Crossroads for Kushner

At the beginning of the Trump administration, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was given a portfolio Superman would have struggled to fill. Kushner wasn’t even Clark Kent. The 36-year-old second generation real estate tycoon had an undistinguished business career and zero government experience. A mediocre student, Kushner attended Harvard because his father gifted the school $2.5 million. Nonetheless, Trump put Kushner in charge of brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians, improving government technology, directing criminal justice reform, tackling the opioid epidemic, reforming the Veterans Administration and serving as the U.S. liaison to Mexico, China and the Muslim community.

Either Donald Trump thought his son-in-law was a genius or was ridiculing his ambition. If the metric was tangible progress on these world-altering tasks, Trump clearly set up the young man to fail.

Or perhaps, Donald Trump had another purpose for Kushner, apart from his official responsibilities.

In the game of musical chairs that has become his father-in-law’s administration, did Trump tap Kushner to be the last man standing when the music stops? Trump’s motivations concerning Kushner will take on greater importance in the months to come, when hard choices may become inevitable.

In the early days of the administration, Kushner was everywhere. He was in attendance at most important White House meetings. His youthful face easy to spot in official photos. Press accounts of the internecine struggles gripping the White House inevitably included a description of whose side Kushner and wife Ivanka favored.

Then came the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which inexorably led to the appointment of the special prosecutor. Kushner allegedly counseled the president to sack Comey. Today, Kushner mostly stays out of view. He is no longer the man by the president’s side, at least in public. However, disentangling oneself from press releases does not guarantee an escape from news accounts.

Recent reports have claimed the IRS, the DOJ and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are all looking at either Kushner or business dealings in which he or his family participated. His lawyers deny he is the target of any investigation.

Unfortunately for Kushner, he is tailor-made for prosecutors, presenting a trifecta of criminal tells. Kushner possesses both the means and the motive for breaking the law. He is also curiously cagey. When it comes to his financial activities, Kushner acts as if he has a lot to hide.

On the question of means, there are few in closer proximity to power. As to motive, aside from the eager ambition of an entitled naïf and the desire for his father-in-law to win the presidency, Kushner’s privately held family company is drowning in more than a billion dollars of debt.

And oh, the stories Kushner could tell.

He has first-hand information about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians but that’s only the beginning of what he knows. His connections to Bibi Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have created further opportunities for private financial gain and fodder to share about Trump.

Kushner was intimately involved at every step of the campaign. He was present at the infamous June 2016 meeting where Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort met with several Kremlin-connected Russians to receive dirt on the Clinton campaign. After the election, he continued to see Russians officials, even though they represented a foreign adversary widely acknowledged to have committed a cyberattack against the nation, albeit one on Trump’s behalf.

In December, Kushner met with Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at Trump Tower where he discussed establishing an unprecedented secure line between the Trump transition and Russia that would be out of earshot of U.S. intelligence officials. Seasoned intelligence professionals were aghast. On whose behalf did Kushner act? For what purpose? And once the Trumps were in the White House, did they go ahead and install a server or create a backchannel communication to Putin anyway?

Then Kislyak arranged a meeting for Kushner with Sergey Gorkov, the CEO of Russia’s state-owned bank Vnesheconombank (VEB). The bank had served as a slush fund for Vladimir Putin and was under sanction by the U.S. government. Descriptions of the meeting conflict. Kushner says he was there as part of the Trump transition. VEB says it was about the Kushner family’s real estate business. One could conclude the Russians do not have Kushner’s back.

Kushner’s family business is in a bad state. His father, Charles Kushner, was released from federal custody in August 2006. He had served a 14-month stint on a two-year sentence for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations. Charlie returned with a vengeance. The family purchased 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion soon after his release. The building has become an albatross, never reaching satisfactory occupancy levels.

The unfortunately numbered Fifth Avenue property was only the beginning of the buying spree. The Kushners purchased two massive properties within spitting distance of the Brooklyn Bridge for almost $700 million. In the years before the election, the Kushners added well over 100 additional properties. To fuel the expansion, Kushner and his family gorged on debt. The origins of some of their financing remains hidden through the secrecy world, a haze of shell companies, tax havens and anonymous foreign investors.

By the time Trump improbably won the White House, the Kushners were in desperate need of new investors. They were massively overleveraged. On the 666 Fifth Avenue property alone they owed a $1.2 billion mortgage scheduled to come due in February 2019.

Kushner co-mingled his search for real estate financing with his official government duties. Reporters and prosecutors noticed. The practice of embracing private self-interest while ostensibly working for the public was normalized at the top but Kushner was clumsier than his father-in-law.

