Fontainebleau with extended family to recall the story of the exodus—the flight of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt, hard labor and plagues, the Golden Calf, the tablets broken, the spirit of the Lord always before them, a column of smoke in the daytime, a column of fire at night.
Kushner, dapper with steel-gray hair, had turned up angry, mostly at his brother, Murray, the Ivy Leaguer, wise in everything but the street. Charlie had gone into business with his father in 1985. When the old man died, Charlie took over. He gave stakes in the business to his siblings, then built it into a behemoth. At the time of the Seder, the Kushner Companies were worth about a billion dollars. (Who's pharaoh now?) He'd put up apartment buildings and commercial properties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, engaging in all the behavior typical of big-time developers.
Charlie was gutsy and took chances; Murray was cautious—that was the problem. "In 1999," according to Gabriel Sherman, in New York magazine, where much of the reporting on the family feud comes from, "Murray backed out of Charlie's bid to acquire Berkshire Realty, a firm with 24,000 apartments, which would have vaulted the Kushners into the first rank of privately held real-estate firms." At the Seder, Charlie told Murray they shouldn't work together anymore. It was Murray's response—"If we can't be partners, we can't be brothers" —that set off the mêlée. Murray's wife, Lee, rose to her husband's defense. Charlie fired back: Hey, Lee, do you think your son really got into Penn? I hate to break it to you, but it was me. I got him in.
We're out of here, said Lee.
The most important observer of the feud was Charlie's older son, Jared Kushner, who, at 19, was tall and handsome, though somewhat generic. You could imagine him slotted into any sort of life, but, as an heir of the tycoon, his future was planned. A main job for the son of a man like Charlie is being Charlie's son.
The Kushners assembled for another Fontainebleau Seder in 2001, minus Murray, Lee, and their children—that's how families fall apart. Charlie was in an even uglier mood, according to Sherman. He'd come to believe his sister Esther and her husband, Billy Schulder, were siding with Murray. The tension was high even before Charlie thought he spotted Billy and his son Jacob whispering, laughing. Are they laughing at me? Charlie shouted down the table, over the shank bone and salt water that is the bitter tears of our people: "You're so pious? Go on, Billy, and tell your kids how pious you are."
Everyone knew what Charlie meant—he'd discovered his brother-in-law was having an office affair a few years before.
Esther begged: "Don't say any more."
"You're a fucking putz!" Charlie shouted at Billy.
To Jared, his father was a good man embattled by free-riders, "siblings that he literally made wealthy for doing nothing." It was just another battle at just another Seder—Jews at play—but would have consequences.
We all live in the world created by that feud.
Jared Kushner's Grandma Rae hid with Jewish partisans in Poland during World War II—that's where she met Joseph Kushner, a carpenter. When they reached New York, in 1949, they had as little as people can have—they'd lost their money and possessions, language, everything. Joseph worked construction in New Jersey, which was booming. When he'd saved money, he purchased and developed land with partners. He was one of several developers who came to be collectively known as the Holocaust Builders. By the time of his death, he'd built 4,000 apartments. That's the dream. Start at zero, make a fortune. In the next generation, that very success would destroy the family.
Joseph and Rae had four children—two girls, two boys. Murray was older and did better in school, but it was Charlie, the daredevil who loved risk, who went into business with the old man. In this way, Charlie became the Kushner that mattered—the story would run not through Murray but through Charlie, then raising his family in Livingston, New Jersey. He brought his children up as observant Jews, Modern Orthodox. There was Dara, Jared, Joshua, and Nicole. Dara is the low-profile Kushner. Nicole, now Nicole Kushner Meyer, is the Kushner who created a stir in China for seeming to offer "golden visas" in return for an investment in a Kushner tower in Jersey City. Joshua, who runs an investment firm and a health-insurance company, is the Kushner who dates the model Karlie Kloss. Jared, the older boy, is the Kushner who became the public face. He was a good son, attended religious schools, obeyed the Sabbath. Outside his Manhattan office, a book sat on a pedestal: Pirkei Avot, a compilation of Jewish sayings, ethical teachings. In other words, Jared Kushner is kosher of mind—but there is kosher, then kosher-style. Kosher means, if it's trayf, you don't eat it. Kosher-style means, if it's trayf, you don't eat it unless it's something you really like a lot.
