On December 13, 2016, Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, attended a meeting in a building not far from Trump Tower, in the Madison Avenue offices of Colony Capital. One month after Trump’s surprise win in the Presidential election, Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, or VEB, a Russian state-owned development bank. Kushner, in later congressional testimony, said that his goals in the meeting were purely diplomatic. The Russian Ambassador to the U.S. had told him that Gorkov had a “direct line to the Russian President who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new Administration and best ways to work together.”
That month, Vladimir Putin arranged an “ ‘all-hands’ oligarch meeting”—as one of the oligarchs in attendance, Petr Aven, described it to the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators—to discuss U.S.-Russia relations. At least three of Russia’s most prominent oligarchs subsequently tried to solidify ties with a man who seemed their perfect counterpart: a young American oligarch whose family had grown wealthy with a healthy assist from government programs—the President-elect’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Through the Russian Ambassador’s persistence, Gorkov got the meeting. According to Kushner, the two discussed U.S.-Russia relations—business was not on the agenda. But a VEB spokesperson told the Washington Post something altogether different. As described by the Post, “The bank maintained . . . that the session was held as part of a new business strategy and was conducted with Kushner in his role as the head of his family’s real estate business.” As most Americans struggled to discern what a Trump Presidency would bring, the Russians accurately predicted that Kushner would be an immensely powerful figure in the incoming Administration, and that talking business could be a route to political influence.
When questioned by Mueller’s investigators, Kushner went out of his way to convey the idea that he thought little of the meeting with Gorkov—seemingly in an effort to bolster his argument that he in no way conspired with Russian state actors during the 2016 Presidential election. According to the Mueller report, “Kushner stated in an interview that he did not engage in any preparation for the meeting and that no one on the Transition Team even did a Google search for Gorkov’s name.” But Gorkov had prepared. He carried with him two gifts that showed he’d conducted a careful and deliberate investigation into the young man he was meeting. As Kushner explained in a July, 2017, statement to congressional investigators, one was a piece of art from Novogrudok, “the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus, and the other was a bag of dirt from that same village.”
The selection of a bag of dirt as a gift was particularly resonant: Jared’s grandmother, Rae Kushner, was one of a few hundred survivors of the Nazis in the Novogrudok ghetto, in what is now Belarus but was then northeastern Poland. Thousands of Jews from the area had been murdered, shot as they stood on the edges of giant trenches, so that they would fall directly into their own mass graves. The survivors were imprisoned in a ghetto, enslaved by the Nazi war machine. To escape, the residents smuggled bits of wood, spoons, and any other implements they could find past Nazi guards and used them to dig a tunnel that extended beyond the searchlights and barbed wire. They put the dirt they dug up into bags and hid the bags in the walls of the ghetto, so that the Nazis wouldn’t discover their plan.
Mueller found that, during the Presidential campaign, dirt on Hillary Clinton was the currency the Russians had tried to trade with Kushner and the Trump campaign. Now the Russians were giving Kushner a literal bag of dirt, the symbol of the Kushner family’s miraculous survival story—a story that includes undeniable courage, irrefutable ingenuity, and lying about family relationships to enter the United States.
After the Second World War, anti-Semitic immigration laws sharply limited the number of Jews allowed into the United States. In 1949, in order to increase his chances of obtaining an American visa, Rae’s husband and Jared’s grandfather, Yossel Berkowitz, posed as his father-in-law’s son, listing Kushner as his name on U.S. immigration paperwork, and renaming himself Joseph Kushner. As a result, his son Charles was called Charles Kushner, not Charles Berkowitz, and his grandson was Jared Kushner, not Jared Berkowitz. Jared’s wife’s married name would be Ivanka Kushner, not Ivanka Berkowitz.
In the nineteen-thirties, a few years before half of the family was murdered, the Kushners, as they usually did, took a summer vacation in the tiny town of Novoyel’nya, then part of Poland. Amid the sharp scents of pine and spruce and fresh lake water, the Kushner children played in the forest. On Friday evenings, as the late-setting sun angled through the woods, the family gathered for Shabbat dinner. Parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins sat in front of tall white candles to eat chicken soup, sweet kugel, the ever-present braided challah bread. “Summer camp” was how the surviving Kushners would later describe these trips. “Camping” and “going to camp” were among their fondest memories.
