The amazing backstory that helps explain Donald Trump and his in-laws

Mal Warwick
4 min readFeb 12, 2020


Image credit: Vox

His father was arrested for failure to disperse from a Ku Klux Klan rally. He was also investigated for profiteering by the U. S. Senate and the State of New York and sued by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations. His son-in-law’s father spent fourteen months in Federal prison for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. These are the men Donald Trump and Jared Kushner idolize. So, can it be any surprise that Trump has proven to be a religious bigot and a racist and Kushner an unapologetic defender of his father-in-law’s many crimes? Yet these characteristics are only a small part of the sordid story that emerges in Andrea Bernstein’s shocking new book about the two families, American Oligarchs. Even if you already know a lot about Donald Trump and his family, you’re likely to learn more from this impressive account of the Trumps and Kushners backstory.

American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power by Andrea Bernstein (2020) 496 pages

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The Trumps and Kushners backstory begins with both grandfathers

Bernstein’s impeccably researched account is grounded in the lives of Trump’s grandfather, Frederick Trump, and Jared Kushner’s, Joseph Kushner. Both were immigrants from Europe, Trump from Germany in 1885, Kushner from Poland in the years following World War II. And both Frederick Trump and Joe Kushner were homebuilders. The wealth they left behind on their passing became the foundation of the fortunes now enjoyed by Donald Trump and Jared Kushner.

Passing along immense wealth from generation to generation

Bernstein explains in detail how both the Trump and Kushner families have managed to pass along such immense wealth from generation to generation, paying little or nothing in taxes. “Fred Trump and Donald Trump engaged in secret schemes to avoid paying taxes that the New York Times called ‘outright fraud,’” Bernstein notes. Apparently, the Kushner family has used similar tax-avoidance mechanisms. And it is through such means that ultra-wealthy Americans have grown their fortunes from generation to generation, creating what many observers have come to view as an oligarchy.

Jared Kushner and his wife are ultra-wealthy in their own right

Much has been made of the claim that Donald Trump is a billionaire, and it may well be true. He is, in any case, extremely wealthy. What is less well known is how rich his son-in-law is. Bernstein makes that clear. “In the year they became senior White House advisors,” she writes, “[Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump] made at least $82 million in income. The next year they reported earning between $29 and $135 million.” She reveals, further, that at the age of twenty-six, he had “owned a building valued at almost two billion dollars and the New York Observer publishing group.”

The amazing story of how Jared’s grandparents survived the Holocaust

Joe and Rae Kushner were Holocaust survivors, and Bernstein does justice to their heroic tale. Half the population of the town they lived in — then Polish, now Belarusian — was Jewish. Of the 10,000 Jews who lived there before the Nazi invasion, only about 550 survived. Joe and Rae managed to escape in 1943 with 250 others by digging a tunnel from the Jewish ghetto and hiding the dirt they excavated in the walls of the homes where they were quartered.

For the duration of the war, Rae hid out with a band of Jewish partisans in the nearby forest, and Joe lived in a hole in the ground, venturing out only to steal food from neighboring farms. And their ordeal didn’t end then. Interned after the war as “displaced persons” in a series of camps, they could find no country willing to accept them until, at last, using doctored papers, they managed to gain entry to the United States. Given this family history, it’s startling that Jared Kushner could support his father-in-law’s bigoted immigration policies.

American Oligarchs is not an easy read. Bernstein’s prose is serviceable, but her material resists speed-reading. Much of the book is devoted to details about real estate transactions, tax avoidance schemes, and litigation that only unravel on close inspection.

About the author

Andrea Bernstein is a long-time contributor to NPR and the co-host of the Trump, Inc. podcast (through which I learned about this book). She has won the Peabody and more than fifty other awards for her reporting. With her colleague Ilya Marritz, Bernstein has broken key stories, including those on how Donald Trump, Jr., and Ivanka Trump avoided criminal indictment, Paul Manafort’s money-laundering, Michael Cohen’s fraudulent business practices, and Rudy Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine. Now, in American Oligarchs, her first book, she adds to the luster of her career with a groundbreaking account of the Trumps and Kushners backstory.

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Mal Warwick

Author, book reviewer, serial entrepreneur, board member