Charlie trained his children in business, too. Because there's the wisdom of the Book, then the wisdom of the street. "My father never really believed in summer camp, so we'd come with him to the office," Jared Kushner told Forbes. "We'd go look at jobs, work on construction sites. It taught us real work."
"Sundays, my friends would be at football games with their fathers," Kushner told George Gurley in The Kingdom of New York: Knights, Knaves, Billionaires, and Beauties in the City of Big Shots, as Seen by The New York Observer. "I'd be in back of my dad's car with my mini pair of construction boots, walking job sites."
Business, as practiced by big-time developers, means politics. The Kushner house was an occasional stop for Democratic politicians. Charlie gave a million dollars to the D.N.C. in 2002. Jared gave 60,000 of his own dollars, whatever that means. One night, after Hillary Clinton's Senate victory, she showed up at the Kushners' Jersey Shore house for Shabbat. Jared made his first serious public speech, in 2000, from a stage on the Kushner lawn. The street had been closed off, Secret Service swarmed. He was introducing presidential candidate Al Gore. Jared later said it was hard when the newspaper he owned, The New York Observer, endorsed Barack Obama—"because I really like Hillary a lot and respect her, and she's as stand-up as they come as a person."
Once, when I was talking to the movie producer Jerry Weintraub about the importance of education, he cut me off, saying, "What, a diploma? You want a diploma from Harvard? Give me 24 hours. I'll have a Harvard diploma with your name on it."
In the book The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden uses Jared Kushner as an example of how colleges operate. Jared got whatever grades he got in high school, but it wasn't Jared that mattered when his application went to Harvard. It was Charlie. "In 1998, when Jared was attending the Frisch School and starting to look at colleges, his father had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard, to be paid in annual installments of $250,000," Golden writes.
"There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard," a former official at the Frisch School told Golden. "His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not."
In this way, Kushner set up his son, put him on the inside lane, credentialed and connected. Charlie was telling the world something about himself—connections, clout. Any idiot can get a genius into Harvard. It takes a macher to get a middling white kid admitted.
Jared entered Harvard in 1999. Classmates remember him as bland—one of those freshmen who turn up in a fancy button-down shirt and jeans, with a side part, carrying Crain's New York Business. Some probably took his earnestness as a put-on, an ironic pose, but soon learned he was in fact what he seemed: a deadly serious scion, prince of a kingdom that would soon be in flames. According to Lizzie Widdicombe of The New Yorker, Jared called his father every day—that kind of kid—drove an expensive car, talked markets. Friday nights at Chabad or Hillel. Shomer Shabbos. He dabbled in real estate, getting money from his father and his father's friends to buy property in Somerville, Massachusetts. "I figured, 'Well, I know everything there is to know about real estate,' " he said in The Kingdom of New York. " 'I've been exposed to it all my life.' Truth is, I didn't know anything." He did this in the way of a hobby, as another kid might work on the Lampoon, if that kid was dealing in millions. When Jared graduated, in 2003, he went on to get a joint business/law degree at N.Y.U.—Charlie had pledged $3 million to the school. His future seemed certain. But, as Kushner's great-grandparents would've said, kicking it in the shtetl, Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht. Man plans, God laughs.
Jared Kushner is six feet three and thin—rangy if you like him, reedy if you don't. He has dark eyes and brown hair, a broad smile, and a facial expression, captured in newspapers, that goes from surprised to amused to flat. Something about him remains opaque, unknowable. Something held in reserve. He's a beautiful new house made to look old, a beautiful new house with fogged windows. You lean close and stare inside and still see nothing. The rooms may be filled with antique furniture. Or maybe it's Ikea. Or maybe the house is empty. We have facts and figures—36 years old, multi-millionaire—yet he remains a mystery. What's he really want? What's he really like? He's either canny and shrewd, dumb and lucky, or dumb and unlucky. He's either in the engine room or just along for the ride. Trump has put him in charge of everything—Middle East peace, opioid crisis—yet he seemingly knows nothing. He was in the meeting but only for a few minutes. He received the e-mail but did not read the chain.
