BY SETH BERTOLUCCI
The Trumps in the White House come with a more expansive business empire than any presidential administration in American history. Indeed, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has an extensive business network from his time as a real estate mogul, prior to joining the Trump administration in January 2017. As has been widely reported, President Trump has tasked Kushner with an extensive list of responsibilities, including U.S.-Mexico relations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even a recent diplomatic mission to Baghdad. In fact, many pundits have even dubbed Kushner the “shadow secretary of state.”
The massive potential for conflicts of interest between Kushner’s governmental responsibilities and his business interests were put on display the weekend before last when Kushner’s sister, Nicole Meyer, went to Shanghai, China, in an attempt to garner $150 million in financing for a real estate project in New Jersey. The trip itself was not an issue, but Meyer’s choice of words in her speech to Chinese investors certainly raised eyebrows.
Meyer advertised the project, two towers with 1,476 luxury apartments known as “One Journal Square,” as coming from the “star Kushner real estate family.” Meyer mentioned that investors in the project could gain EB-5 visas, controversial travel visas issued to those who invest more than $500,000 into business projects in the United States. And Meyer further stated that the project “means a lot to me and my entire family,” implying a connection between the project and Jared Kushner.
Kushner owned a stake in Meyer’s New Jersey project until January 2017. After January, Kushner began his work with the White House and attempted to divest from his assets. However he remains the beneficiary of trusts totaling $600 million in value, with much of that money based in Kushner properties. As a result, a variety of government ethicists have raised concerns that Kushner’s divestment does not go far enough.
This past Friday, however, Meyer’s company Kushner Companies announced that no members of the Kushner family, nor any other Kushner Companies executives, will participate in upcoming investment pitches in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Wuhan. Nonetheless, the company plans to continue courting investors, and there were no plans released to table its offer of EB-5 visas for those willing to invest $500,000 or more.
While Kushner’s lawyers insist there is no conflict of interest in his sister’s quest for Chinese investors, government ethicists are questioning how these types of business connections affect the Trump administration’s relationship with the rest of the world. Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, sees the investment speech as an issue. “You’re getting a chance…to basically do business with the government or the family of people high up in the government. And it’s a very valuable thing in a lot of other countries,” Noble said.
Regardless of whether Meyer’s pitch to Chinese investors was truly improper, foreign investors may have perceived it as an opportunity for unprecedented access to the Trump administration. Chinese citizens looking for influence in the American political system will almost certainly see Meyer’s pitch as a means of cozying up to the White House. With Kushner’s former companies so deeply invested in China, and with Kushner standing to gain financially from Chinese investments, the president’s favorite advisor may find himself supporting policies in the Chinese interest while President Trump pledges to renegotiate “unfair” terms of trade with the very same country.
Even though there are still lingering questions about President Trump’s conflicts of interest, such as his travel ban that excluded Middle East countries with substantial Trump-brand investments, Kushner’s potential for bias adds even more cause for concern. Meyer’s pitch may also signal to other foreign investors that the Trump administration is open for access as long as generous business investments are made. The practice of making investments to buy access to the government is also quite common in Russia as well as the Middle East, further raising alarm about the Trump administration’s potential for corruption stretching far beyond China.
With Mr. Kushner’s sprawling business empire not poised to be reined in any time soon, is American foreign policy up for sale?