Jared Kushner was just an undergrad at Harvard when politicians began receiving big-dollar campaign donations bearing his name.
In reality, the money was sent by his father, a powerful New Jersey real estate mogul. Over the course of several years, Charles Kushner pumped half a million dollars into political campaigns, avoiding legal limits by attributing checks to family members and business associates without their knowledge. The scheme sent the elder Kushner to prison and engulfed the family in scandal.
It was a defining and pivotal episode for Jared Kushner, now 35, who is poised to become one of the most trusted advisers to his father-in-law, President-elect Donald Trump.
The donation scandal provides a glimpse of the privilege and influence that marked Kushner’s upbringing in a prominent family. But friends say it also reveals in Kushner a fundamental trait that Trump prizes and has strengthened their bond: unflinching loyalty.
Far from seeing his father’s actions as a betrayal, the younger Kushner flew to Alabama almost every Sunday to visit his father during his 14 months behind bars. He took the helm of the family business. And he publicly insisted that his father was unfairly prosecuted.
“Jared is a devoted son in an almost old-world sense of respect and duty and devotion,” said former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey (D), who counted Charles Kushner as his biggest donor until McGreevey resigned in 2004 amid a sex scandal.
The same dynamic — this time between Kushner and Trump — played out on the campaign trail, when Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, publicly defended his father-in-law against claims that his rhetoric was fueling anti-Semitism and racism. And it seems likely to carry over into the White House, where Kushner is expected to play the role of informal gatekeeper and confidant to the president and may be entrusted with the enormous task of trying to broker an end to conflict in the Middle East.
Kushner married into a family that, much like his own, keeps its business in the bloodline. He and Ivanka Trump were introduced at a business lunch, and ever since they got married, they have been trusted advisers to her father.
During the campaign, Kushner and the elder Trump complemented each other with contrasting styles, according to multiple people who have observed them over the past year. Trump was brash and confrontational while Kushner was soft-spoken and discreet; Trump focused his energy on traditional media and rallies while Kushner worked with digital strategists to build a data operation.
Kushner would often sit with Trump on the president-elect’s private plane, a Boeing 757 outfitted with cream leather couches, gold seat buckles and a big-screen television. He would quietly turn to Trump as they both read between stops — Trump rifling through a pile of printed articles, Kushner on his laptop or phone. They’d keep an eye on Fox News Channel, with Kushner whispering tidbits of information and the latest about the family.
Kushner carved out a portfolio of sorts on foreign policy, with particular interest in the Middle East and Israel, and helped to shape Trump’s speech in March to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a well-received address during which Trump stuck to his prepared remarks.
Trump told the New York Times last week that, once he is in the White House, Kushner would probably keep his role as an informal counselor and envoy to the Middle East, where Kushner already has close relationships with people close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Several Trump associates have said that Kushner will be a chief of staff in all but name, with wide-ranging — if sometimes hard-to-quantify — influence and a voice equal to incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
Like his ascent in the family business, and perhaps even his Ivy League education, Kushner’s influence on the future president is partly a by-product of his proximity to power.
Few families in the Northeast enjoyed more political wattage than the Kushners in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Jared Kushner’s grandparents, Holocaust survivors, had laid roots in New Jersey and started a family business in construction. Charles Kushner grew the company to encompass office buildings and thousands of condos and apartments. The Kushners gave millions to political, charitable and pro-Israel causes.
As a teenager, Jared Kushner became accustomed to seeing national leaders pay their respects to his father.
In 1997, when Kushner was just 16, then-President Bill Clinton made a stop at the corporate headquarters of the family business, lavishing praise on the Kushners during a speech. To mark the moment, the Kushners gave Clinton a shofar — a ram’s-horn musical instrument used in Jewish religious ceremonies.