The Red Bull Inn sat on a nondescript stretch of Route 22 in Bridgewater, New Jersey. It was a motor court, with a bull painted on the side. Forty-five miles from the Holland Tunnel this way, 120 miles from Atlantic City that. Walking distance from a Houlihan's. It was the sort of place where you get a room with two queens, though you only need one, shut the drapes, crank the A/C to max, and lie in the dark at midday, staring at the ceiling, listening to the traffic. You can reconsider your entire life in such a place, take a nap, or do something so wrong it changes not just your future but that of everyone you love.
A Kushner family friend told New York's Sherman: "[Charlie] loved being the Don Corleone of the community. He loved that when he walks into a synagogue the rabbis run over to him. Charlie saw himself as the Jewish Kennedy."
Video: Jared Kushner: Middle East Journeyman
Charlie was still angry when he got back from the Fontainebleau—at his brother, sister, brother-in-law, the world. He had everything yet was embittered, embattled. The closer you get to what you want, the farther away it seems. That's the rub. He was now being sued by his brother, Murray, accused of mismanagement. In 2002, he was also sued by a former Kushner Companies accountant named Bob Yontef, who had made allegations about all those political contributions—Yontef said they had been made with company money. It was a second Yontef lawsuit, filed in federal court in 2003, that got the attention of New Jersey U.S. attorney Chris Christie, a Republican with ambitions of his own. Christie opened an investigation into Yontef's claims, which meant the F.B.I. poking around. Charlie was convinced his sister Esther and brother-in-law Billy were cooperating. Charlie wanted revenge—wanted to make his sister feel as bad as he did.
He enlisted the help of a private detective, whom you could hire in the way that, in Chinatown, the redhead hired Jake Gittes to skunk the works. The detective was named Tommy. Though at first reluctant, he eventually agreed to help. Tommy reserved adjoining rooms at the Red Bull Inn, hid a video camera in an alarm clock—aimed at the bed—then handed the keys to a girl Charlie had hired, a prostitute who approached Esther's husband, Billy, at the Time to Eat Diner. She said her car had broken down. Billy gave her a ride back to the motel. She asked him inside. He refused but took her number. They met the next day. Tommy handed Charlie the videotape soon after. Charlie waited a few months before passing it on to his sister. She then did something Charlie did not count on—called the feds. The private detective and prostitute ended up in the U.S. attorney's office, spilling. Now, instead of just a case of political malfeasance, you had a scandal made for the New York tabloids. Charlie Kushner pleaded guilty to 18 felony counts—tax fraud, election violations, witness tampering. Chris Christie described Kushner's crimes as crimes of "greed, power, and excess."
In a letter to his sister—written with "shattered heart and tears in my eyes" —Charlie confessed. "What I did as an act of revenge was wrong in every way," he wrote. "I only ask that you forgive me for resorting to such despicable behavior, which is disgraceful. I was wrong and I committed a terrible sin. How did I let hatred invade my heart and guide my actions?"
Charlie was sentenced to two years in a federal penitentiary. He lost his reputation, status, freedom—everything. When the story hit the papers, students at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy—named for the patriarch—covered the family name on their uniforms with black tape.
The Montgomery Federal Prison Camp, in Alabama, is minimum-security, the sort of place people call Club Fed. It sprawls like a college campus and holds just under 900 inmates. Former Enron C.E.O. Jeffrey Skilling served time there, as did Jesse Jackson Jr. and Watergate conspirators Chuck Colson and John Mitchell. Jared visited his father every week. In the great room, families and children around, men in prison garb. What did they talk about? In The Godfather, after turning the business over to his son, Don Corleone says, "So, Barzini will move against you first. He'll set up a meeting with someone you absolutely trust, guaranteeing your safety. And at that meeting you'll be assassinated." In the book of Kings, King David tells his son Solomon, "I go the way of all the earth; be thou strong, therefore, and show thyself a man." Then, "Thou knowest also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel. . . . Do therefore according to thy wisdom, and let not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace."
Charlie spent around 18 months in prison, then was transferred to a halfway house in Newark. Jews are unsure of the form and intentions of God. Maybe there is an afterlife, maybe not. Maybe there is hope, maybe not. Judgment is reserved for the Almighty. "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious," God tells Moses in Exodus. "And will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." The master plan and purpose remain hidden—to everyone but Charlie. "I believe that God and my parents in heaven forgive me for what I did, which was wrong," he told The Real Deal, a real-estate trade publication. "I don't believe God and my parents will ever forgive my brother and sister for instigating a criminal investigation and being cheerleaders for the government and putting their brother in jail because of jealousy, hatred and spite."
