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Before The White House, Jared Kushner Must Sort Out His Financial Holdings

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

When Donald Trump becomes president, he'll bring his son-in-law Jared Kushner to the White House as a key adviser. Like Trump, Kushner had - has a multibillion-dollar family business that got its start in real estate. Kushner Companies has properties throughout the country but mostly in New York and New Jersey. Its flagship building is 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Susanne Craig of The New York Times has written about Kushner's business dealings and the possible conflicts of interest that they raise. I asked her about a deal Kushner made with the Chinese company Anbang to finance that Fifth Avenue building.

SUSANNE CRAIG: It's a building that the Kushners bought just before the height of the real estate market, and there's just a lot of debt piled on it. And it's - since then, they've had to find a number of investors to make the debt payments. They've had to bring a lot of people in.

And about six months ago, right around the time that Donald Trump got the Republican nomination, they began negotiations with this company called Anbang. And it's an interesting company. It's a - it's got a fairly murky shareholder structure in fact that it's opaque. And the chairman of Anbang - his wife has ties to the Chinese government, as do other relatives. And the Kushners have been negotiating for six months to bring them in to be a partner in this building that they own in Midtown.

MCEVERS: And so how does this deal, if it goes through, pose a potential conflict of interest?

CRAIG: Well, it's interesting. It's a company that's coming in. And I guess it probably wouldn't have raised any eyebrows other than Jared Kushner is now going to be a senior adviser to the president. And he's going to be advising him on foreign affairs and on policy and trade issues regarding China. And at the same time, he's got a business partnership with this company. So it raises a very, very huge possibility of a conflict.

MCEVERS: It was interesting. I mean one of the details in your story was that when there was this controversy over Trump calling the president of Taiwan, Chinese problems with that were relayed through Kushner, actually - relayed to Trump through Kushner, not through other channels.

CRAIG: They were. And a lot of calls from foreign governments and ambassadors are being relayed through Jared Kushner. His incredibly influential voice has the president's ear, and as a result, all of these foreign entities that now touch the Kushner companies are of interest.

They've since announced that Jared's going to be divesting of a number of his interests. But interestingly, he won't be selling them to outside parties. They're going to be sold to family members. And in the case of this building in Midtown, 666 Fifth Avenue - it's going to be sold to a trust that his mother will control.

MCEVERS: What do ethics experts think about that? I mean what do they say about the fact that he is divesting but to family members?

CRAIG: Well, I think they make one point at the outset, which - at least they're going through the hoops of bringing them in as an employee and not as sort of an unofficial adviser.

MCEVERS: At the White House.

CRAIG: Yeah, and that does sort of open him up to different levels of scrutiny. But at the same time, I think there's big concerns about the fact that these aren't being divested to third, unrelated parties.

They're going into a trust, and the beneficiaries will be his siblings and his mom. So it's still very much sort of, I would say, an all-in-the-family-type situation where there's still the potential for conflict. And we'll definitely be watching.

MCEVERS: What are some of the other holdings and interests that could be a conflict that you will be watching?

CRAIG: It's interesting to me because real estate, whether it's Donald Trump and his investments or the Kushners - real estate in New York is just, you know, famous for the foreign money that's cursing through it. You've got Chinese investors, Russian investors. Sometimes it's the investors, and then it's the people behind the investor.

So sometimes we have to go several layers back to sort of understand the influences that may be brought to bear. When government's involved, you want to understand the potential for conflict in the people that may have his ear that's not obvious that we can understand, then, the decisions that they're making with taxpayer money.

MCEVERS: Well, Susanne Craig of The New York Times, thank you very much.

CRAIG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.