The election results were rolling in, and so were the phone calls for Donald Trump. But no matter who was on the other end of the line, the person handing the phone to the next president of the United States was the same.
“Jared was screening the calls,” said Armstrong Williams, a political ally who described the scene in Trump’s Manhattan skyscraper on election night.
That would be Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and his election-night role provides a glimpse of the enormous influence he wields as Trump prepares to take office in January. As the husband of Ivanka Trump, the president-elect’s elder daughter, Kushner holds an unassailable position inside Trump’s unruly ecosystem of advisors.
Another sign came two days after the election, when Trump met with President Obama. Kushner strolled the White House complex with Obama’s chief of staff, a pairing that suggested his status in the incoming administration.
The 35-year-old Kushner is not likely to have a formal role in the White House, said Jason Miller, the communications director for Trump’s transition team. An official appointment would test an anti-nepotism law enacted after President John F. Kennedy made his brother, Robert, his attorney general.
But Kushner, whom Miller described as Trump’s “eyes and ears” during the campaign, is likely to remain a key figure.
On Tuesday, Trump suggested to the New York Times that Kushner, an observant Jew and dedicated supporter of Israel, could help negotiate peace in the Middle East. He already participated in a meeting with Trump and Japan’s prime minister last week.
“The president-elect knows that the only person Jared is looking out for is the president-elect,” Miller said. “He doesn’t have any other agendas or motives or fiefdoms. And in the world of politics … that’s frequently hard to find.”
Past presidents have similarly turned to family members as advisors and, in some cases, enforcers. In the George H.W. Bush administration, for example, the president’s son, George W. Bush, played an important behind-the-scenes role in ensuring fealty was paid to the president.
But Trump, who comes from the tribal world of real estate, has only a small circle of political professionals, giving relatives like Kushner an outsized voice in his orbit.
Before Kushner joined Trump’s family, he learned the role of loyalty from his own.
Kushner’s father, Charles, is the son of Holocaust survivors and the architect of a real estate empire in New Jersey. He donated generously to schools, charities and Democratic politicians, but his finances caught the attention of federal authorities, led by the then-U.S. Atty. Chris Christie, who investigated him for tax evasion and improper campaign contributions.
The investigation took an ugly turn as the elder Kushner’s brother and sister cooperated with authorities, and he sought revenge in a sordid sting operation. He hired a prostitute to seduce his sister’s husband, videotaped the sexual encounter in a motel room, and mailed the recording to his sister.
The scheme backfired, becoming one more piece of the federal case against him. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.
The case tore apart the family but did not shake Jared Kushner’s devotion to his father.
“I felt what happened was obviously unjust in terms of the way [prosecutors] pursued him,” he told the Real Deal, a real estate website, in 2014.
The prosecution of Charles Kushner was one of the high-profile cases that helped propel Christie, a Republican, into New Jersey’s governorship in 2010. This year, Christie became a major surrogate for Trump, whom he endorsed after ending his own White House bid. In the spring, Trump tapped Christie to head his transition planning.
There was a détente between Christie and Jared Kushner that lasted until after the election, when Christie was abruptly sidelined.
Kushner denied that he personally pushed out the governor.
“Six months ago, Gov. Christie and I decided this election was much bigger than any differences we may have had in the past, and we worked very well together,” he told Forbes in the only interview he has given about the campaign. “I was not behind pushing out him or his people.”
Exactly how Christie’s downfall came about remains shrouded, but Kushner’s ability to achieve goals without leaving obvious signs fits his pattern.
“There are a lot of personalities in politics that when you cross them, you know it immediately. Jared won’t show it,” said Orin Kramer, a hedge fund executive and Democratic fundraiser who met Kushner through New Jersey political circles. “But I wouldn’t cross him.”
Kushner was only 24 when his father went to prison, but had already been groomed for the political and real estate worlds. Former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) remembers him as a middle school student tagging along with his father to meetings with elected officials.
“He was interested and willing to come to meetings with people far older to talk about seemingly esoteric subjects like the economy or foreign policy,” Torricelli said.
Kushner’s father also paved the way for him to attend Harvard, pledging $2.5 million in donations, according to “The Price of Admission,” a book by Daniel Golden about how the wealthy can buy their way into elite institutions. His favorite extracurricular activity, Kushner later told the New York Daily News, was buying and flipping apartment buildings nearby.
He started making political contributions in his own name when he was 18. Since then, he’s donated $44,400 to New Jersey politicians and $135,450 to federal campaigns, according to reports filed with the government. With the exception of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, almost all of the money went to Democrats, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Hillary Clinton.
At an age when many are hunting for their first jobs, Kushner was entering the upper levels of New York society. He purchased the New York Observer, a Manhattan-based newspaper known for its elite readership, and a downtown office tower that became his company’s base of operations.
“He looks young. But he doesn’t act young,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a prestigious business group. “I’m double his age, and I take him very seriously.”
Kushner married Ivanka Trump in 2009 — the ceremony was held at her father’s golf course in New Jersey — and they have three young children.
“If Jared is going to call you in the morning, it won’t be before 9 or 10 o’clock, because he always has breakfast with his wife and kids,” said Williams, who advised former Republican candidate Ben Carson during the presidential primary.
Despite overseeing the purchase and sale of billions of dollars in property over the last decade, Kushner is the kind of person who cleans up after meetings even when they’re not in his own office, said Asher Abehsera, a fellow real estate executive.
“People get caught off balance,” he said. “That’s really how he is.”
Kushner worked with Abehsera on transforming a series of Brooklyn buildings formerly owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses into a campus for technology companies, including Etsy, the online marketplace for craft products.
His eye on the tech world would later serve Trump well. Despite turmoil within the campaign leadership — Trump cycled through a succession of top advisors before settling on a winning team — Kushner reportedly helped create the online fundraising and data analysis operations that helped achieve victory.
He became known as a trusted, behind-the-scenes power broker.
“I helped facilitate a lot of relationships that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” Kushner told Forbes.
One of Kushner’s only previous public comments about the campaign came in a column in his own newspaper. Although Trump has attracted support from white nationalists and anti-Semites, Kushner defended him against charges of prejudice.
“The fact is that my father-in-law is an incredibly loving and tolerant person who has embraced my family and our Judaism since I began dating my wife,” Kushner wrote.
It was yet another display of loyalty.
No matter what, Williams said, “he watches his father-in-law’s back, like a hawk.”