NEW YORK ― When Charles Kushner was heading to federal prison in 2005 for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering, his son Jared got some advice from Howard Rubenstein ― the dean of New York damage control ― on how to rehabilitate the Kushner name, Charles would later tell a family friend.
Step one: Buy a New York newspaper. Don’t be too particular, Rubenstein told Jared, according to the family friend’s recounting of their conversation with Charles. Any newspaper will do. Step two: Buy a big Manhattan building. Any building will do. Step three: Marry the daughter of a rich New York family. Anyone will do.
The younger Kushner went on to do just that. He bought the New York Observer in 2006, made a debt-laden $1.8 billion purchase of 666 Fifth Ave. in 2007 and married Ivanka Trump in 2009. (A Kushner Companies spokesman denied the family friend’s account. Rubenstein said: “That’s preposterous. I never said that or anything like that.”)
Whether or not Kushner was indeed working through a checklist, his actions during those years have served him well. They also laid the groundwork for the meticulous public relations strategy that has made possible Kushner’s current paradoxical role in the press, as a blameless yet uniquely powerful member of the Trump administration.
Long before he could afford the counsel of someone like Rubenstein, Jared’s father had a sense for how to shape perception to his advantage. In the 1990s, Charles Kushner bought a corporate box at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium on the 50-yard line ― right next to the box reserved for the team’s owners, the Tisch family, according to the Kushner family friend. At the time, the Kushner real estate business was still small, and Charles could barely afford the expense. (A Kushner Companies spokesman confirmed that the family had box seats but denies this characterization.) But he found a way, because he recognized that if you can get close enough to powerful and wealthy people, they’ll assume you are one of them. It’s exactly the sort of maneuver Howard Rubenstein would respect.
The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta condensed the highlights of Rubenstein’s client list in a 2007 profile: “George Steinbrenner, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, and Leona Helmsley; the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the Whitney Museum; BMW North America, Mount Sinai Hospital, Time Inc., Bloomberg L.P., and the notorious Lizzie Grubman. He has advised the last six mayors and the last four governors.” It’s a remarkable lineup, a who’s who of rich, powerful, nefarious, or just intermittently infamous New Yorkers. Martin Dunn, the former editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News, told Auletta that Rubenstein is “much more of a power broker than a public-relations man.”
The Kushners have always had a fleet of PR people working behind the scenes to fluff their image. Rubenstein and his son and protege Steven, who now runs the family business, worked for the Kushners until around late 2011. The Kushners then took their PR business to Matthew Hiltzik, a former aide to Hillary Clinton during her first Senate campaign who went on to work for Bob and Harvey Weinstein at Miramax Films, as well as Glenn Beck, Justin Bieber and Alec Baldwin. It was during his time at a Hiltzik client that Jared Kushner met Josh Raffel, one of the firm’s employees and the man Kushner recently tapped to lead communications for his government-wide innovation project. The White House declined to comment for this story.
In late 2014, Kushner stopped working with Hiltzik and began working with Roxanne Donovan, a PR maven the Observer once described as a “younger, sexier Howard Rubenstein.” Kushner also hired Harriet Weintraub, who has a specialty PR company for real estate and luxury brands, before hiring Risa Heller, a former press aide to notoriously media-savvy Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in November 2015.
Heller represented Kushner personally until this January, when he took an official role in the White House. She still represents his family company, where Jared has resigned his role in the family business and divested his ownership in some of the company’s businesses. Donovan, Hiltzik and Weintraub declined to comment for this story; Heller declined to comment beyond statements offered as a spokesperson for Kushner Companies.
Kushner now faces his greatest PR struggle yet, as the son-in-law and a senior adviser to a historically unpopular president whose flagship issues so far have included attempting to strip health care from millions of Americans and impose a constitutionally dubious immigration ban. Donald Trump has given Kushner a comically large set of responsibilities ― from setting American foreign policy in the Middle East to ending the opioid epidemic to revolutionizing the operations of the entire U.S. government.
While Trump dictates policy by Twitter and spends most of his time making impossible promises, Kushner is rarely quoted on the record. His few public statements consist of bland generalities and unwavering support for his father-in-law. Kushner rarely speaks on camera, a point “Saturday Night Live” recently mocked by having Jimmy Fallon play him for an entire sketch with no lines. A source close to Kushner said it’s simply part of his personality to let his actions speak for him.
The few existing videos of Kushner speaking on camera suggest a possible reason he doesn’t do it more: He’s not very good at it. Two brief videos from 2014 ― one from a real estate conference and one for the Jehovah’s Witnesses talking about his $700 million purchase of the group’s former Brooklyn headquarters ― show Kushner in his familiar uniform of a gray suit and dark tie, speaking blandly and without much conviction. With his soft voice and Tri-State Area accent, he sounds remarkably like his brother-in-law Eric Trump.
“I don’t talk to the press,” he told Forbes in December. But someone is clearly shaping his image in the media as a beacon of moderation, the man working to pull Trump toward consensus-minded policies and socially liberal politics.
Kushner and Ivanka “helped kill a proposed executive order that would have scrapped Obama-era L.G.B.T. protections,” The New York Times reported in February, based on “people familiar with the issue.” They also “intervened to strike language about the climate deal from an earlier draft of the executive order,” The Wall Street Journal reported a few weeks later, “according to multiple people familiar with the move.” Ivanka was in favor of bombing Syria, her brother Eric said, and Kushner supported the strike as well, according to unnamed sources.
The exact same nuggets that seem engineered to elicit sympathy for Kushner and his wife from one group ― the public writ large ― are why other White House insiders reportedly mock them as “globalists” who are Democrats in all but name. (That moniker is also supposedly bestowed on Goldman Sachs alums Gary Cohn, Trump’s National Economic Council director, and Dina Powell, who ran Goldman’s charitable activity and now serves as a deputy adviser on the National Security Council. The term “globalist” is widely understood to have anti-Semitic connotations, and Kushner, Ivanka and Cohn are Jewish.)
What the press anecdotes from unnamed sources don’t do ― the ones in this story included ― is explain Jared’s political beliefs. He keeps his views so hidden that it’s not clear whether he actually has any at all.
The White House’s on-the-record statements aren’t much help in figuring out what Kushner thinks. For instance, when The Associated Press ran a story on March 29 noting that Kushner’s ability to escape close scrutiny might be coming to an end, White House director of strategic communications Hope Hicks offered this: “Jared is a visionary with an endless appetite for strategic, inventive solutions that will improve quality of life for all Americans.”