There’s a photograph that endures from one of these summers. The lower left corner is burnt, or chemically degraded, but the image in the center is clear: four children arrayed on a hammock around their father, tall trees standing like sentries in the background. There’s Esther, in her late teens, on the far left, wearing a short-sleeved, close-fitting white button-down shirt, parted sharply by a dark tie. On the right, with a hand draped behind her brother Chanon’s back and resting on her father’s shoulder, is the teen-age Reichal (Rae) Kushner. Her thick black hair is cut in a bob, and she is smiling. Her face, like everyone else’s in the family, is unworried, unlined. Her dark-brown eyes gaze forthrightly into the camera, yet to witness horrors.
Half a decade after the photograph was taken, three of six members of the Kushner family would be dead. Of hundreds of cousins, grandparents, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, only a handful, including Lisa, Rae, and their father, Naum, made it through: through the destruction of their home and the confiscation of their business; through family separations and multiple mass executions; through starvation, lice, beatings, forced labor, German dogs, and Nazi bullets; through barbed wire and months of hiding in the forest during the Polish winter, a trek across international borders, and years in a displaced-persons camp. The Kushners lost everything. The photo survived.
After years in the ghetto and that winter in the forest—during which they lived in ziemiankas, holes in the ground covered by trees—some twelve hundred Jewish partisans made their way back home to Novogrudok after the Germans retreated from the town. “You cannot imagine—I fainted twice,” Rae said, in later testimony, of the first time she witnessed the wasteland her home town had become. “We all wanted to run away from our town. We wanted to run any place—but, like, Russia took us in. We were afraid to move. We couldn’t move. You needed a passport. You needed papers. It’s not so easy.” They asked themselves, “Where should we run? Nobody wants to take us in.”
Under postwar Soviet rule, a Jewish underground emerged in the area, which helped survivors plot their escape. About nine months after their return to Novogrudok, Rae, her sister, and her father told Russian soldiers that they were Greeks and boarded a train to Czechoslovakia, and then made their way to Hungary, where she met up with Yossel. In a synagogue in Budapest, alongside some twenty other couples, Rae and Yossel were married by a rabbi. There is a record of this moment, a ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract. Normally a ketubah is a carefully prepared document, but this one was scrawled out hastily, on yellow paper with different pens, just before the couple fled again. According to “The Miracle of Life,” a book compiled by Rae’s children for her seventy-fifth birthday, the couple then “illegally crossed the Alps and several borders by foot, train and any other available mode of transportation.” They ended up in a displaced-persons camp near Rome. For the next four years, they were stuck in Italy, refugees waiting for a nation to welcome them.
“We would go anywhere where we could live in freedom, but nobody wanted us,” Rae later recalled. “Nobody opened their doors to us. Nobody wanted to take us in.” A picture from those years shows Rae, her lipsticked mouth a perfect bow, her shoulder-length hair still lush and brown, brushed up and back, and her once forthright gaze marred with worry and pain. To make money while they were living in the refugee camp, Yossel sold tobacco and other goods on the black market. At one point, he was arrested and sent to jail; Rae, nine months pregnant with their daughter Linda, bribed a guard to get him out.
It was not long afterward that the Kushners lied on immigration paperwork and Yossel Berkowitz took his wife’s last name, becoming Joseph Kushner, or Josef Kushnier, as his name was spelled then. “The Miracle of Life” explains, “Because sons and fathers were given priority to get visas, Yossel assumed his wife’s maiden name being that he travelled with his father in law.” The newly renamed Kushner family was helped by an American nonprofit group that fully embraced immigration and helped tens of thousands of Jews escape from Europe—the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS. The organization booked their passage on the S.S. Sobieski and helped them with immigration forms. HIAS accumulated a twenty-three-page case file on the Kushners, containing a list of family members, interview notes, and a record of their progress from Italy to New York. The file was buried in HIAS records for seventy years and hasn’t previously been reported.
One form prepared for the Kushner family by aid workers listed “Naum, 51,” as the family patriarch, with “Josef, 26,” as his son. “Raja,” also twenty-six, was listed as Naum’s daughter-in-law. Raja’s—Rae’s—“maiden name” was given as “Sloninski,” a version of Joseph’s maternal grandfather’s surname. Their country of origin was recorded as “Germany,” a more favorable country of origin for immigration purposes than their real home country, Poland.