During the transition, Kushner pursued Chinese insurance giant Anbang – itself an opaquely-financed real estate investor but one with ties to the Chinese government – to buy 666 Fifth Avenue. Kushner did so while simultaneously spearheading the Trump administration’s outreach to China. Anbang backed away from the 666 Fifth Avenue deal over the conflicts. A year later the Chinese government seized control of the company citing financial improprieties.

The Kushners also hatched a scheme to sell foreigners green cards in exchange for investing at least half a million dollars in their real estate deals. Prosecutors and the SEC are said to be scrutinizing these efforts.

A month before Election Day, the Kushner company scored a $285 million loan as part of a refinancing for its property near Times Square in Manhattan. The loan came from Deutsche Bank. The German bank has provided a rich vein of money for Trump World. U.S. prosecutors are said to be looking at the bank’s relationship with the Kushners.

In Germany, they joke that any gathering of more than two Deutsche Bank executives is a criminal conspiracy. The bank was recently fined $630 million for laundering billions of dollars of sketchy Russian money. It reached a $7.2 billion settlement with the Justice Department for its role in feeding the toxic mortgage frenzy behind the 2008 financial crisis. Deutsche also agreed to pay $2.5 billion for its manipulation of interest rates. Given its frequent clashes with regulators, the relationship between Deutsche Bank and Trump & Co. raises multiple issues.

Kushner has exhibited a curious pattern of secrecy and misleading disclosures. The tone once again was set at the top with Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. Kushner though does not have the same authority or mandate as his father-in-law in this regard. He is required by law as a government employee to disclose his finances, among other details.

The financing behind the Kushner real estate empire remains opaque. The family is fighting hard for it to stay secret. Media organizations sued in federal court to find out the details of who invested in a Kushner property in Maryland. When a federal district judge ruled that the Kushners had to reveal the information, the family’s lawyers filed to move the case to state court.

After pillorying Hillary Clinton during the campaign for having a private email server, it emerged that Kushner and Ivanka had conducted official Trump administration business through private email. Much has been made in the media of the hypocrisy but less so over what they may or may not be hiding.

Kushner and Ivanka have updated their financial disclosure forms dozens of times since first filing them. Even with their additions, the forms are still missing key information. Kushner is also required to reveal his contacts with foreign officials. He filed three updates just last year to the questionnaire that details contacts with foreign officials. These contacts also have become a point of interest for Mueller, according to media reports.

Kushner has only held an interim security clearance since Trump took office. It appears the DOJ has argued against his receiving full clearance. High-level access to the most sensitive secrets of the United States government and the ability to influence policy can be monetized in any number of ways. Despite not having full clearance, The Washington Post reported Kushner makes more requests for information to the intelligence community than any White House employee outside of the national security council.

Kushner is fiercely resisting any attempt to downgrade his access. According to press accounts, there is a heated debate within the White House over whether Kushner will be granted full security clearance. The DOJ’s reticence may be an indication of the seriousness of the investigations swirling around Kushner and whether his family business can withstand a determined deep dive by prosecutors.

His father-in-law could end the debate this minute. Trump has the power to grant a full security clearance to Kushner immediately. Instead, he has chosen to leave the decision to his chief of staff while praising his son-in-law as “truly outstanding” and “an extraordinary dealmaker.”

Why won’t Trump let Kushner off the hook? Does he see trouble ahead? Was this the praise of death?

Kushner allegedly stepped down from the family business when he joined the administration, opting for a transfer of assets to relatives, the same pseudo divestment as Trump. It is possible that Jared Kushner is everything his lawyers and public relations team claim him to be – innocent as the driven snow – a simple public servant who labors hard on behalf of the people at incredible personal sacrifice.

Given time and resources, Mueller will find out one way or another.

With the plea deal of Rick Gates, the special prosecutor is one step closer. Kushner and Gates worked closely together during the campaign and transition. Gates might be able to shed light on Kushner activities concerning Cambridge Analytica as well as contacts with Russia, among other matters.

The special prosecutor has shown a willingness to grant immunity or strike plea deals in exchange for testimony. To gain such a deal one presumably needs to be able to offer high value to the investigation. There is only one person above Jared Kushner that would provide the most benefit to prosecutors.

In a scenario where the special counsel finds serious criminal wrongdoing by Kushner, the president’s son-in-law would need to be completely truthful, offering “full cooperation,” as the condition of any plea agreement. Mueller has some incredibly talented prosecutors and investigators at his disposal. They know the right questions to ask. Lies and misrepresentations end the deal and bring additional penalties.

Some part of Donald Trump must believe that the American people gave him the keys to the Big Rock Candy Mountain, a conman’s paradise where one lives entirely above the law. His buddies Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman happily reside there. Why not The Donald?

