By: Avishai (Jacob) Cohen  | 

Analyzing Who is Behind Trump and Hillary

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably been inundated with story after story about the Clinton Foundation, Trump University, and everything else in between. Was Trump University a scam? Is the Clinton Foundation a sham? Some want to know what Hillary knew and when she knew it. Others wonder what Trump knew and when he knew it. Many just want to know who cares. The records of Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton have been examined ad nauseum by everyone from CNN to the neighbor's dog sitter. What is often overlooked is the business records of those who closely advise the two candidates. While many advisors have been subject to their own rounds of media scrutiny, it tends to get drowned out by coverage of the principals. Not to downplay the significance of the successes and stumblings of the candidates, the records of those who surround them and serve as their surrogates are just as important. These women and men advise them, speak for them, are their closest confidants and will likely remain in power, formally or informally, if their candidate is elected.

Starting with Trump, the candidate has overcome all the naysayers and all those who said he would never last and secured the Republican Party’s nomination. For a long time, Trump eschewed the pricey consultants and election pros who populate every major campaign. He rationalized this strategy in an interview with MSNBC, reporting that he has a “very good brain.” Thus, it is prudent to examine the business records of those few who do advise Trump and influence his “very good brain.”

One of the top advisors to the Trump campaign has been his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the scion of a politically connected family that made their money in real estate. Jared has become one of the Donald’s top advisors despite having no formal role in the campaign. An Orthodox Jew, Jared has defended Trump from charges of anti-Semitism and closely advised him on Israel and the Jewish community, among other areas. He even helped write the well-received speech Donald gave at March’s AIPAC Policy Conference, a gathering of over 18,000 pro-Israel Americans. A graduate of Frisch, Harvard, and NYU, Jared inherited the Kushner family real estate business and later bought the tabloid New York Observer and its associated internet properties. Perhaps Jared’s most well known deal was the acquisition of 666 Fifth Avenue, which was then the single most expensive property ever purchased at a cool $1.8 billion. In an example of his willingness to defend his father-in-law, Jared took to the pages of his newspaper (the New York Observer) and invoked his Holocaust survivor ancestors after one of its staff penned a piece accusing Trump of anti-Semitism. On a different note, Jared placed a bid to acquire the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 but ultimately came up short.

In an interesting bit of irony, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a 2016 presidential contender turned Trump campaign surrogate and top advisor, put Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, in prison for two years. This was in Christie’s former role as United States Attorney where he prosecuted Charles for the crimes of witness tampering and campaign finance violations. In addition to this criminal penalty, Charles, who has an honorary doctorate from YU, also paid a civil penalty of over $500,000. A Law & Order episode was even based on this ordeal.

Jared’s wife Ivanka, Donald’s daughter and close advisor, has had an interesting career of her own. Her primary job is working for her father as an executive in the Trump Organization, but she also has her own fashion line, published a book and has another book in the works. Ivanka’s fashion line is carried at high end retailers such as Nordstrom and grosses over $100 million per year. Ivanka wore a dress from her line during her speech at the GOP convention, and has worked hard to create an “every woman” image despite her privileged upbringing and lifestyle. Ivanka has come under fire for not paying the interns employed by her personal brand, manufacturing the clothes bearing her name in China, and not offering paid maternity leave to the women who work for her fashion collection. Her father has also been critiqued for manufacturing the clothes bearing his name in China, despite the campaign's major focus on cracking down on businesses who export jobs abroad. In her day job at Trump Organization, Ivanka recently pulled off a major coup, acquiring what is now the Trump National Doral, an 800 acre Florida golf resort just outside Miami costing $150 million to acquire. The resort notably hosted the Doral Open, a PGA Tour event for four decades, among hosting other professional golf events. The Doral is regarded by many as the crown jewel of Trump’s collection of golf courses.

The Trump campaign has cycled through three campaign managers, virtually unheard of for a presidential campaign. Trump’s latest Manager, Steve Bannon, left as the chairman of the conservative news outlet Breitbart News to take the Trump campaign reins. Bloomberg Businessweek did a cover story on Bannon last year and named him the “most dangerous political operative in America.” Bannon’s resume includes a stint at Goldman Sachs before leaving to start his own firm called Bannon & Co., which he later sold to French bank Societe Generale. Also present on Bannon’s resume is a multi-year stint in the movie business. He co-produced the 1999 thriller Titus and directed a 2004 film about Ronald Reagan. Bannon’s film career predominantly consisted of producing conservative films and documentaries, including a collaboration with Citizens United, the political action committee behind the famous Supreme Court case bearing their name regarding the regulation of campaign spending.