The Kushners had listed a sponsor in the U.S., but, before they landed, the sponsor disavowed any knowledge of them, according to a note made by an aid worker in the HIAS case file. They had two dollars to their name when they arrived in New York, in March, 1949. For three months, HIAS sheltered them and gave them a food allowance, with extra for Passover, which was just weeks after their arrival. The group even helped the family find jobs.
Joe began work as a carpenter, in New Jersey. Carpenters were in high demand in the postwar years; in New Jersey, a thousand homes were built a week, for a thousand straight weeks. Soldiers returning from the war, and their newly growing families, needed homes, and builders received a huge boost from U.S. government programs. The G.I. Bill provided low down payments and long loan terms. The mortgage income-tax deduction helped middle-class families buy homes and build wealth, with government backing. The Federal-Aid Highway Act, a twenty-five-billion-dollar program, passed in 1956, stimulated home construction in the suburbs by making commutes to factories and offices faster. This act, which established the biggest federal infrastructure program in U.S. history, fuelled the economy and made builders such as Joe Kushner rich. At the time of his death, in 1985, Joe had built four thousand homes—all of them above ground, unlike the pit he inhabited in Poland during the war—and he had accumulated tens of millions of dollars. Four of those homes were mansions for his children, which he built in the New Jersey suburbs of West Orange and Livingston—areas that were newly opening to Jews.
By the time Joe built homes for his sons Murray and Charlie, Livingston had become a town of conspicuous consumption. “Everybody was trying to impress everyone else with what they had. They had to have the best,” one former town official told me. The median income was well above the national average, and housing prices were increasing at more than two times the rate of inflation. Joe built Charlie a large house on a large lot. Down the hill, in a small home on a small lot, lived the captain of the high-school baseball team, who, even then, was getting involved in politics: Chris Christie.
In 1985, Charlie set up Kushner Companies, with the idea of going into business with his father. But Joe died soon after, and Charlie, bereft and left to lead the company alone, expanded his father’s business model from primarily focussing on development to dealing with acquisition, management, and debt as well. The Kushners were part of a wealthy, aggressive, and fiercely private coterie of developers in New Jersey known as the “Holocaust builders.”
Charlie, though, was a public guy. He was written about in the press. He made attention-getting donations to philanthropic causes and to politicians, most of them Democrats. President Bill Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, and the New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani came to his offices, in Florham Park. Hillary Clinton visited the Kushners’ beach home, in Long Branch, for a Shabbos dinner, during her Senate campaign in 2000. But Charles Kushner’s biggest donations by far were to support a candidate for governor in New Jersey. Kushner and his associates gave one and a half million dollars to Jim McGreevey, part of more than three million in donations that he made to Democrats, making him the biggest Democratic donor in the state by the end of the last century.
During that time, Charlie became known for his generous gestures—showing up at shivas, sending flowers and letters, appearing at hospital bedsides when associates’ children became ill. He lived in an expansive house, on Fawn Drive, in Livingston, with a large atrium and a floor-to-ceiling fireplace, and his home became the family gathering spot. Charlie was the fun one, athletic and outgoing. At these conclaves, the boys played basketball and baseball in the backyard. The girls played in the basement. On Shabbat, Charlie’s home was the hub. Rae brought over matzo-ball soup; she had a special recipe, with tomato in it.
Every year, for Passover, Rae took the whole family to the Fontainebleau hotel, in Miami Beach—a high-rise arc of white concrete surrounded by myriad pools and decks and palm trees. Rae would pay for the whole family. She would rent a row of adjacent rooms. The cousins—Rae had more than a dozen grandchildren—would run from room to room, bouncing on beds and hanging out on balconies, clutching the twenty-dollar bills that Rae gave each of them for the arcade.
Joe had been a strict parent, and Charlie was more so. His family’s behavior was circumscribed; his children weren’t even allowed to wear jeans—dungarees, he called them. Joe’s grandchildren attended a Yeshiva that Charlie and his brother Murray had endowed: the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. Their sports jerseys said “Kushner” on the front and “Kushner” on the back. Charlie’s eldest son, Jared, was universally described as a polite boy, particularly deferential to his parents. In one family photo, all the cousins are wearing sweaters—except for Jared, who is dressed in a button-down shirt and a tie.
