Kushner vs. Christie: The nasty Trump transition fight that goes back a decade

Intrigue surrounds Kushner's transition role
Intrigue surrounds Kushner's transition role

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Story highlights

  • Real estate mogul Charles Kushner is the father of Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump's husband
  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie prosecuted Charles Kushner when he was a US attorney

(CNN)The first time Chris Christie squared off with a Kushner, the scene was a federal court and the outcome -- along with all the tabloid drama -- helped vault the future governor of New Jersey into the Republican elite.

His opponent then, in the early 2000s, was the billionaire real estate developer Charles Kushner. Also a prominent Democratic political donor, Kushner's criminal tax evasion and witness tampering case won Christie, then a US attorney, triumphant headlines in the country's largest media market.
    More than ten years later, first as Donald Trump's Republican primary campaign gained traction and now as the President-elect stitches together his administration, Christie has again found himself seated across from a Kushner -- one seemingly determined to curb his ambitions and frustrate his plans at every turn.
    This time around, though, it is Jared Kushner, son of Charles, and husband to Ivanka Trump. The younger Kushner has emerged as one of Trump's most trusted advisers and a power broker inside what has been a tumultuous transition process. Sources have put Kushner, 35, at the center of pitched "infighting" over the composition and direction of the team, most notably the dismissal of Christie, who was displaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and his earlier hires.
    "There are people who are in and people who are out," former Congressman Mike Rogers, who was ousted on Monday, told CNN's Anderson Cooper Tuesday night. "And the people who have been asked to move on have some relationship with Chris Christie."
    Trump fought back against the depiction that his transition team was having issues, tweeting Wednesday. "Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!" Trump's surrogates have also publicly dismissed the idea of infighting to reporters.
    Kushner was a student when Christie took on his father. In 2014, he told The Real Deal, a New York real estate news publication, that the case put him off a career in criminal law.
    Here's how he described the experience:
    "My dad's arrest made me realize I didn't want to be a prosecutor anymore," he said. "The law is so nuanced. If you're convicting murderers, it's one thing. It's often fairly clear. When you get into things like white-collar crime, there are often a lot of nuances. Seeing my father's situation, I felt what happened was obviously unjust in terms of the way they pursued him. I just never wanted to be on the other side of that and cause pain to the families I was doing that to, whether right or wrong. The moral weight of that was probably a bit more than I could carry."
    The "obviously unjust" pursuit, as Kushner put it, was carried out by Christie and his office. And the prosecutor, in his public statements at the time, did not seem particularly concerned with massaging the family's wounds.
    After Charles Kushner pleaded guilty to 16 counts of tax evasion, one count of retaliating against a federal witness -- his brother-in-law (more on that below) -- and another count of lying to the Federal Election Commission, Christie put out a statement calling the deal a "great victory for the people of New Jersey."
    Months later, Christie went a step further, expressing his pleasure in triumphant terms when Kushner was sentenced to two years in prison. The punishment, he said at the time, "sends a strong message that when you commit the vile and heinous acts that he has committed, you will be caught and punished."
    The statement landed not only a rhetorical twist of the knife, but called to mind the absurd revenge plot hatched and executed by Charles Kushner in December 2003.
    Under investigation at the time for making illegal campaign contributions, Kushner targeted his brother-in-law, William Schulder, a former employee turned witness for federal prosecutors in their case against the Democratic donor.
    In retaliation, Kushner hired a prostitute to lure Schulder into having sex in a Bridgewater, New Jersey, motel room as a hidden camera rolled. A tape of the encounter was then sent to Kushner's sister and Schulder's wife, Esther.
    Ultimately, the intimidation stunt failed. The Schulders brought the video to prosecutors, who tracked down the call girl and threatened her with arrest. She promptly turned on Kushner.
    Less than a year later, Christie announced the details of the plea deal.
    In its aftermath, Jared would take over his father's commercial interests, purchase the weekly New York Observer newspaper, which he still owns, and lead the Kushner Companies' $1.8 billion purchase of 666 Fifth Avenue in 2007. That same year he would meet a young woman, also the child of a controversial real estate mogul, named Ivanka Trump during a business lunch.