Trump’s National Finance Chairman, Steve Mnuchin, has had a similar career to Bannon. Mnuchin worked at Goldman, started a hedge fund, and spent several years in Hollywood. During his tenure at Goldman, Mnuchin made an estimated $40 million, before leaving to start a fund called Dune Capital. Mnuchin controversially has close business ties to far-left megadonor George Soros, having served as CEO at a hedge fund backed by Soros. On a similar note, Mnuchin has come under fire from conservatives for his decades of donations to Democrats, including Barack Obama, Al Gore, and Hillary. Mnuchin was briefly a Vice Chairman at hedge fund ESL Investments, which controls Sears. He later became CEO of failed lender IndyMac, reinventing the firm as OneWest. Finally, Mnuchin served as co-chairman for movie producer Relativity Media, bankrolling the production of hits Avatar and X-Men among others. He also co-produced a number of movies including American Sniper and The Lego Movie.

It is a bit ironic that Trump has surrounded himself with Goldman Sachs alumni, as he has hammered Hillary for her strong ties to the bank, considered the posterchild bank for those who find Wall Street corrupt. During the primary, Trump notoriously went after Ted Cruz, whose wife works for the bank. "I know the guys at Goldman Sachs. They have total, total control over him (Cruz), just like they have total control over Hillary.”

The final Trump confidant worth focusing on is his most recent ex-Campaign Manager Paul Manafort. Manafort spent his private sector career as a lobbyist, representing a number of controversial foreign leaders, including a few dictators. For example, Manafort lobbied for a group that has been accused of being a front for Pakistani intelligence, a country allegedly complicit in terrorism. He has also represented an impressive lineup including the Saudi Arabian government, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Manafort’s tenure at the Trump campaign ended after new revelations surfaced about his relationship with Viktor Yanukovych, who successfully ran for president of Ukraine and then fled to Russia for safety after being deposed. Moreover, Manafort is alleged to have helped Ukraine secretly funnel money to US lobbying firms, including to a firm co-founded by John Podesta, Hillary’s Campaign Chairman. A ledger of secret payments recently discovered in Ukraine appears to show that Manafort was still owed $12 million, something Manafort denies.

Switching gears to those behind Hillary, one of Hillary’s top surrogates is her daughter Chelsea. Chelsea boasts an impressive educational resume, including Washington’s elite Sidwell Friends School, Stanford, Columbia and Oxford. There is perhaps no better example than Chelsea of the power family ties can play in making a business career. Post-Stanford, with (at this point) just a bachelor’s degree to her name, Chelsea joined elite consultancy McKinsey & Co., where she made as much as colleagues with MBAs despite arguably having less experience. She also spent a few years at NBC News, making over $26,000 per minute on air despite having no prior journalism experience. Chelsea enjoyed a stint at hedge fund Avenue Capital, a major backer of Hillary and the Clinton Foundation. Her speaking fee has gone as high as $65,000, despite a business career which would not seem to be inline with that figure. The morale of the story is if one wants to be successful in business, he or she should consider changing their last name to Clinton or Trump for that matter.  

Chelsea is married to Marc Mezvinsky, the son of divorced Jewish former members of Congress. While Mezvinsky does not have as noted of a role in the Clinton campaign as Jared does in the Trump campaign, he is certainly in the thick of things. Mezvinsky’s father, Ed, spent 5 years in prison for bank fraud, mail fraud, and wire fraud. Following with the theme of many top Trump surrogates, Marc worked at Goldman Sachs for several years before co-founding hedge fund Eaglevale Partners. Eaglevale opened a fund focused on Greece which Marc pitched and managed, but it shuttered after it lost over 90% of investor money. The Eaglevale main fund is believed to manage over $300 million. Goldman Sachs CEO and Clinton donor Lloyd Blankfein was a major investor in the fund.

Analyzing the business backgrounds of Hillary’s team, or “Hillaryland”, as it has become known, is a quick exercise. The reason being that the bulk of those around her have spent their careers strictly in politics, usually with one of the Clintons. Almost none of her top aides or surrogates have much of a private sector business record to speak of. Hillary herself spent a few years as a private sector lawyer, but has been in nonprofit or political work almost her entire adult life. Hillary is close to a wide range of campaign and Foundation donors, but most do not speak on her behalf. Her Campaign Chairman, referenced above, co-founded a lobbying firm but has not had a formal role there in years. Others, such as Campaign Manager Robby Mook and Vice Chairwoman Huma Abedin, have never had significant professional private sector employment. Joel Benenson, Hillary’s chief strategist, runs a consulting firm that has private sector clients ranging from Uber to Intel to Walgreens, but Benenson has almost no public profile.

Advisors and surrogates matter, more so than perhaps one might imagine. Analysis and critique of their records is important, and there is certainly plenty to evaluate in this campaign.