By the time of Jared’s bar mitzvah, both he and Charlie had become increasingly focussed on the bright lights of Manhattan. The bar mitzvah was a black-tie event, held at a midtown hotel. Hundreds of people attended, including members of the New York Giants football team. A central part of the bar-mitzvah ceremony is the reading of a story from the Torah. Jared read Beshalach, the part of the Exodus story in which God parts the Red Sea for the Israelites and then allows the waters to flood the pursuing Egyptian army. “Jared is my favorite grandchild,” Rae said. A week later, Charlie’s sister held a bar mitzvah for her son Jacob, also black-tie, but in New Jersey and without N.F.L. players in attendance. “Jacob is my favorite grandchild,” Rae said.
In the late nineteen-nineties, Charlie Kushner started pushing limits. He began drinking more, and, when he did, he could become verbally abusive, including at the family gatherings. He began making political donations in the names of his family members and business partners, without their knowledge, in violation of campaign-finance law. He used corporate funds for personal expenses: landscaping, “holiday alcohol,” New Jersey Nets tickets, paying a consulting firm to assess the comeback prospects of Benjamin Netanyahu, then between stints as the Prime Minister of Israel. In 2002, Charlie’s brother Murray—who had his own business but whose ties to his brother’s business were cemented by a series of interlocking trusts that Joe had created to minimize taxes—sued Charlie for misusing corporate funds.
In legal filings, Charlie’s attorneys argued that he’d done nothing wrong and that his donations enhanced the prestige and power of the family real-estate business. “Charles Kushner’s activity, both charitable and political, has raised his name and reputation in the broader real estate community as a prominent real estate developer and an individual who dedicates his success to the well-being of his community,” the lawyers wrote in a filing with the Federal Election Commission. “Thus, Charles Kushner’s and the charitable and political contributions made by the various Partnerships have been beneficial to each of the partnerships.”
His brother Murray’s civil lawsuit caught the attention of the new, politically ambitious United States Attorney for New Jersey, Chris Christie, who had been appointed by President George W. Bush, in 2001.
Christie’s investigators began the arduous task of tracing interlocking limited-liability companies—L.L.C.s—through corporate ledgers. Charlie fought back, hiring the kind of white-collar lawyers who can frequently make cases like this go away. They could not. So Charlie took things into his own hands. He had become convinced, erroneously, that his brother Murray and his sister Esther—named for Rae’s older sister, who was murdered by the Nazis—had secretly been working with Christie, from the beginning, to bring him down.
Charlie called Jimmy O’Toole, an East Orange police captain on the verge of retirement, who was also Charlie’s running buddy, and offered him a lucrative gig. Sitting at his desk, in his vast office, Charlie passed O’Toole an accordion file stuffed with twenty thousand dollars in cash and asked him to hire a prostitute to seduce and entrap Esther’s husband, Billy Schulder. For months, the scheme stalled. O’Toole, raised as an altar boy, was consumed by guilt. One day, O’Toole took the file of cash back to Charlie’s office, but Charlie wouldn’t take no for an answer. He handed O’Toole a phone number. “I want you to call this number and say you’re a friend of John’s,” Charlie told him. It was a phone number for a Manhattan prostitute named Susanna, “a high-priced, European-born call girl on Manhattan’s Upper East Side,” as Christie described her in his book “Let Me Finish.” Finally, O’Toole called Susanna.
On a snowy day in December, 2003, O’Toole’s brother Tommy, a private investigator, recorded a video tape of the encounter between Schulder and Susanna. Charlie asked the O’Tooles to make copies of the video and to print eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch still photographs, with the woman’s face pixelated out. For months, Charlie did nothing. In March, Rae passed away. In May, Christie began sending out target letters, a sign that his investigation was intensifying. Two days after they were received, Charlie called O’Toole and asked him to have Tommy send the video and the stills to Esther on the eve of her son Jacob’s engagement party. Jacob had been born just a week after Jared, and the two boys had grown up like brothers. Charlie wanted to send the package to Jacob, too, and to Jacob’s two sisters. Jimmy O’Toole talked him out of it.