In short, Charlie goes to heaven; the rest go to hell.
The Kushner Companies, powerful as it became, remained provincial. It grew and lived in New Jersey, among the sprawl, the subdivisions, factories, and swamps. Forced to take command of that company, Jared, at age 24, was like a kid who has been handed the keys to his father's Porsche. What will a young man do in such a situation?
Drive to the city.
The New York Observer was a kind of magic kingdom. Founded by Arthur Carter in 1987, it became a tribune for a rarefied segment of Manhattan, with its spotlight on the bigwigs of media and publishing, real estate, advertising. It was a font, a source of sensibility and talent, small but mighty—never really read by more than 50,000, say, but those 50,000 deciding whom you would love and whom you would mock. "The Observer couldn't have been spawned a minute earlier than it was," Observer editor Peter Kaplan wrote in The Kingdom of New York. "The rise of the money culture created a lovely narcissism, which made the 1990s the screwball decade it became." Graydon Carter, no relation to Arthur, served as its editor in chief, followed by Susan Morrison, then Kaplan. I worked there for about a year. It got me going. Not just the experience but how it trained you to look at the city. It was about being wised-up, smart—knowing the guy but also the guy behind the guy and the guy behind that guy. It fed on just the sort of scandals that engulfed the Kushners. Because a story like that has everything.
It's unclear if Jared Kushner ever really read the Observer before he bought it. He first noticed the paper while waiting for the Boston shuttle at La Guardia, his attention caught not by the articles or reviews but by a list: New York's power Seders. He later told Gabriel Sherman he considered reading the paper—something an owner probably should do—to be unpleasant homework, a chore. "The articles were way too long," Kushner told Gurley. "It wasn't visually stimulating, and I thought that people today are more responsive to shorter, easier pieces like they get on the Internet. When you want to do something long, deliberately do that, but for the most part, stay within the mold and give the reader what they are looking for with minimum effort. Reading shouldn't be hard."
What probably made the Observer attractive as an investment was the price. Ten million dollars! For a newspaper in New York! What a cheap way to move into the city, change the meaning of Kushner from private dick and Jersey motel to pink broadsheet. Arthur Carter, who was losing about $2 million a year on the paper, told Kushner it wasn't really for sale. After all, who was Jared Kushner? A 25-year-old N.Y.U. grad student, an intern at private-equity firm Square Mile Capital, a child. Jared persisted; Carter relented. Jared made his pitch in Carter's apartment, explained how he intended not merely to keep the Observer going but to make it profitable. "I'd brought Clive Cummis, one of my father's lawyers, who is well respected and wears a bow tie and has gray hair," Kushner says in The Kingdom of New York. "I figured he'd give me some sense of credibility with Arthur. We sat down, and I put down on the table a check with the full purchase price and a signed contract, and I said, 'Listen, I'm ready to go.' "
Owning the Observer made Jared interesting, powerful, a figure of fascination—I don't know what it is, but something about you has changed. He was written up in society and gossip columns, discussed in a giggly tone as if he were a Kennedy or a member of a boy band, as if he had that kind of hair that covers one eye. In a single move—no one is sure if he planned it this way—Kushner had gotten into the big action. He found himself in a new crowd, at a new kind of party. Men's Vogue. Vanity Fair. He stood in back, raising a glass, greeting men and women who dominated the dream life of the city. Bloomberg, Giuliani, Trump. Rupert Murdoch took the young publisher under his wing, becoming a kind of adviser. In this way, Jared Kushner swam into a previously unreachable stratum, a strange sea filled with exotic creatures, moguls, magnates, models. Not long after the purchase, he started dating Ivanka. They met at a business lunch. It became serious—because it made sense. Young, good-looking people, offspring of madly driven fathers, inheritors of gaudy real-estate traditions. It was an old story. A debased nobleman courting the daughter of a wealthy factory owner—each gives, each gets. He brings money, hustle. She brings beauty and the famous name, nothing in old America but aristocratic in the age of reality TV. Jared met the patriarch, got the look-over. Imagine it. Kushner and Trump in the morning of a great partnership, Table 1 at Trump Grill, regarding each other like rat and terrier in one of the pits of the old Five Points.
