Jared Kushner, Easy Mark

(Bloomberg View) -- So folks from the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico have reportedly targeted Jared Kushner, the man President Donald Trump assigned to bring peace to the Middle East and to overhaul the federal government, as malleable and easily manipulated.

As the Washington Post put it in a scoop it published Tuesday night, foreign powers see young Jared as vulnerable because of “his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.” The Post’s reporting was sourced to current and former U.S. officials knowledgeable about intelligence reports relaying discussions foreign officials have had about the president’s son-in-law.

The Post’s report also could have been sourced to common sense. As the old poker adage goes: If you’re seated at a card table with several people and you don’t know who the mark is, guess what? You’re the mark. And Kushner is always the mark in the sprawling, complex and perilous poker game that encompasses international affairs.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Trump has made many reckless appointments over the last 13 months, but Kushner’s was singularly dubious because he’s not only inexperienced and ill-suited for the hefty government portfolio he has, he’s also a poster boy for the financial conflicts of interest that continue to make the Trump White House smell like a shopping mall.

Kushner, lest you’ve forgotten, vastly overpaid over a decade ago for a trophy property in Manhattan, 666 Fifth Avenue, that has saddled his family’s real estate operation with piles of unmanageable debt. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the family intended to try to buy the portion of 666 Fifth that it doesn’t already own from Vornado Realty Trust, the company that bailed out Kushner by taking a 49.5 percent stake in the tower in 2011.

Perhaps the Kushners have the funds they need to pull that off, but you have to wonder. The property has lots of vacancies and doesn’t generate enough cash to pay the debt on the building, and the Kushners and their Vornado partners have been digging into their own wallets to keep the skyscraper afloat. It sure doesn’t look like the Kushners have the financial wherewithal to buy out their partners in a money-losing property drowning in debt.

After all, that financial conundrum is one thing that originally drew federal investigators led by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller to examine Jared Kushner’s business dealings.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been probing conversations Kushner had in December 2016 with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, during a stretch when Kushner was seeking investors for 666 Fifth. Kislyak arranged a meeting between Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, the head of a major Russian bank, Vnesheconombank, also known as VEB.

The U.S. had imposed financial sanctions on VEB because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military incursions in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. VEB has close ties to the Kremlin, and Gorkov attended a training academy for members of Russia’s security and intelligence services.

A Trump spokeswoman said that Kushner’s meetings with the Russians were routine, which is possible since he was acting as the president-elect’s liaison to foreign powers during the transition period after the 2016 election. But given how pivotal 666 Fifth was (and is) to his family’s fortunes, it’s also possible that Kushner saw the Russians as investors who could rescue him.

Remember, Kushner also spent several months in 2016 lobbying Anbang, an insurer and deal-maker close to China’s government, for a major investment in 666 Fifth. Anbang had considered investing $4 billion in the building, which would have valued it at a handsome $2.85 billion, and also refinanced about $1.15 billion in debt.

The possibility of that transaction brought scrutiny from two Bloomberg News reporters, Caleb Melby and David Kocieniewski, as well as from Congress and the New York Times. I discussed it in 2017, in columns on March 14 and March 29. The Anbang deal faded after the Bloomberg report and Anbang was taken over just days ago by China’s government amid fraud charges leveled against the insurer’s chairman.

Could Russia and China have been two countries that also saw Kushner as an easy mark? I don’t know, you decide.

According to the Post, White House officials were alarmed about Kushner’s more recent diplomatic forays. They were worried that he was “naive and being tricked” in his interactions with foreign officials, “some of whom said they wanted to deal only with Kushner directly and not more experienced personnel.”

Kushner, now 37, has been wheeling and dealing in the White House over the last year without a permanent security clearance. Politico reported on Tuesday that Kushner’s interim security clearance was recently downgraded from “top-secret” to “secret,” which will limit his access to highly classified information.

Meanwhile, according to the Post, Kushner has had contacts with foreign officials that he did not report or vet through the proper national security channels. And Mueller, the Post also said, is inquiring about the official protocols Kushner followed when setting up meetings with foreign leaders.

The scrutiny is long overdue. Kushner should never have had the role he has in the first place. But because of the president’s poor judgment and ethical blind spots, there’s a mark in the Oval Office.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."

To contact the author of this story: Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net.

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