Upon receiving the video, Esther recoiled in shock. She called her lawyer, who brought it to the attention of Christie, who soon thereafter indicted Charlie on charges of witness tampering, tax fraud, and campaign-finance violations. “When people under investigation decide to take the law into their own hands, to obstruct justice, to attempt to impede the rule of law,” Christie said at a press conference, “it is our obligation to act swiftly and surely to end the obstruction.”
Charles Kushner pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers predicted that he would be exonerated. But, in the next month, Christie showed that he had more cards to play. It wasn’t a coincidence that Charlie had told Jimmy O’Toole to call Susanna and tell her he was a “friend of John’s.” Prosecutors learned that, for years, Charlie had been living a double life, using the pseudonym John Hess to travel to Manhattan and avail himself of Susanna’s services, seven people with knowledge of Charlie’s activities told me.
To gain a conviction at trial on witness-tampering charges, prosecutors would have needed Susanna’s testimony and that of a second woman, who had tried and failed to catch Charlie’s former accountant, Bob Yontef, in a similar plot. Christie’s office was prepared to put both women on the stand, to let the world know about John Hess. In his book, Christie alludes to his own knowledge about the details of the case. He writes that he later told Jared Kushner, during the Trump campaign, “I’m burdened with facts about your father that even you don’t know, that I can never tell you, because if I did I would break the law.”
Charlie Kushner’s criminal attorney, Ben Brafman, disputes this version of events. He says that his team conducted its own investigation and found “zero evidence” to support the findings about Charlie’s double life as John Hess, but Charlie opted to avoid the embarrassment of a trial. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. He was sent to the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama, where he remained behind bars for about a year.
Following his release, Charles Kushner was interviewed by The Real Deal, a New York-based real-estate magazine, in which he invoked his parents’ survival of the Holocaust. Charlie explained that his Hebrew name was Chanon and that he was named after his mother’s brother. Charlie’s namesake had been a leader of the group that dug the tunnel out of Novogrudok before being shot by the Nazis. As the group prepared to escape, they had strangled to death a Jewish teen they feared might collaborate with the guards. The Nazis offered Jews small perks to inform on their fellow ghetto residents, as a means of control, Rae once explained. The residents decided that they could not take the risk. For Charlie Kushner, nothing was worse than what he saw as collaboration.
The Real Deal interviewer asked Charlie if he had reached any resolution with his sister and her husband. Charlie called his actions a “family tragedy” and expressed little remorse. “I believe that God and my parents in heaven forgive me for what I did, which was wrong. 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,” he said. “On my worst day in prison, I wouldn’t trade places with my brother and sister, and yet I know what I did was wrong.”
When Charlie was arrested, Jared was studying business and law at New York University and working as an intern in the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau. He’d planned to work in a nonprofit for a while after graduation, but instead he immediately embedded himself in the family real-estate business, flying to Alabama almost every week to visit his father.
During those trips, Charlie inculcated a family narrative of resentment in Jared. “His siblings stole every piece of paper from his office, and they took it to the government,” Jared later told New York magazine. “Siblings that he literally made wealthy for doing nothing. He gave them interests in the business for nothing. All he did was put the tape together and send it. Was it the right thing to do? At the end of the day, it was a function of saying ‘You’re trying to make my life miserable? Well, I’m doing the same.’ ”
As the years went on, Jared’s sense of victimization solidified. Christie “tried to destroy my father,” Jared later said, as described by Christie in “Let Me Finish.” “There was a dispute inside the family,” Christie quotes Jared as saying. “My father made those people rich, and they did nothing,” Jared said. “They just benefited from my father’s hard work. And those are the people who turned him in. It wasn’t fair.” And then, “This was a family matter, a matter to be handled by the family or by the rabbis”—not by prosecutors.
After Charlie’s imprisonment, Kushner Companies sold off most of its suburban empire, and Jared Kushner bought an aluminum-clad tower in midtown Manhattan—the “Mad Men”-era 666 Fifth Avenue—for the record-breaking price of 1.8 billion dollars, using a risky structure of debt to make the purchase. Around the same time, he bought a newspaper, the New York Observer, a salmon-colored newsweekly known for aggressively getting “up in the pipes” of New York’s key industries: finance, real estate, advertising, entertainment, media. (I worked at the Observer for eight years, and left three years before Jared Kushner bought the paper.)