Video: Ivanka Trump: The First Daughter
Religion was the only obstacle. In earlier times, it would've been the Protestants who could not countenance the Jew. (And vice versa.) Now it was mainly the Jews—not just Jared but his parents—who resisted the intermarriage, the shattering of tradition. At some point—monumental days for America; your father and mother almost split before you were born—Jared and Ivanka took a break. According to The New Yorker, Wendi Deng, then Rupert Murdoch's wife, deputized herself to put the train back on the rails. (Some people just love love.) She called Jared. "You're working so hard. Come with Rupert and me on the boat for the weekend." When Jared arrived, Ivanka was already there. Jared gave Ivanka the ring soon after—a 5.22-carat, cushion-cut diamond set by Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry.
Ivanka, who agreed to convert, studied Torah with Haskel Lookstein, then leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, on the Upper East Side, capo di tutti capi of Modern Orthodox New York rabbis. She sat "before a three-judge religious panel known as a beth din, and [took] a trip to a mikvah, the ritual bath," The New Yorker reported. She went down as Ivanka, goyish princess, daughter of Trump Tower and the Trump National Golf Club, duchess of Palm Beach and Mar-a-Lago, mistress of openings and golf courses, but came up as Yael—Ivanka's Hebrew name; it means ibex, a type of mountain goat—future mother of the president's three Jewish grandchildren. The wedding was held in Bedminster, less than 10 miles from the Red Bull Inn.
Did Jared Kushner ruin the Observer? Did he run it into the ground? Did he extract the sweet elixir, a bee sucking nectar, leaving the flower itself to wither?
To be fair, it's not been a great time for print. Retrenchment, collapse. The Observer was losing millions when Kushner bought it—it seems unfair to expect him to succeed where so many media veterans have failed.
His tenure started on a sanguine note. Peter Kaplan looked at Kushner the way a lot of people later looked at Trump—as an empty vessel, something he could re-purpose for good. "His 25-ness is a huge asset," Kaplan told The New York Times when the sale was announced. "He is not weighed down by the debris of conventional wisdom."
That moment did not last—it was all front anyway. In addition to the nice things said in public, Kaplan shared other sentiments with colleagues. This was done in a melancholy way, in the nature of "I have seen what's coming, and don't like it."
In other words, not only did Kushner have money, he had ideas—proclivities, tastes. Less than a year after he took over, he began agitating. He did not seem to like the paper, as if he had not known what he was buying. He was like a man who does not like baseball realizing he owns a baseball team. What's he gonna do?
The New York Observer was a broadsheet—that's part of what made it unusual. Broadsheet means New York Times, Wall Street Journal. These tend to be stately and serious, just the opposite of tabloid, which is blood and gossip, New York Post. The Observer was a hybrid—tabloid heart, broadsheet brain. A funny man in a serious mood, a serious man with a sense of humor. A goofball in a tux is dangerous. Kushner either did not get this or did not care. Millennials have a thing about broadsheets. They've grown up reading on phones, that smooth path of entry. They can't stand unwieldiness—following a piece from front page to jump, and all that folding, and the ink stains your fingers.
In 2007, Kushner redesigned the Observer, took it tabloid. The first issue hit the streets in February. There are pictures of Kushner handing out copies outside Grand Central—he wears an overcoat, is red-cheeked and smiling, but looks cold. Kaplan tried to put the best face on it, but, for a lot of us, the moment the paper went tabloid, The New York Observer ceased to exist.
Things got worse. The paper stopped reviewing books, then quit high culture altogether. Because . . . boring! In-depth articles gave way to pithy pieces; pithy pieces gave way to lists—"If You Want to Radically Change Your Life, You Need to Take This First Step" —which gave way to listicles, graphics. We watched that cool, gimlet-eyed paper turn into Internet, bubbles melting into bubbles. Though Kushner has come to mean Trump, who is the oldest person the world has ever known, he is in fact a pure product of this moment, as modern as we get. He has climbed out of the World Wide Web, created by the medium that went on to remake the culture. Long stories became short because who can stare at one object for that length of time? You have to check Twitter and Instagram and e-mail and texts, and while checking all that you lose your place and end up reading the same sentence three times, and what's this story about anyway? The Observer, like a lot of papers, remade itself from stately old town into Potemkin village. The buildings look colorful and grand, but as soon as you step through the door, you're back outside. There is no interior to any of them, no back.