A year later, as Jared Kushner was starting to fill out college applications, his father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard, to be paid in $250,000 yearly installments, according to a book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges,” by journalist Daniel Golden. Jared’s test scores were below Ivy League standards, Golden wrote, citing an unnamed official at the yeshiva high school in northern New Jersey that Jared attended. But he had powerful people vouch for him.
Then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) made a call to the Harvard admissions staff on Kushner’s behalf — at the urging of a Democratic senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, who had received more than $100,000 in donations from Charles Kushner, according to the book.
Jared Kushner was admitted.
Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Kushner Companies, said the suggestion that Jared Kushner’s acceptance was connected to his father’s gift to the school “is and always has been false.”
“Jared Kushner was an honors student in high school, played on the hockey, basketball and debate teams. He graduated from Harvard with Honors,” she said in a statement.
Kushner’s parents, she said, have donated more than $100 million to universities, hospitals and other charitable causes, she said.
Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, founder of Chabad House at Harvard, who met Jared his freshman year and became close to the Kushner family, said that as a student Jared was devoted to his family and his Orthodox Jewish faith and had the mature bearing of a graduate student. He made the trip home to New Jersey to celebrate the smallest family milestones and celebrations.
“His exceptional respect, devotion and love for his family always came across,” Zarchi said.
That loyalty appears to have been tested as the Kushner family became embroiled in scandal.
By the time Jared finished his studies at Harvard, nearly $90,000 had been donated to state and federal campaigns in his name, records show, almost entirely to Democrats. The giving spree pulled Jared into the crosshairs of the Federal Election Commission.
Just before he began his senior year in 2002, a letter from the FEC addressed to the younger Kushner arrived at his New Jersey home, a 7,300-square-foot mansion in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. In the letter, federal regulators wrote that Jared Kushner appeared to have broken campaign-finance laws by contributing more than they allowed.
Jared Kushner, who was later cleared when the donations were found to have come from his father, declined to comment on anything related to the investigation involving his father.
Records also show that Kushner was among 15 people, whose names had appeared on checks for campaign contributions signed by his father, who were issued subpoenas by the FEC after initially not answering questions about donations.
Although Kushner eventually cooperated with FEC investigators, it is not clear if he did so with prosecutors in the subsequent criminal investigation. In any event, the scandal does not appear to have damaged his relationship with his father.
That was not true of other family members, including an uncle who had been cooperating with federal prosecutors; Charles Kushner apparently did not take lightly to the betrayal, records show. He paid a prostitute $10,000 to seduce his brother-in-law in a hotel room set up with hidden cameras to record the rendezvous. He later instructed a private detective to mail the tape to his sister as a warning — he wanted it to arrive at her house shortly before a family party, records show.
Instead, she took the tape to the FBI, leading to Kushner’s arrest.
Kushner learned of the arrest when his father called him on a July morning. Jared was on his way to an internship in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, he told New York magazine in a 2009 interview. In the interview, he sounded more angry that the tape had been deemed illegal than he was about his father’s role in producing it.
“They’re going to arrest me today,” Charles Kushner told him.
“For what?” Jared Kushner recalled asking. “Is it because of the tape? I thought your lawyers knew about that. I thought it’s not illegal.”
“Apparently they’re saying that it is,” his father said.
Charles Kushner decided not to fight. He pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FEC, witness tampering and tax evasion stemming from $6 million in political contributions and gifts mischaracterized as business expenses. Among the allegations were that he paid for an unnamed individual’s private school tuition out of company accounts and declared them charitable contributions on his tax returns, according to court documents.
He was sentenced to two years in prison. His son stood by him, visiting most weekends and insisting, as he still does, that his father’s prosecution was unjust.
If Charles Kushner taught his son deep loyalty, he may also have taught him its flip side, revenge — at the very least modeling that behavior with his decision to target his brother-in-law.
For Jared Kushner, the evidence of whether he absorbed the lesson lies in his actions toward Chris Christie, the hard-charging federal prosecutor — and future governor of New Jersey, 2016 Republican presidential candidate and endorser of Donald Trump for president — who put the elder Kushner behind bars.
