By Susane Craig, Jo Becker and Jesse Drucker
Washington: On the night of November 16, a group of executives gathered in a private dining room of the restaurant La Chine at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan.
At one end sat Wu Xiaohui, chairman of the Waldorf’s owner, Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese financial behemoth with estimated assets of $US285 billion and an ownership structure shrouded in mystery. Close by sat Jared Kushner, a major New York real estate investor whose father-in-law, Donald Trump, had just been elected president of the United States.
It was a mutually auspicious moment.
Wu and Kushner – who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka and is one of his closest advisers – were nearing agreement on a joint venture in Manhattan: the redevelopment of 666 Fifth Avenue, the fading crown jewel of the Kushner family real-estate empire. Anbang, which has close ties to the Chinese state, has seen its aggressive efforts to buy up hotels in the US slowed amid concerns raised by Obama administration officials who review foreign investments for national security risk.
Now, according to two people with knowledge of the get-together, Wu toasted Donald Trump and declared his desire to meet the President-elect, whose ascension, he was sure, would be good for global business.
With Kushner laying the groundwork for his White House role, the meeting at the Waldorf shines a light on his family’s multibillion-dollar business, Kushner Cos, and on the ethical thicket he would have to navigate while advising his father-in-law on policy that could affect his bottom line.
The Kushner family business, led by Kushner, is a major real estate investor across the New York area and beyond. The company has participated in roughly $US7 billion in acquisitions in the past decade, many of them backed by opaque foreign money, as well as financial institutions Kushner’s father-in-law will soon have a hand in regulating.
The Anbang talks, which have not previously been reported, began roughly six months ago – “Well before the President-elect’s victory,” Kushner’s spokeswoman, Risa Heller, noted. That was, however, just as Trump clinched the Republican nomination. While the talks are far along, representatives for Kushner said some points remained unresolved.
Kushner, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has hired a Washington law firm, WilmerHale, to advise him on how to comply with federal ethics laws should he join the White House staff as an adviser to the president. The firm has concluded that one potential sticking point, a federal anti-nepotism law, is not applicable, though not all ethics experts agree. While the law prohibits federal officials from hiring relatives for agencies they lead, Kushner’s lawyers argue the White House is not an agency and is therefore exempt.
As for conflicts of interest, Kushner would be required to make limited financial disclosures.
Jamie S Gorelick, a WilmerHale partner who served in the Clinton administration, said that while plans were not final, Kushner was taking significant steps to extricate himself from the family business.
He will resign as chief executive of Kushner Cos, and although the law does not require it, she said he would divest “substantial assets”. She did not name them, but Heller said they would include his stake in 666 Fifth Ave.
Kushner’s representatives declined to detail his personal financial interest in Kushner Cos’ properties, and they said he intended to keep his interest in other properties beyond 666 Fifth Ave. He also has a stake, through a family investment vehicle, in a private equity firm run by his brother, Joshua.
Kushner played a pivotal role in persuading Trump, who made the Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs a bete noire of his presidential campaign, to appoint the firm’s president, Gary D Cohn, as his chief economic adviser, according to several people involved in the transition. Goldman Sachs has lent Kushner Cos money and is an investor in a real estate technology company co-founded by Kushner and his brother.
Trump has said that his son-in-law, an Orthodox Jew, will play a central role in dealings with Israel. Kushner’s company has received multiple loans from Israel’s largest bank, Bank Hapoalim.
Matthew T Sanderson, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale and former general counsel to Senator Rand Paul’s presidential campaign, said deals like the one with Anbang “might not be illegal under the conflict-of-interest rules, but raise a strong appearance that a foreign entity is using Mr Kushner’s business to try to influence US policy”.
The family business
In the 1980s, Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, took over the New Jersey-based construction business started by his father.
But the company was upended when Charles became engulfed in a family feud over how the business’ proceeds were to be distributed. The fight resulted in a plea deal for Charles, who in 2005 was sentenced to two years in prison for tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations.
Jared, 23 at the time of his father’s conviction, had recently graduated from Harvard. He was studying for an MBA and law degree at New York University in 2006 when he bought The New York Observer.
Kushner quickly became the company’s public face as it expanded across the Hudson River into Manhattan.
Charles Kushner was released from federal custody in August 2006. He immediately resumed a significant role in the business and remains heavily involved. Still, it was with Jared as headliner that the company soon made its biggest play: $US1.8 billion for the skyscraper at 666 Fifth Ave.
Around this time, Kushner met the woman he would marry: Ivanka Trump.
Everything was looking up, until suddenly it wasn’t. Within a year after the deal, the overheated lending market seized up and Kushner Cos struggled to repay its considerable loans – and to hold on to 666 Fifth Ave. To the rescue over the next few years came the Carlyle Group, a giant private equity firm; Vornado Realty Trust, then a co-owner of two of Donald Trump’s largest properties; and Inditex, owner of Zara, the fashion retailer founded by Amancio Ortega, the Spanish tycoon who is one of the world’s wealthiest men.
Kushner’s company survived, and he and Ivanka Trump became fixtures on the international boldface-name circuit.
Since 2012, Kushner Cos has acquired at least 120 properties, mostly a mix of commercial and residential buildings in New York and New Jersey, according to data compiled by Real Capital Analytics.
Anbang draws scrutiny
In 2015, Kushner began pursuing a grand vision for 666 Fifth Ave. Renowned architect Zaha Hadid was asked to come up with a design to resculpt the 40-story, 1950s-era aluminum-clad office building, adding apartments, a hotel and a mall and nearly tripling its height to 430 metres.
But the plan needed money, and while Kushner had managed to hang on to his family’s flagship building, it still had a lot of debt.
Anbang, which got its start as an auto insurance company in 2004, had become one of the most aggressive Chinese buyers of US real estate, and had begun investing in hotels. But its byzantine ownership structure had given rise to concern on Wall Street and in Washington.
Anbang’s structure has stoked such suspicion about its true ownership that some Wall Street firms, including Morgan Stanley, have opted not to advise the company on US mergers and acquisitions because they cannot get the information needed to satisfy their “know your client” guidelines.
While Anbang’s planned $US1.57 billion purchase of Des Moines-based Fidelity & Guaranty Life, first announced in November 2015, was cleared by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, it stalled after the New York state Department of Financial Services demanded more information about Anbang’s shareholding structure.
Anbang officials had cultivated a relationship with Benjamin M Lawsky, who had earlier led the financial services agency. Lawsky, by then a consultant, introduced Anbang to Kushner Cos, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. Lawsky declined to comment.
Kushner led the negotiations, Heller confirmed. Kushner Cos would disclose little else about the joint venture, except to say that Anbang would become one of the equity partners in the building’s redevelopment if an agreement is finalised. Anbang declined to comment.
By the time of the November 16 meeting, Kushner had decided to hand off certain business relationships, including the one with Anbang, to others at Kushner Cos, according to Heller.
Heller stressed that the US has “not found Anbang to be a state-owned enterprise” – an important technical point, given that the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause prohibits the acceptance of payments and gifts from foreign governments.
Should it consummate its deal with Anbang, she said, Kushner Cos will seek any necessary approvals from the federal government. She expressed confidence that any deal would pass muster with the foreign investment committee.
Come January. 20, when Trump is to be inaugurated, that committee will be made up of his cabinet members, and the process is such that the President has the final say.
The New York Times