Peter Kaplan resigned in 2009, plunging the staff into blue gloom. "Kaplan is a classy guy, but he's old-school," Kushner told staff, as reported in New York magazine. "If we were doing our jobs right, Gawker wouldn't have a reason to exist." After that, Kushner was like Steinbrenner in the 1980s, running through editor after editor: Tom McGeveran, Kyle Pope, Elizabeth Spiers, Ken Kurson. "When I worked for him, I didn't think he had a realistic view of his own capabilities," Spiers wrote in The Washington Post, "since, like his father-in-law, he seemed to view his wealth and its concomitant accoutrements as rewards for his personal success in business, and not something he would have had in any case. To me, he appeared to view his position and net worth as the products of an essentially meritocratic process."
In March 2013, Observer staff and alumni gathered in the Pool Room of the Four Seasons restaurant to celebrate the paper's 25th anniversary. A Russian novelist would open with the arrival of each guest. Bloomberg with his fleet of town cars. Ivanka in a plain black dress. Donald in a dark suit with a placid blue tie—you read his tie as you read a mood ring. Blue is good. Jamie Tisch and Wendi Deng Murdoch. Katie Couric. Cory Booker. Harvey Weinstein. Spike Lee in a green cap and big coat with shiny sleeves. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who, standing at the carving board, says, "Just some meatballs." (Vogue covered the party in great detail on its Web site.) Peter Kaplan looked skinny, diminished. He'd come to celebrate the paper—his life's work—but was not well. He would die of cancer the following November at age 59.
Mayor Bloomberg stood to speak. Taking the mic, he smiled and said, "When I first heard about this 25th-birthday party I thought, Wow, Jared, you're growing up so fast! . . . I can't wait to see what your father-in-law is going to tweet about tonight."
There was birthday cake and sparklers. When you read the words Jared said to the crowd, they do not seem terrible, but Observer hands were offended, hurt.
Kushner did not give proper credit to Kaplan—that was the general sentiment. He spoke of the paper as if it had been small and struggling before he—Kushner—saved it, whereas in fact, these same people will tell you, the paper began to spiral soon after Jared took over.
The Observer stopped publishing a print edition in November 2016. It continues on as a Web site, deadheading down a ghost road. At this writing, the home page carries the following stories: "Five Proven Ways to Make a Living Traveling the World" ; "When the Sun Goes Dark: Five Questions Answered About the Solar Eclipse" ; "True Love Is Dead as Chris Pratt and Anna Faris Announce Separation."
The 41-story office tower on Fifth Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets in Manhattan was built in 1957. Because the address is 666 Fifth, the penthouse restaurant was named Top of the Sixes. Sophistication spiked with menace. In Revelation, 666 is identified as the Number of the Beast. ("Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.") The Kushner Companies purchased the building in January 2007, paying $1.8 billion, a record in Manhattan. The Kushners put up $500 million and borrowed the rest from banks and partner Vornado Realty Trust, a publicly traded company run by Steve Roth. This meant a $1.2 billion mortgage—a super jumbo—with interest-only payments for the first several years. It was considered a vast overpayment, one of the most puzzling deals ever made in New York, even before the market crashed. When it did, the rents at 666, meant to cover interest payments and building costs, plummeted or else vanished. To this day, the tower is 30 percent vacant.
Just like that, 666 was underwater, the asset worth far less than the loan. The Kushner company lost perhaps 10 million a year on the building—it's not animate, yet it bleeds. Kushner sold pieces of the tower to cover the losses—this bit to the Carlyle Group, that bit to Vornado. "But the bleeding continued," Observer alum Charles Bagli wrote in the Times. "[In 2009], with the tower's reserve funds nearly exhausted and the owner losing as much as $30 million, the mortgage holder appointed a 'special servicer' to oversee 666 Fifth Avenue. Such a company manages a property loan when the borrower is in danger of falling into default."
The company, under the leadership of Jared's father and sister Nicole—Jared sold his stake to a family trust when he went to work in Washington—is in desperate need of a new investor, a fat cat who will refinance and infuse capital. The big play is a teardown: raise billions, then replace the existing structure with a 1,400-foot tower dreamed up by the late architect Zaha Hadid: gleaming glass, condos, mall. For a time, it seemed the Kushner company would enlist Chinese financial conglomerate Anbang in the project, but Anbang, with its tangled network of shell companies, is closely tied to Beijing's elite. That plus Trump drew tremendous scrutiny. The deal fell apart last March, leaving the Kushners to scramble for new partners. The mortgage comes due on 666 in less than two years. If the Kushners don't figure out something, they could lose their investment. Simply put, this Spruce Goose of a deal must be considered among the worst in the history of Manhattan real estate.
