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Behind The Kushners And The Trumps With 'American Oligarchs' Author Andrea Bernstein

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A new book looks at the many untruths on which the Trump administration has been built. It's called "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power." Author Andrea Bernstein spoke with our co-host Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Andrea Bernstein looks at the generations of the Kushner and Trump families - how they built their real estate businesses in New Jersey and New York, the fabrications it took to stay on top and how all of that affects the U.S. presidency. Bernstein roots Jared Kushner's family story in how his grandmother Rae Kushner and members of her family survived the Holocaust. The family business was what kept them alive during the early part of the war.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Jared Kushner's grandmother was saved because the Nazis came, and they said, is anybody here a furrier? They needed families to make hats and coats for the German army and their press towards Moscow. So the Kushners were spared.

They lived in a ghetto during the war. They were essentially enslaved. They had very little to eat. They had to work for the Nazi war machine. And over the course of World War II, successive groups of Jews were taken and killed by the Nazis. And by the summer of 1943, they realized that it was only a matter of time before they were killed, too. So they developed a plan to escape to the forest because they knew that there was a band of Jewish partisans in the forest...

CHANG: Right.

BERNSTEIN: ...And that if they could get to the forest, they could survive.

CHANG: Rae Kushner met Jared Kushner's grandfather Joseph before the war, but they ended up meeting again when they were fleeing Poland. The two married in Budapest and eventually made their way together to the United States.

BERNSTEIN: The Kushners arrived in America with $2 in their pocket. And Jared Kushner's grandfather was a carpenter, and he immediately went to work. And this was a time in America where the federal government was helping home builders in a variety of ways. So there were new loans, new mortgage structures for the federal government to help people buy homes. There was the Federal Highway Act, which helped people get to all those new homes. And there were, of course, all these returning GIs that needed those homes, so it was a great time to be in real estate. And for the Kushner family, we know from Rae's testimony and from the records that were left about Joe and their children, Charlie and Murray, both of whom had real estate businesses - that for them, being successful builders was a way of saying to the Nazis, we have won.

CHANG: Though with Charlie Kushner - that's Jared's father - I mean, he ended up using the real estate business as a way to gain political access - right? - which is one of the things that got him into trouble with the law and got him sent to prison.

BERNSTEIN: Right. What happened was - is the Kushner family had to break rules to get into the United States. They had to cross international borders illegally. They had to fudge family relationships in order to immigrate. And breaking rules and not going by what the authorities wanted them to do became a family point of pride.

CHANG: It became a way to survive.

BERNSTEIN: It became a way to survive. But what happened with Charlie's business is that he began to break the law. He began to make donations that he wasn't allowed to make, and he began paying for things out of his family business that were ultimately turned out to be tax evasion. Charlie Kushner is eventually called to account for his violations of tax and campaign finance law and pleads guilty...

CHANG: Right.

BERNSTEIN: ...And goes to prison for a year.

CHANG: And his son Jared famously sticks with him all the way through.

BERNSTEIN: All the way through.

CHANG: Now, when you look at the way that the Kushner family ran its real estate business before Charlie Kushner's prison sentence, how would you compare the way that family operated and the way the Trumps operated in their own real estate business?

BERNSTEIN: Well, in New York and New Jersey, real estate is a famously shady business, and people who own real estate and who develop real estate understand that they need political favor, that that is part of the capital that they are building up. Both the Kushner family and the Trump family were part of the system, but they both pushed it far beyond the limits.

Charlie Kushner was convicted and sent to jail for the way he ran his real estate business. Fred Trump, Donald Trump's father, was questioned by U.S. Senate investigators. He was investigated by a New York state commission on investigation. Donald Trump was investigated several times by law enforcement in New York for his deals.

But they never faced any consequences. And each time they didn't face consequences, they continued to press the limits. They continued to cross lines. They continued to manipulate money and people in a way that would further their family business interests.

CHANG: I mean, ultimately, you are interested in the parallels and the intersections between these two family stories - the Trumps and the Kushners - because they're both in the executive branch now. And the case that you make throughout your book is that with the Trumps, they don't see much difference between the national interest and the family's interests. Is that why you're describing what we're seeing now as an oligarchy?

BERNSTEIN: That's right. There are two things you need for an oligarchy. You need to be able to control government officials, and you need to be able to control law enforcement. And in New York, private real estate developers have figured out how to do that particularly well, and the Trump family even more so than most families.

Donald Trump, when he became a real estate developer, worked particularly aggressive to develop his government ties. When he was running for president, he talked about this openly. He said, I contribute to people, and when I call them, they give to me. He understood a transactional relationship with government - that government was there to help along private businesses and to help his family's business interests. When you have wealthy people controlling government over democratic processes, you are approaching an oligarchy. And that is where we are now in America.

CHANG: I mean, when I'm reading your book, I'm thinking, how hopeful does Andrea feel about the future of democracy? And you do, at the very end, make a reference back to Rae Kushner. Remember. She's Jared Kushner's grandmother who survived the Holocaust. And you talk about how she wanted to retell the story of the Holocaust because she believed remembering the past ensured against repeating the evils of the past. Why did that resonate for you in writing this book about these two families?

BERNSTEIN: I thought a lot about offering hope. And I didn't want to say I feel falsely hopeful, but I do think that I would not do what I do if I didn't have some fundamental sense of hope that telling the story would create a record that would, in some ways, be prophylactic against further bad consequences. And that's what Jared Kushner's grandmother Rae said, also. She said she was telling this story because she wanted people to watch who came up on top of their government, and she had seen the horrible consequences. And I thought a lot about that message that she had said - you need to document what's happening; you need to tell the story. And I became - to truly believe that telling the story is an act of hope.

CHANG: Thank you so much for your reporting, Andrea.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you, Ailsa. It's great to talk to you.

CHANG: Andrea Bernstein's new book is called "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power."

(SOUNDBITE OF THOM YORKE SONG, "ATOMS FOR PEACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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