Kushner could disabuse Trump of that notion, salvage the American ideal of equality before the law, and become a hero to a majority of the country in the process. Or he could take whatever hit prosecutors throw at him and remain within the bosom of the family into which he married – sweetened perhaps with the promise of some future favor.

There are many factors Kushner must calculate in such a decision. Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be an untrustworthy ally. Kushner is not blood; he is expendable. Forced to choose, Ivanka would go with her father.

Kushner is the perfect fall guy, foolishly ambitious and overextended, entangled enough to ensure loyalty and prosecutor catnip.

In the above scenario, everything will depend on the size of the legal jeopardy Kushner faces and whether there is a Superman in there after all.



New Financial Secrecy Index

There is much to pick over in the new Financial Secrecy rankings released today by the Tax Justice Network. The last time TJN released its index was in 2015.

TJN’s index seeks to rank places by their secrecy and the scale of their offshore financial activities. It offers a way to both highlight who the worst offenders are in the secrecy world and track those who have improved. The goal is to provide insight into global financial secrecy, illicit financial flows, tax evasion, capital flight and the operation of tax havens.

Since the index’s first appearance in 2009, it has demonstrated that tax havens are not necessarily places with palm trees and tropical breezes.

Once again, the United States is at or near the top of the rankings, number two, in this case. TJN combines both a secrecy score and a weighting based on impact to arrive at its score. The USA is not the most secretive jurisdiction; Vanuatu has that dishonor. While the secrecy number for the US is a significant 59%, its global weighting of 22% is what vaults it to dominance in the rankings.

In the secrecy world – the offshore system through which TJN estimates $21 to $32 trillion flow – the United States and the United Kingdom are the biggest players. These giants set the rules, often by doing nothing. Any abuses that occur happen in part because these dominant players tolerate them.

If the United States is the number two secrecy jurisdiction in the world, Delaware is a big reason why. Delaware is literally the template for incorporation laws from Panama to the British Virgin Islands. The tiny state produced more than 128,000 LLCs in 2015.

Delaware’s public registry pulls in more than a billion dollars a year. Not surprisingly, Delaware has been at the forefront of beating back federal efforts to make the US more transparent.

An estimated $300 billion is laundered through the United States annually. Delaware and states like Nevada and Wyoming play a big role. The U.S. Treasury Department has complained that Eurasian organized crime figures, among other criminals, employ Delaware companies.

According to TJN, the United States was one of the only places to see its secrecy increase in 2015 and the trend continues.

Jürgen Mossack, the founder of the firm whose data formed the Panama Papers, asserted that the biggest beneficiary of the leak investigation into Mossack Fonseca was the United States. He anticipated that the Americans would take advantage of the decline of Panama and the British Virgin Islands to grab a bigger slice of the business.

TJN notes:

Between 2015 and 2018 the US increased its market share in offshore financial services by 14%. In total the US accounts for 22.3% of the global market in offshore financial services.

Number one in TJN’s ranking is Switzerland. The alpine nation still offers the gold standard of secrecy with a score of 76%. In Europe, only Liechtenstein is higher with 78%. Switzerland’s prominence is somewhat surprising after the United States forced the country’s banks to fork over the names of American tax evaders. This was a sizeable crack in the country’s vaunted bank secrecy.

TJN describes the country’s current attitude as “white money for rich and powerful countries; black money for vulnerable and developing countries.” The Swiss bow to powerful nations like the United States but continue to offer the citizens of poorer nations the ability to evade taxes. This along with Switzerland’s “aggressive pursuit” of financial sector whistleblowers helped it earn its leading spot.

Today, Switzerland is lobbying the Trump administration to allow it to return to its old ways.

Luxembourg weighs in at number six. This founding member of the European Union has long acted as a brazen hub of legalized tax evasion. Since it mainly services corporate clients – and its former prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker is president of the European Commission – other EU countries have largely given it a pass despite its beggar-thy-neighbor economic strategy.

The TJN index and the Panama/Paradise Papers investigations reveal a secrecy world that acts like a living organism. It evolves and mutates to perpetuate its existence and evade controls. Also in the top ten are two locales – Singapore and Dubai – that are increasingly becoming the destination of choice for those who are spooked by tightening due diligence requirements elsewhere.

Singapore weighs in at number five:

An IMF report in 2014 estimated that “over 95 percent of all commercial banks in Singapore are affiliates of foreign banks: a testament to its extreme dependence on foreign – and offshore – money.” If you are curious where some of those Swiss accounts that were based in Geneva went, look to Singapore.

Dubai earns the ninth spot. According to TJN:

Dubai has an ask-no-questions, see-no-evil approach to commercial and financial regulation as well as foreign financial crimes. It has consequently attracted large financial flows and some of the world’s most high-profile criminals. A significant slice of the inbound money comes in the form of cash or gold.