Think about it: before entering the White House, Jared had made just two significant business plays—both less than stellar. He bought the Observer a moment before the newspaper industry collapsed. He bought 666 Fifth a moment before the real-estate bubble burst. Was this just a case of a neophyte reaching for a shiny object, or was there something else in play? Maybe Charlie Kushner's experience taught Jared there is something more important than balance sheets. Charlie had all the money in the world and still went to prison. By acquiring 666, Jared gave up capital but acquired status, a place in the city. From New Jersey to 666 Fifth Avenue. No Manhattan position, no Ivanka. No Ivanka, no Air Force One.
I called several current and former Observer employees and asked them to be interviewed for this story. Just about all agreed to talk, but none would talk on the record. A couple of people insisted that our communication move to encoded app. I asked a friend why everyone seemed so spooked. "People are freaked about Trump," he said. "Trump is all about loyalty and is vindictive; Jared is his de facto favorite son; the Kushners are also all about loyalty . . . so people are also freaked about Jared. They project a lot onto him. He's like the heir apparent in a Mob family that happens to run the whole country. So there's the big question: Is he Sonny or is he Michael?"
Here's what I asked: What about Fredo?
There was a sign on the Henry Hudson Parkway, astride a row of Trump towers. It was meant to thank Donald for his donation, paid to maintain this stretch of road, but someone had tinkered with the letters. Instead of thanking Donald Trump it thanked Donald Rump.
Jared Kushner showed no particular interest in working for the campaign, nor was he closer to his father-in-law than an average young husband. He'd been a lifelong Democrat and would've supported Hillary in normal circumstances. This changed on November 9, 2015, a Monday, when Donald took Jared to a political event in Springfield, Illinois. You remember those rallies: the angry crowds, the private plane, TRUMP in huge letters on the side. "The candidate entered to the music of Twisted Sister: 'We're not going to take it,' " Time reported.
Jared going to that rally is a fun-house version of Siddhartha Gautama, the cosseted prince who would become Buddha, leaving the palace for the first time. He'd never seen an old, poor, or sick person before. It was like that with Jared. He was overwhelmed by this trip into the hinterland—by the passion of the crowd, anger and need, the connection with Trump. "People really saw hope in his message," Kushner said in a 2016 Forbes interview. "They wanted the things that wouldn't have been obvious to a lot of people I would meet in the New York media world, the Upper East Side, or at Robin Hood [Foundation] dinners."
As Trump's jet winged east, the enlightened prince buzzed with excitement. He'd gone out comatose but come back awake. He believed in his father-in-law now, believed he could and should win. He believed he'd seen something hardly ever seen by people in the urban centers. While you'd been at a cocktail party, he'd been exploring the river bottom. "As Kushner has told it, the young scion glimpsed a world outside his own Upper East Side bubble, a country roiled by grievance and frustration, looking for the champion Trump was eager to become," Time explained.
Jared ran the Trump campaign's Internet operation. Some say that his work was crucial to victory—the boy-genius thesis. Others say Kushner was essentially ballast. "We're talking about a guy who isn't particularly bright or hard-working, doesn't actually know anything," Harleen Kahlon, the digital maven who worked for Kushner at the Observer, wrote on Facebook. She said he "has bought his way into everything ever (with money he got from his criminal father)" and that he is "deeply insecure and obsessed with fame (you don't buy the N.Y.O., marry Ivanka Trump, or constantly talk about the phone calls you get from celebrities if it's in your nature to 'shun the spotlight')." Kushner, she concluded, is "basically a shithead."
Trump's language and that of his followers was now and then tainted by anti-Semitism—that's what some believed. All the talk of evil bankers and urban elites, the tweet that pictured a pile of money beneath a Jewish star. People protested because people were afraid. Kushner's participation was especially galling. The hovering presence of this Orthodox Jew seemed to stamp this unholy operation "Kosher."