Almost immediately after Jared purchased it, the paper changed. The Observer’s editor, Peter Kaplan, complained that Jared pushed him to assign a story that would be a “hit job” on Chris Christie—whose star had risen since he sent Jared’s father to jail. Kaplan refused. Jared denied targeting Christie, but former employees recalled him boasting about upcoming “hit jobs” in the paper. According to former Kushner employees, when the paper published one of these “hit jobs,” Kushner would point to the story, as if to suggest: This could be you.
In October, 2009, Jared Kushner married Ivanka Trump, and soon their businesses were working together. Both prolific political donors from families of prolific political donors, Jared and Ivanka’s attention was a coveted object among New York’s political class. Part of what was sought after was Jared’s influence, as a newspaper publisher of the élite. Over time, a pattern emerged in the Observer’s journalism—it was transactional. The paper published a glowing piece about the Kushner family’s private banker. Jared pushed for what his editors saw as an attack piece about a fellow real-estate mogul, Richard Mack, who was an executive at an investment fund that owned some of the Kushner’s debt and had warned Jared not to raise rent for one of the biggest tenants at 666 Fifth Avenue, because it would drive them away. (After multiple writers couldn’t find any evidence of wrongdoing on Mack’s part, no story was written.) The Observer had to approach three different reporters to find one to write a negative profile of then Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had recently filed suit against Jared Kushner’s father-in-law, over Trump University. Before that piece ran, Trump tweeted that the piece would “get even” for another magazine story, one that accurately portrayed the fraudulent dealings at Trump University.
Kushner Companies was—dozens of employees and associates and partners who worked with the Kushners told me—a tightly knit family business, where no one with the last name Kushner could be at fault for anything, and no one else was safe. Jared and Charlie could be warm and caring and attentive. When an employee’s relatives were sick or dying, the Kushners could be generous to a fault. But the constant threat of their mercurial tempers created a deep sense of unease. Jared “was lovely until he was not,” a leader of one of New York’s largest real-estate companies told me in an interview. “Until you had a falling out and were dead to him and he was out to get you.”
In November, 2015, Jared Kushner, the son of a man who’d gone to prison for, among other things, making illegal donations to Democrats, flew with his father-in-law to a campaign rally in Springfield, Illinois. “We don’t have victories anymore,” Trump said at that rally. “We’re stupid. We have stupid people leading us.” That night in Illinois was an awakening, Kushner told Forbes in a rare post-election interview, “People really saw hope in his message.” Kushner said that he realized “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.”
Jared saw himself as a disrupter, people who worked with him told me. His grandparents had, improbably, survived Nazi-occupied Poland, escaped, and immigrated to America, against all odds. His father, in contrast to the other “Holocaust builders,” had aggressively raised his profile and his family fortune. And Jared had found success by taking what others saw as impossible, foolhardy risks: becoming, in his mid-twenties, the publisher of a weekly newspaper in an era when newspapers were cratering, purchasing 666 Fifth Avenue on the eve of the Great Recession. The building had nearly failed when the Kushners managed, barely, to refinance it. The lesson he took from this, according to someone familiar with the deal, “was not ‘holy shit, I almost lost everything,’ it was ‘I should take on as much risk as I can.’ ”
Jared Kushner threw himself into his father-in-law’s campaign. It was a business model he was exceedingly familiar with—a family business. As Trump’s lead grew over the months, Kushner expanded his role in Trump’s foreign policy.
As Trump closed in on the nomination, complaints emerged regarding his heated rhetoric. A fringe of the U.S. body politic that had largely lived below the surface poked its head up: white supremacists and neo-Nazis. In December, 2015, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” after a gunman killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California. In the summer of 2016, Trump retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton and a six-sided star, both superimposed on piles of cash. An entertainment writer at the Observer, Dana Schwartz, published an article in which she asked Kushner how he could countenance such behavior. “You went to Harvard, and hold two graduate degrees,” Schwartz wrote. “I’m asking you, not as a ‘gotcha’ journalist or as a liberal but as a human being: how do you allow this?”
Kushner penned his own response. “This is not idle philosophy to me. I am the grandson of holocaust survivors,” Jared wrote, describing the multiple horrors his grandparents had experienced. “I go into these details, which I have never discussed, because it’s important to me that people understand where I’m coming from when I report that I know the difference between actual, dangerous intolerance versus these labels that get tossed around in an effort to score political points. The difference between me and the journalists and Twitter throngs who find it so convenient to dismiss my father-in-law is simple. I know him and they don’t.”
