Jared Kushner’s business links and US policies
Jared Kushner isn’t just any other real estate developer. Trump has given his son-in-law a broad mandate to shape White House policy towards the Middle East
As you may recall, the Jared Kushner family owns a troubled skyscraper in Manhattan located at 666 Fifth Avenue. Kushner bought the building in 2007 for a record-setting $1.8 billion, a lofty price that marked the young developer’s entry into high-profile New York dealmaking while also threatening to strain his family’s personal finances should the transaction not work out. It didn’t work out. Now, help is finally on the way. And suddenly it’s not just a story about a New York real estate deal, but one that raises questions about the commingling of private business interests with the public policy of the US.
It begins with Kushner, who later became the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, in control of a building with low occupancy rates and not enough cash flow to comfortably manage payments on the buckets of debt he took on to buy it in the first place. The global financial crisis that erupted in 2008 made real estate an even more perilous endeavour and Kushner was forced to find a partner who could bail him out. He struck a series of deals years ago that ultimately left Vornado Realty Trust, a major New York developer, with a 49.5% stake in the tower’s office space and in control of the building’s desirable retail space. The Kushners found themselves on the hook for an $80 million high-interest loan that Vornado extended to the family. They also were obligated to make good on a $1.2 billion mortgage on 666 Fifth coming due in early 2019. How, the Manhattan real estate community wondered, would Kushner find his way out of the mess he had created?
Kushner appears to have found the answer to that question in Canada. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Brookfield Asset Management Inc., a well-regarded Canadian developer, had stepped into the financial breach. Brookfield, according to Bloomberg News, plans to buy out Vornado’s stake in the building’s offices and provide funds to update the rest of the tower. Brookfield will do that in a partnership with the Kushners, but the terms of the partnership weren’t revealed.
And therein lies the key to telling whether it’s a solid real-estate deal or a tainted one.
The Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), which is controlled by the government of Qatar, is an investor in Brookfield and an occasional partner in joint ventures involving both enterprises. That doesn’t mean that QIA is an investor in 666 Fifth, however. In fact, a Brookfield spokesperson said in an email on Thursday that “no Qatar-linked entity has any involvement in, investment in or even knowledge of this potential transaction.”
Why the fuss about Qatar and the Kushners, then? Well, Kushner isn’t just any other developer. Trump has given his son-in-law a broad mandate to shape White House policy towards the Middle East. Trump confidently declared in a dinner with donors on the eve of his inauguration last year that if Kushner “can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can”. Kushner helped open the new US embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, amid violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians along the Gaza Strip. Dozens of Palestinians were killed in the confrontation.
Kushner has accompanied Trump on high-level visits to the Middle East and he has travelled occasionally to Saudi Arabia on his own as well. Kushner unsuccessfully lobbied the Qatari government to invest in 666 Fifth a month before he reportedly signed on to a US-approved economic blockade of Qatar early last year.
Kushner has been disappointed by overseas investors before. Early last year, a major Chinese investor, the Anbang Insurance Group, decided not to pour billions of dollars into 666 Fifth after Bloomberg News and The New York Times reported the deal’s details. In exchange for a $4 billion investment from Anbang (which would have valued 666 Fifth at $2.85 billion while also refinancing about $1.15 billion in debt on the building), the Kushners would have been able to take home $400 million and even retain a minority ownership stake in 666 Fifth. It was a very sweet deal—so sweet that once its terms became public, Anbang backed out.
Kushner had begun courting Anbang when Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee for president in the summer of 2016. After Trump won the election, Kushner met with Russia’s ambassador to the US, who arranged for Kushner to meet the chief executive of a Russian bank closely tied to the Kremlin. Kushner testified before Congress that he didn’t discuss business with the Russian banker. The Kushner family has clearly discussed business with the Qataris, however. Bloomberg News reported last summer about the Kushners’ earlier efforts to raise money in Qatar. More recent discussions that have also involved Brookfield may have been straightforward business discussions. Brookfield is a desirable partner and the Kushners have done other deals with Brookfield in New York and New Jersey.
If the terms of the Brookfield deal for 666 Fifth are favourable to both of those parties—and don’t seem to disproportionately reward the Kushners in the way the Anbang deal appeared to—then this may just be another day in the New York real estate market. Nobody will be able to make that call, however, until the terms are made public.
In the meantime, the pending deal for 666 Fifth raises a question that has to be asked: Is this yet another of the unseemly collisions between private deal making and public policymaking that have tainted the Trump White House and its occupants? Bloomberg View
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion.
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