On July 5, 2016, Kushner was called out in his own newspaper—"An Open Letter to Jared Kushner, from One of Your Jewish Employees" —by a writer named Dana Schwartz. "You went to Harvard, and hold two graduate degrees," she wrote. "Please do not condescend to me and pretend you don't understand the imagery of a six-sided star when juxtaposed with money and accusations of financial dishonesty. I'm asking you, not as a 'gotcha' journalist or as a liberal but as a human being: how do you allow this? Because, Mr. Kushner, you are allowing this. Your father-in-law's repeated accidental winks to the white supremacist community is perhaps a savvy political strategy if the neo-Nazis are considered a sizable voting block—I confess, I haven't done my research on that front. But when you stand silent and smiling in the background, his Jewish son-in-law, you're giving his most hateful supporters tacit approval."
"My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite," Kushner responded the next day in the Observer. "It's that simple, really. Donald Trump is not anti-Semitic and he's not a racist. Despite the best efforts of his political opponents and a large swath of the media to hold Donald Trump accountable for the utterances of even the most fringe of his supporters—a standard to which no other candidate is ever held—the worst that his detractors can fairly say about him is that he has been careless in retweeting imagery that can be interpreted as offensive. . . . This is not idle philosophy to me. I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors. On December 7, 1941—Pearl Harbor Day—the Nazis surrounded the ghetto of Novogroduk, and sorted the residents into two lines: those selected to die were put on the right; those who would live were put on the left. My grandmother's sister, Esther, raced into a building to hide. A boy who had seen her running dragged her out and she was one of about 5100 Jews to be killed during this first slaughter of the Jews in Novogroduk. . . . It doesn't take a ton of courage to join a mob. It's actually the easiest thing to do. What's a little harder is to weigh carefully a person's actions over the course of a long and exceptionally distinguished career. The best lesson I have learned from watching this election from the front row is that we are all better off when we challenge what we believe to be truths and seek the people who disagree with us to try and understand their point of view."
Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic and author of The Crisis of Zionism, went after Kushner in the spirit of the Passover Seder. "Slavery . . . was meant to ensure that Jews would remember powerlessness once they gained power," Beinart wrote in The Forward, perhaps the most prominent Jewish publication in the country. "Jared Kushner is what happens when that memory fails." He suggested that Kushner's alma mater the Frisch School "conduct the kind of after-action report that the military conducts when its operations go awry. Every synagogue where Kushner prayed regularly should ask itself whether it bears some of the blame for having failed to instill in him the obligations of Jewish memory. Even if it is too late to influence Kushner, Modern Orthodox leaders still can work to ensure that they do not produce more like him in the years to come."
Jared Kushner moved into the White House shortly after the inauguration, landing one of the best staff offices in the West Wing. Previously occupied by Obama advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe, it's just feet from the Oval Office.
Here are some of the tasks Kushner has taken on while in D.C.: solving the opioid crisis; upgrading technology in all federal agencies; overhauling Veteran Affairs and workforce training; developing infrastructure, including broadband Internet access for all Americans; bringing peace to the Middle East.
Here are the tasks he's accomplished:
According to The Wall Street Journal, members of Trump's legal team recently suggested Kushner give up that choice office and return to private life. Because, of all the inner-circle advisers, Jared had taken the most meetings and seemingly had the most entanglements with all varieties of Russian. Also at issue "was Mr. Kushner's initial omission of any contacts with foreign officials from the form required to obtain a security clearance," the article explained. "[Kushner] later updated the form several times to include what he has said were more than 100 contacts with foreign officials." A statement was drafted to spin Kushner's would-be resignation—it went that far, according to the Journal. It must remain in some executive-branch file, a suggestion of the future that did not happen but may happen still. The statement expressed regret for a political eco-system so poisonous it can make even a naive sit-down with some helpful Russians seem sinister. Of course, anyone who has studied Trump knows he'd never send Kushner into the outer dark. It's hard enough to dump a golf pro. How do you exile a son-in-law?
Jared Kushner's life can be seen as a lark, an inheritance, a goof. Or it can be seen more grandly as an attempt to get back what was lost, to undo the series of disasters set in train at the Fontainebleau. Charlie went to prison. Jared might be in trouble of his own. He has been named as a person of interest in the Russia investigation. His father lost everything. In three moves, Jared got everything back. In three more, he could lose it all again. No one knows where it will end.