After dropping his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, New Jersey governor Chris Christie shocked the political world by endorsing Donald Trump – giving the maverick candidate his first real stamp of approval days before the crucial Super Tuesday race. It was a move that stunned and disappointed the anti-Trump GOP establishment, including Christie’s own friends and supporters.
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Christie said he appreciated Trump “as a person, and as a friend,” and Trump, in turn described Christie as his “friend for many years” and a “spectacular governor.”
The lovefest raised eyebrows after the barbs and insults the two had thrown at each other during the campaign. Christie said in August that Trump didn’t have the “temperament” to be president and that his proposal for Mexico to pay for a wall made “no sense.” For his part, Trump called the New Jersey economy under Christie a “disaster.” At various points, the two men denigrated each other by saying that the other had acted like a child or teenager.
Underneath the backbiting, however, the two politicians share a strange and complicated connection: the wealthy and scandal-scarred Kushner family.
Trump's daughter, Ivanka, is married to Jared Kushner, the heir to a Garden State real estate empire, for whom she converted to Judaism and lives an Orthodox Jewish life. The Kushners, in turn, have a roller coaster history with Christie – enough of a soap opera that a “Law and Order” episode was built around it.
In Christie’s early career as a successful New Jersey U.S. attorney, he arrested and charged Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, with trying to foil an investigation into an alleged illicit activity through obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
The case reached telenovella proportions and grabbed national headlines after it was revealed that the elder Kushner hired a prostitute to entrap his brother-in-law and sent the tape to his sister, Esther, in an alleged effort to stop her from being a witness against him in a civil interfamily suit. The sleazy move seemed fit more for The Sopranos than for the religiously observant offspring of a family that is a pillar of New Jersey's Jewish philanthropic community.
Christie subsequently negotiated a plea agreement with Ivanka’s father-in-law in which Charles Kushner was sentenced to two years in federal prison in Alabama, though he was released in 2006 after just 14 months to spend the remainder of his sentence in a New Jersey halfway house.
Three years later, in 2009, Kushner and Trump stood under the chuppah together as their children Ivanka and Jared, were married. Jared has been a loyal husband and son-in-law ever since, appearing by his father-in-law’s side at campaign events as Trump's presidential bid took off in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Charles Kushner, a longtime supporter of the Democratic party, jumped party ship when he donated $100,000 to Trump’s PAC and hosted a Jersey Shore reception for Trump at his seaside mansion last summer, back when Trump was still lobbing insults at Christie.
Meanwhile, the rival branch of the Kushner clan is headed by Charles’s Republican brother, Murray, a major Christie ally. The two brothers have a deep and long-standing feud, so much so that New York Magazine described the history between them as “A Cain and Abel Story.” (The witness-tampering charges that Christie pursued grew out of a tangled web of civil lawsuits the brothers filed against each other.)
Unlike with Charles, the ties between Christie and Murray Kushner have remained strong over the years. In January 2014, one New Jersey political website wrote: “Murray Kushner has been among Chris Christie’s most loyal and generous donors” and also “demonstrated eye-popping generosity toward the New Jersey Republican State Committee."
In July 2015, another site reported that since 2009, Murray Kushner “has given $130,000 to Christie’s campaigns and state Republicans,” pointing out that while a connection can’t be proven, it can’t be ignored that “Kushner’s KRE group recently received a $40 million tax break from the Economic Development Authority, on top of a $33 million tax break in 2013 and a $42 million tax break in 2011. That’s also on top of a $50 million dollar investment in a KRE real estate project from the New Jersey pension fund.”
“One way to look at it: Kushner’s $130,000 in political donations has yielded a return of $165 million from the state," the article concluded.
Just as Charles Kushner has passed the baton of his real estate company to Jared while remaining involved in its dealings, so has Murray handed over the reins of his empire to his son, Jonathan.
The two first cousins are involved in parallel real estate developments around the corner from one another in Jersey City, both of which are in line for massive tax breaks from the Christie administration. Their proximity led one publication to joke whether it should be called “Kushner Square.”
Despite their shared business interests, there are no public signs of the bitter family feud abating. The big Kushner family seders once celebrated at Miami’s Fontainbleau Hotel, which ended years ago when the brothers stopped speaking, aren't likely to resume any time soon.
But who knows? If Christie, the political favorite son of Murray’s family, and Donald Trump, an actual member of Charles’s side of the family, can put aside their anger, kiss and make up, maybe there is hope for the Kushners, too.