Jared Kushner exited the subway on Canal Street to find his world blown up. It was the morning of July 13, 2004, and Jared, on break from NYU Law School, was hustling to his internship at Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office. His cell phone buzzed. He saw a text message from his younger brother, Josh, an incoming Harvard freshman who was interning at the Kushner family’s office in Florham Park, New Jersey, that summer. “Dad is not in the meeting today. Is everything okay?” Josh wrote. Jared quickly called his father’s cell phone.
“Dad, are you all right?”
“Well, not really,” Charles Kushner said. “They’re going to arrest me today.”
“For what?” Jared blurted out. “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,” Charles said.
“Well, maybe now the whole story will come out,” Jared said. He hung up and tried to work for twenty minutes but couldn’t focus. He jumped in a car for New Jersey. By the time he arrived, his father had surrendered to the FBI.
The whole story—or as much of it as was needed to send Jared’s father to prison—did come out. And the story was a deeply strange one. In an investigation triggered at first by members of his own family, Charles Kushner, one of the most powerful men in New Jersey, the head of a real-estate empire worth as much as $2 billion, pled guilty to eighteen felony counts of tax fraud, election violations, and witness tampering. In the strangest twist, Charles admitted to taking revenge on a hated brother-in-law by secretly setting up him up with a prostitute, then taping the encounter. He spent sixteen months behind bars for his crimes.
Charles Kushner—everyone calls him Charlie—is, by any measure, a remarkable man. The child of Holocaust survivors, he has an engulfing charm and a palpable hunger for attention, and pushed himself to become a gifted businessman and Jersey kingmaker. “He loved being the Don Corleone of the community,” says a family friend. “He loved that when he walks into a synagogue the rabbis run over to him. Charlie saw himself as the Jewish Kennedy.” But beneath the charm there is a coiled aggressiveness. “Charlie’s good points are incredibly good,” a former employee says, “but if you cross him he becomes maniacal. He will crush you.”
In many ways, his conviction and prison sentence put an end to Charlie’s ambitions. But not in all ways. Because Charlie had long been grooming his eldest son—he has two sons and two daughters—to take over where he left off, getting him into the best schools, letting him sit in on business meetings, helping burnish his résumé. The day Jared would take over from his father was meant to be far in the future. But the sentence accelerated the timetable. And so two years later, in July 2006, Jared, having just finished his third year as an NYU law-M.B.A. student, went to meet Arthur Carter, the owner of the New York Observer, at Carter’s co-op on Fifth Avenue at 67th Street. Carter had been looking to sell the salmon-colored weekly. Jared brought with him a check, a presentation printed on peach paper, and a family lawyer.
The Kushners had never been lovers of newspapers, to say the least. Charlie and Jared blamed papers in general and more specifically the Newark Star-Ledger for besmirching the family name. The Kushners respected the Observer’s elite readership, but that was about all they liked about it. “I found the paper unbearable to read, it was like homework,” Jared tells me.
Jared, tall and blond and rosy-cheeked, had been trying to arrange a meeting with Carter for six months. Each time he called, Carter rebuffed him. “You’re a nice boy”—he said—“but you’re 25 years old.” Carter was on the verge of selling the Observer (where I was a reporter from 2003 to 2006) to Tribeca Film Festival founders Craig Hatkoff, Jane Rosenthal, and Robert De Niro. “The money was on the wire,” a person close to the De Niro camp says.
But Carter was having second thoughts. The Tribeca investors had been kicking the tires at the Observer for months, and he was tired of it. Also, they’d agreed to fund the paper’s losses for at most a few years. Carter had never run the Observer as a real business. The weekly lost a couple of million dollars per year. He believed that the Observer would probably shutter if they owned it. Carter called Jared and invited him to meet under one condition: Jared had to be ready to close immediately.