On Sunday, GOP presidential candidate and real estate tycoon Donald Trump did what many do in August on the east coast: he spent a day at the shore with his family. In this case, he was visiting with the in-laws of his daughter Ivanka, Charles and Seryl Kushner, parents to Trump’s son-in-law Jared, the owner and publisher of the New York Observer.
This visit was no ordinary social call. The Kushners were hosting an intimate meet-and-greet on Trump’s behalf at their seaside estate on the New Jersey shore weeks after injecting $100,000 into Trump’s Make America Great Again super PAC.
Starting with his June announcement that he was seeking the 2016 Republican nomination for president, Donald Trump has been fond of reminding supporters, voters, the press – anyone who will listen, really – that he is rich. And although his campaign seemed at first to be a parade of events intended to drive that point home over and over again, Trump has used his personal wealth to stake a compelling claim in the age of dark money: that his means make him independent from the interests and donors who ordinarily set the policy priorities and agendas in Washington, D.C. “I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich,” Trump said in June. It’s a position Trump has been sharpening into an attack on his rivals. Last week at the Iowa State Fair he mocked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for being a “puppet” to his donors. “He raises $100 million, so what does $100 million mean? $100 million means he’s doing favors for so many people, it means lobbyists, it means special interests, it means donors,” Trump said.
Trump’s wealth, however, doesn’t mean that he’s refusing donations – large or small. On Friday we learned that fundraising is also affecting Trump’s campaign schedule. After initially (and cautiously) denying that Trump had attended fundraisers for a pro-Trump political action committee called the “Make America Great Again” PAC, which was formed on July 1, Trump’s campaign disclosed that the candidate had in fact spoken for about fifteen minutes at one of the super PAC’s early events in July.
While we probably can’t blame Donald Trump for attending a political event hosted by his daughter’s parents-in-law or accepting an unsolicited donation from the same, the name Charles Kushner might ring a bell.
Like Trump, Kushner’s business is real estate. Like Trump, Kushner has long been a political donor to campaigns in the New York metro area. And like Trump, Kushner has a history that his re-emergence in politics merits revisiting.
More than a decade ago Kushner was one of the biggest behind-the-scenes players in New Jersey’s real estate-obsessed political establishment. In the early 2000s, through his relatives and companies, Charles Kushner could be personally linked to almost 5% of the donations collected by then-N.J. Gov. James McGreevey’s 1997 and 2001 gubernatorial campaigns. He was also the largest single donor to Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Robert Torricelli.
In return, McGreevey had rewarded Kushner with a nomination to chair the board of directors of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the powerful bi-state transportation and real estate infrastructure agency now at the center of the Bridgegate scandal. Kushner was on track to become the agency’s chairman (a job later held by David Samson) when his candidacy was derailed by intra-family lawsuits alleging that Charles had made many of those Kushner-tied donations by improperly using business funds without the permission of his partners – who just happened to be his relatives, including his brother Murray. Murray filed suit against Charles in state court over the matter, but the suit was under seal and off-limits to the New Jersey lawmakers who vetted and eventually backed Charles’s Port Authority appointment. But before it could be finalized, the Kushners’ top accountant filed a whistleblower suit in federal court alleging that Charles had fired him after learning that he had provided evidence of the campaign donations to Murray. Moreover, the suit’s allegations went well beyond mere donations; the accountant charged that Charles had used his family’s company money to do things like buy out an insurance firm briefly owned by Gov. McGreevey’s chief of staff, the sale of which earned that official more than $350,000.
Charles’s Port Authority nomination was dead by early 2003 and in June 2004, Kushner agreed to pay a $508,900 fine to the Federal Election Commission (one of the largest in its history) to settle claims about those political donations. At the time, the FEC claimed that it had stumbled on Kushner’s money by way of an audit of former N.J. Sen Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign financials.
But that explanation didn’t hold up for long.
Just weeks later in July 2004, Charles Kushner was indicted by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and interstate promotion of prostitution (!) for trying to derail a federal investigation Christie’s office had opened into Kushner’s political operations during the prior year. It turned out that Charles was concerned about his sister’s cooperation with Christie’s grand jury and decided to blackmail her into silence by hiring a prostitute to seduce her husband. In a Bridgewater, N.J. motel room of the Red Bull Inn (not kidding) equipped with a hidden video camera Charles secretly recorded his brother-in-law in flagrante. Charles then sent the tape to his sister, threatening to make it public unless she stopped cooperating with the feds.
Now I know some of you are saying, “why didn’t I think of that?” But let me stop you right now – this plan did not work out for Charles.
The sister talked. Her husband talked. The prostitute talked. Game over.
Charles pled guilty to the charges in August 2004, a week after Gov. McGreevey resigned and publicly came out as gay by way of admitting to a homosexual affair with a member of his staff: an Israeli citizen whose American work visa had been sponsored by none other than Charles Kushner. (People I knew in New Jersey politics during that time – including some in the governor’s office – were convinced Christie was sitting on their phones.)
Although he was sentenced to two years in federal prison, Charles Kushner won admission to an addiction treatment program that shortened his sentence. Prosecutors launched an investigation into whether Kushner was fibbing about being an addict in order to win a chance at being transferred from a federal prison in Alabama to a halfway house in Newark, N.J. Ultimately, however, they backed his transfer and a sentence reduction upon his completion of a 500-hour-long rehabilitation program. Kushner was released from federal custody in August 2006, just fourteen months into his sentence.
Looking back, it’s hard to overstate just how central Charles Kushner was to the unraveling of Jim McGreevey’s governorship and to New Jersey Democrats’ loss of the state’s governor’s mansion to a U.S. Attorney eager to be seen as the top cop going after political corruption in the state.
It’s now ironic, of course, that Charles Kushner is back in the game supporting the GOP candidate who is nudging Christie out of the race. But family or not, it remains to be seen if even the likes of Donald Trump can afford to carry the baggage that comes with this guy.
Brian Murphy is a TPM contributing editor and Baruch College history professor who writes about the intersection of money and politics. He is the author of Building the Empire State: Political Economy in Early America. He can be reached at [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @Burrite.