By the time of this exchange, unbeknownst to almost everyone, Jared had attended a now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower, with Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, and emissaries of a Russian oligarch the Trumps had once worked with, to discuss “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia,” as one member of the group wrote in an e-mail to Donald Trump, Jr. No one seemed to question the seamless pivot from business to politics to discussing “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” and dirt on Hillary Clinton, which, by this time, the Russian government did indeed have.
After Trump’s surprise victory, the Russians were back again, seeking strengthened ties with Trump and Kushner. The meeting with Gorkov was just a part of this strategy. At the time the meeting occurred, there was not much of a vetting apparatus inside the transition team. By federal law, because transitions are vulnerable times, all campaigns, including Trump’s, had to name a transition chief months in advance, for national-security reasons. Trump hired Chris Christie, who scrutinized applicants for Administration positions and, with his aides, put together some thirty binders of information. A few weeks later, Jared saw to it that Christie was fired. The thirty binders were tossed into the dumpsters behind Trump Tower.
Last December, the Washington Post, in a periodic update of a running tally it keeps, found that President Trump had made 15,413 false or misleading statements since taking office. As impeachment proceedings have continued, his rate of false claims has increased, reaching an average of thirty-two per day last fall. In 1967, in an essay called “Truth and Politics,” which was published in The New Yorker, Hannah Arendt warned where mendacity can lead. “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”
Truth has been replaced by a new currency: dirt. That is what Donald Trump was seeking in Ukraine. That is what Russia was offering in 2016.
Rae Kushner, who died in 2004, pushed for remembering, for the past serving as a caution for the future, for building an edifice of fact and truth that would stand as a levee against the rising tide of relativism that was, for her, the vanguard of a murderous regime. “People should know what happened to us,” Rae said in 1982, in testimony she gave at Kean College. “If we are not going to tell now, in twenty years, I don’t know who’s going to be to tell. And now we have still the strength and the power to do this, and to warn the rest of the world to be careful: Who is coming up on top of your government?”
Fifteen years after his grandmother’s death, Jared Kushner defends his father-in-law’s contention that refugees are a danger to the United States. Indeed, he has been tasked with overseeing the construction of a wall at the southern border and has been a prime advocate of installing a “wall cam” to record the building of the wall in real time.
In a June, 2019, interview for “Axios on HBO,” Jonathan Swan asked Kushner how he justified Trump’s drastic cuts in the number of refugees allowed in the United States, given his own grandparents’ experience. “It doesn’t make a difference one way or the other,” Kushner replied. “In the scheme of the magnitude of the problem we have, I think that we’re doing our best to try to make as much impact to allow refugees to be able to go back to their places.”
A divide has emerged in the Kushner family, though, regarding Rae’s legacy and how to honor it. “I have a different take away from my Grandparents’ experience in the war,” Jared’s first cousin Marc Kushner, Murray’s son, wrote on Facebook, in 2016, after Jared invoked their grandparents while defending Trump against charges of racism and anti-Semitism. “It is our responsibility as the next generation to speak up against hate. Anti-Semitism or otherwise.” Marc’s sister Melissa posted a similar message on Instagram the day of the Tree of Life massacre, in Pittsburgh, which coincided with the birth of Marc’s daughter. “I will not allow hate to beget hate, but rather use hate to embolden kindness and love,” Melissa wrote.
Jared Kushner continues to defend his father-in-law. In his “Axios” interview, Swan asked Kushner if Trump has ever done anything that he would “describe as racist or bigoted.” Kushner responded, “Absolutely not.” Swan then asked Kushner about Trump’s 2015 proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. “Would you describe that as religiously bigoted?” Swan asked. Kushner deflected. “Look, I think that the President did his campaign the way he did his campaign,” Kushner said. Swan asked again, “But do you wish he didn’t, do you wish he didn’t make that speech?” Kushner responded, “I think he’s here today and I think he’s doing a lot of great things for the country, and that’s what I’m proud of.”
This piece was drawn from “American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power,” by Andrea Bernstein, forthcoming from Norton.