Jared Kushner has no experience in public service or policymaking. His only qualification for his senior White House position (beyond having been born and betrothed to the right people) is the business savvy that allowed him to avoid squandering his family’s enormous fortune (for the moment, anyway).
In 2007, Kushner’s killer instinct told him that the real-estate market had nowhere to go but up. And so the 26-year-old mogul decided to plow $500 million of his family’s money — and $1.3 billion in borrowed capital — into purchasing 666 Fifth Avenue for twice the price it had previously sold for. Even if we’d somehow avoided a global financial crisis, this would have been a bad bet: Before the crash, when the building was almost fully occupied, it generated only about two-thirds of the revenue the Kushners needed to keep up with their debt payments.
After the crisis, however, things got really hairy. The Kushners were forced to sell off the building’s retail space to pay their non-mortgage debt on the building — and then to hand over nearly half of the office space to Vornado as part of a refinancing agreement with the real-estate giant.
The office space that the Kushners retained is worth less than its $1.2 billion mortgage — which is due early in 2019. If their company can’t find some new scheme for refinancing and redeveloping the property by then, Jared Kushner will have cost his family half a billion dollars.
On November 8, 2016, the firm’s prospects of securing a bailout massively improved.
At that point, the company was already in talks with former Qatari prime minister and billionaire investor Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, also known as “HBJ.” The Qatari billionaire had agreed to invest at least $500 million into 666 Fifth Avenue on the condition that the Kushners demonstrated a capacity to raise the rest, according to a new report from the Intercept. But other investors had proven difficult to come by —until Jared’s father-in-law moved into the Oval Office. Then, doors began opening:
After the election, Kushner Companies found many more suitors interested in doing business … An insurance firm [in China] with close ties to the country’s ruling elite had been pursued for months, but, like the other investors, wasn’t truly interested in the deal until after the election…In March, the details of the talks between Kushner and the firm, Anbang, became public. Anbang would invest $400 million in the project and the Kushners would put up $750 million, and additional investors, of which The Intercept’s sources say HBJ was to be one, would contribute a total of almost $2 billion more, according to a document being shown to investors that was shared with Bloomberg.
… Anbang’s $400 million, plus $100 million from other investors, would flow to the Kushners, meaning the family would recoup the entirety of their initial $500 million investment…Crucially, in addition to the cash investment, the deal called for Anbang to take out a $4 billion loan to finance the demolition of the current building and the construction of an 80-story Zaha Hadid-designed residential and retail tower in its place.
Alas, what brought Anbang to the table eventually forced the firm to walk away from it: The company pulled out of the deal in March amid a growing controversy about the conflict of interest inherent to a company with ties to the Chinese government going into (big) business with the family of a senior adviser to the American one.
According to one of the sources who spoke with the Intercept, once Anbang was out, HBJ was too. A separate source told the outlet that the Qatari billionaire is still potentially interested in the deal, but won’t commit until a new mix of loans and equity is secured.
Months later, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates organized a blockade of Qatar on the pretense that Riyadh was so moved by Donald Trump’s call for the Arab world to crack down on terrorists it could no longer abide Doha’s covert support for Islamic extremism. In fact, the Saudis’ primary aim was to punish Qatar for asserting its independence from Riyadh by, among other things, engaging with Iran and abetting Al Jazeera’s journalism.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — and virtually every other arm of the U.S. government — scrambled to nip the blockade in the bud. Qatar hosts a major U.S. air base and America has little use for an internecine conflict between its Arab partners.
Such was the reasoning outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, anyway. Trump relished the opportunity to declare victory and commended the Saudis for punishing Qatar — first on Twitter, and then during a press conference in the Rose Garden.
Jared Kushner was, reportedly, one of the only White House advisers encouraging this stance.
The Intercept concisely summarizes the mess of ethical issues raised by the combination of Kushner’s courtship of Qatari money and his power to shape America’s Middle East policy:
If the deal is not entirely dead, that means Jared Kushner is on the one hand pushing to use the power of American diplomacy to pummel a small nation, while on the other his firm is hoping to extract an extraordinary amount of capital from there for a failing investment. If, however, the deal is entirely dead, the pummeling may be seen as intimidating to other investors on the end of a Kushner Companies pitch.
$500 million is a lot of money in most contexts. But as the price of winning the allegiance of the world’s most powerful military in a regional dispute, it may strike some nations as quite the bargain. Especially given that there’s at least a chance that you’ll earn a financial return on your investment (in addition to the diplomatic one).
On one level, Kushner’s private-sector experience appears wholly irrelevant to his current responsibilities. Even if one believes that the federal bureaucracy needs to be “disrupted” by a brilliant entrepreneur, a 36-year-old real-estate heir who’s on the cusp of losing half a billion dollars of his family’s money is hardly the man for that job.
But while Kushner’s experience as a real-estate investor may be of little use to the government, the government can be of great use to Jared’s real-estate investments.
To review: The Kushner family was struggling to secure more than $1 billion in investment for 666 Fifth Avenue. Then it won access to the White House, and big-money investors with ties to foreign governments came knocking. Jared Kushner knows that if none of those investors pony up the capital within the next 19 months, he will have done immense financial harm to his family.
And he is one of the top foreign-policy advisers to the president of the United States.
What could go wrong?