A former law-enforcement source familiar with the nearly two-year criminal investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, said Christie, a Republican, took an unusual interest in the Kushner probe. “He was very hands-on in that case,” said the person, who described Christie as privately “gleeful” at the outcome. In court filings, Christie’s office described Charles Kushner’s actions as “evil.”
But the network of politicians Kushner had cultivated also whispered about another possibility: that Christie had targeted a major Democratic donor for political reasons.
“I think a lot of people would say his prosecutions were political in nature,” former New Jersey governor Richard Codey, a longtime Kushner ally who is now a Democratic state senator, said of Christie.
A spokesman for Christie told The Washington Post that the 135 corruption convictions he won as U.S. attorney in New Jersey were “not because of politics, but because all the individuals he charged were guilty.”
Yet the arrest changed Jared Kushner’s career path: He no longer wanted to be a prosecutor.
“Seeing my father’s situation, I felt what happened was obviously unjust in terms of the way they pursued him,” he told the Real Deal in 2014. “I just never wanted to be on the other side of that and cause pain to the families I was doing that to, whether right or wrong.”
Instead, Jared Kushner took the family business across the Hudson River into Manhattan with audacious real estate acquisitions, selling his family’s portfolio of apartments in New Jersey and, in 2007, buying an office tower on Fifth Avenue, about three blocks south of Trump Tower.
He also purchased the New York Observer, a Manhattan newspaper. Ross Barkan, a reporter there from 2013 to 2016, left the paper, he said in an interview, because the line between the Trump campaign and the paper’s editorial decisions had become “fuzzy.”
For instance, Barkan said, the Observer published two stories that appeared to target Trump’s enemies at the time — one taking on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman after he sued Trump University, and another critical of Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) during the Republican primaries.
Kushner also made a business decision that would give him a toehold in the world of New Jersey politics that Christie was about to inhabit. He bought a successful political gossip website called PolitickerNJ.com that was run by an anonymous blogger. Later, when Christie was running for governor in 2009, he suggested that Kushner was using the website to damage him.
“It’s a Kushner-owned enterprise,” Christie said. “And I don’t think I’ll be getting Charles Kushner’s family’s vote come November.”
Christie became governor of New Jersey. He was an early favorite for the Republican presidential nomination this year until Trump’s remarkable ascent. Christie dropped out and supported Trump, putting him in a position to get a key role in a Trump administration. But Kushner now was in a position to influence the fate of the man who had put his father behind bars.
Speculation has swirled that Kushner helped convince Trump not to pick Christie to be his vice president. Friends said privately that Kushner was smart enough not to have made his argument a personal one. The residual damage from a Christie scandal that became known as Bridgegate was enough reason, they said.
At it turned out, the anonymous blogger whose website Kushner had acquired was at the center of the scandal. The Christie administration had recruited David Wildstein away from Kushner’s website for a job as an executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency that runs the region’s bridges and airports.
Wildstein and two other Christie aides were convicted this year of closing lanes to the George Washington Bridge in an act of political revenge. The mayor of a town at the foot of the bridge had not endorsed Christie, and the lane closures choked the town with crippling traffic.
Back on Dec. 7, 2013, the day after Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority amid growing evidence that he had ordered the lane closures, Kushner got in touch with him. In an email obtained by The Post, Kushner drew a parallel between Wildstein and his father, who had also resigned as a Port Authority commissioner in 2003 as questions began to percolate about Kushner’s campaign contributions.
“Just wanted you to know that I am thinking of you and wishing the best. For what it’s worth, I thought the move you pulled was kind of badass,” Kushner wrote.
Heller, the Kushner Companies spokeswoman, said this week that the message was a “poorly worded way of Jared trying to cheer up an old friend.”
Alice Crites and Robert Costa contributed to this reporting.