It has been claimed that Jared Kushner masterminded the success of a seemingly impossible campaign. He was the rational voice behind an irrational man and sanitised Donald Trump so effectively, it has become almost fashionable to support him. His reward is a seat at the President’s right hand: senior White House adviser in the Trump administration. His first job included welcoming Boris Johnson and Shinzo Abe on recent visits to the US.
Back in 2003, Jared Kushner was still at Harvard. His billionaire father Charles Kushner had oiled the wheels, gifting the university $2.5 million, before being convicted on multiple counts of tax fraud, election violations and witness tampering. And this was all re-reported when the twenty five-year-old Kushner bought the New York Observer in 2006 from maverick publisher and financier Arthur Carter. He apparently financed the purchase from Charles Kushner-backed property deals, conducted on the side while he was at Harvard.
The Observer, published weekly in salmon pink, was the paper of New York’s power elite. Written about them, for them, but not in awe of them, it offered a cocktail of schadenfreude and irreverence, sending up its own readership without ever quite letting them in on the joke. It was where Candace Bushnell wrote her Sex and the City column. Its small circulation of 50,000 belied its influence, which seemed almost to justify the $10 million price tag for a newspaper that had made heavy losses for as long as anyone could remember.
Arthur Carter had reportedly lost $40 million by the time he sold. There were competing bids, yet Carter was persuaded to entrust the paper to the young Kushner’s custody on promises of investment and his enthusiasm. A not inconsiderable trick for a man whose journalistic credentials amounted to one article he had written about dorm food for a student magazine.
The then-editor, the late Peter Kaplan, presided over ordered chaos with magisterial sangfroid. I sat in the newsroom bullpen as Peter introduced us to the awkward young man who had bought the paper, with the same air of fatherly indulgence he had shown me when I had asked him for an internship. Both Kushner and I were a similar age; I was filing stories and was delighted to be published, Kushner had bought the newspaper. I remember him clothed in the anonymous uniform of the aspiring tycoon – dark suit, white shirt, a dark tie – almost handsome; urbane, but as though he was trying it on for the first time; his obvious desire to make an immediate impression, for the moment tempered by nervousness in a foreign world.
That Kushner had bought the New York Observer because he liked it, or even liked newspapers, was implausible. He later said to New York Magazine that he ‘found the paper unbearable to read, it was like homework’. Newspapers had collaborated in Charles Kushner’s fall from grace, by reporting how he had hired a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law, arranged for it to be filmed and had the tape delivered to his sister. Kushner senior and Trump were often the butt of the Observer’s merciless shtick.
Shortly afterwards, Kushner began dating Ivanka Trump again. There had been a brief hiatus because Kushner’s family disapproved that she was not of Jewish faith. They married in 2009 after Ivanka had converted to Judaism. The Observer started publishing a New York real estate power list. It featured Donald Trump. ‘When he bought the paper, he thought it meant that he suddenly had a media property that would be a PR vehicle for all of his interests,’ said Elizabeth Spiers, a post-Kaplan editor of the paper, last August. At least to begin with, it wasn’t, but then an exasperated Peter Kaplan left; having tried to indulge the young mogul by taking the paper to tabloid format, he couldn’t bring himself to implement swingeing staff cuts. ‘This guy doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,’ Peter Kaplan said to colleagues at the time. A beefed-up real estate section followed, designed to appeal to advertisers; then came the curtailment of story length, in reaction to websites like Gawker.com; and the removal of the Observer’s signature front-page cartoon. Kushner, it was reported, would kill stories and even tried to commission a hatchet job on Richard Mack, a property magnate rival.
In April 2016 Donald Trump was a virtual pariah. Yet Kushner’s Observer endorsed his candidacy in the Republican primary. The panegyric seemed to come from the pen of Kushner himself, bemoaning ‘the nattering of the cognoscenti—the media elite, the professional political class’ who had once been the paper’s reason to be. The paper’s sole national political reporter resigned within twenty-four hours. One former Observer staff member tweeted of the episode: ‘Your daddy bribed Harvard to take you and your family fortune is in real estate but tell us more about the elites.’
In July 2016 he used the paper again to write an open letter defending Trump as ‘instinctively pro-Jewish and pro-Israel’. Israel was a subject very close to Kushner’s heart. One senior Observer journalist admitted to having been baffled by Kushner’s insistence on a strongly pro-Israel editorial policy, in a newspaper traditionally concerned only with New York. According to the Washington Post, a Kushner family foundation has made charitable donations to West Bank settlements. Jared Kushner, who is a director of the foundation, has been charged by Donald Trump with brokering peace in the Middle East.
Kushner worked closely on the Trump campaign with Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. This was the man who sent his father to prison when he was U.S. Attorney of the Garden State. But as the campaign gathered pace, the running-mate-in-waiting was replaced by Mike Pence, the strings allegedly pulled by Kushner. It’s the kind of coldblooded behaviour that characterised his ownership of the Observer. The attempted defamation of property rivals, running through six editors in quick succession, numerous lay-offs and even the firing of the Observer’s cleaning lady, after she had been asked to submit to half pay. In December 2016 the Observer became online only. It coincided with Kushner’s ascent to the White House.
‘I’m not doing any talking on the Kushner,’ a former Observer writer tells me, ‘it’s just too intense here in America … scary and exhilarating and most of all just hard to believe.’ Like his new boss, there is a sense that Kushner has a taste for revenge. It must be why some journalists I know in New York seem shy when asked to speak about him.
It seems likely that Jared Kushner lost much more on the New York Observer than the $10 million he paid for it. He wasn’t the first rich man to spend a fortune on a newspaper and he probably won’t be the last. But this vanity produced results. It rehabilitated the Kushner clan’s reputation and gave him a stake in the political game. It also provided an opportunity to cultivate influential people, and a reason for them to cultivate him. And when the New York Observer had a chance to serve his new family’s dynasty, he didn’t hesitate.