On Tuesday, the desiccated ruin of the New York Observer published a bizarre, hilariously facile takedown of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, accusing him of using his office to wage politically motivated prosecutions.
Speaking of motives, the piece relied largely on the testimony of the racist birther Donald Trump, whom Schneiderman’s office sued in August over allegations of fraud at Trump’s for-profit education venture, Trump University. Donald Trump is, among many other things, the father of Ivanka Trump, who is married to the Observer’s owner, Jared Kushner.
Jared Kushner has more or less openly used the Observer to publicize and celebrate his wife and their friends. Lest anyone find anything unseemly in Donald Trump’s newspaper-in-law attacking one of Trump’s chief antagonists, Ken Kurson, the Observer’s editor, went so far as to publish a bulleted list of “reporting notes” to pre-emptively defend the story’s propriety:
The fact that the Observer’s publisher’s father-in-law happens to be well known—and appears to have gotten inside the attorney general’s head—had no bearing on this story or on any other story in the Observer.
Emails between the paper and the attorney general’s office suggest the opposite.
According to 91 pages of correspondence obtained by Gawker under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, the attorney general’s case against Trump seems to have been a motivating force behind the profile—a months-long project which Kurson, a former Republican consultant and Rudolph Giuliani campaign official, personally oversaw. At the key points when the attorney general’s investigation and legal action against Trump heated up, so did the Observer’s investigation of the attorney general. Below is a timeline of the two sets of hostilities.
Summer 2013: Schneiderman’s office and Trump University are engaged in tense negotiations throughout the summer, leading up to the filing of Schneiderman’s complaint against Trump in August. (The office opened an investigation into Trump University in May 2011, several months after Schneiderman became attorney general.)
July 24, 2013: Just as those negotiations are failing, Observer freelancer William Gifford sends his first inquiry to Schneiderman's press secretary, Damien LaVera.
Gifford doesn't last long. He “resigned” from reporting, according to the Observer’s reporting notes, because LaVera “spooked” him. But according to what he told BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski, Gifford took himself off the assignment after he grew uncomfortable with the “negative” angle the Observer demanded.
September 9, 2013: Kurson informs LaVera via email that he will be taking over the assignment himself, adding that the paper had begun its reporting on Schneiderman in June 2013, a month before Gifford reached out to LaVera:
October 29, 2013: Kurson assures LaVera in an email that the paper is “moving forward with the story,” which he has by this time reassigned to an Arizona-based reporter named Michael Craig (“a real pro who understands legal matters”):
Later the same day, Kurson informs LaVera that the story has been delayed:
December 3, 2013: After Vanity Fair reports the allegations lodged against Trump University, including deceptive marketing, lying to students, and using the title of “University” without a proper license, Trump himself tweets:
Too bad about New York Magazine, but there's a much bigger one out there, currently doing a story on me to get even, that I'll soon discuss!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2013
December 23, 2013: Trump files a lengthy ethics complaint against the attorney general, alleging that Schneiderman had sought dozens of political favors from Trump and had promised to make the lawsuit go away if Trump played along. These allegations—which were extensively covered in December and have been published for months on the internet in their entirety, including an affidavit Ivanka Trump—will constitute the bulk of the Observer piece.
(“Prosecutors are used to people accused of fraud making wild accusations when they get caught,” LaVera told Gawker when asked about the complaint. “This is just an effort to distract from the substance of the case.”)
Early 2014: Both sides of the dispute spend the first month of the New Year awaiting a ruling from Judge Cynthia Kern, expected in late January or early February, on Trump’s motion to dismiss the fraud complaint.
January 27, 2014: As they wait, Michael Craig finally contacts the attorney general’s office, nearly three months after Kurson had told LaVera that he would be taking over the story. Craig inquires specifically about Schneiderman’s case against Trump University:
February 13, 2014: LaVera complains to Kurson in an email about Observer reporter Ross Barkan asking Schneiderman at a press conference about rumors that he wears eyeliner. (His thicker lashes are actually the side-effect of prescription eyedrops.) Kurson responds with a lengthy email in which he reveals—apparently for the first time—that Gifford, the first reporter, resigned from the assignment because “he felt terrorized” by LaVera:
February 26, 2014:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 26, 2014
There seems to be a pattern: Each fresh wave of court filings in the Trump case coincided with a renewed interest at the Observer in profiling Schneiderman. And the person sustaining that interest was Kurson—a close friend of the Kushner family (one of whose members is, of course, Donald Trump’s daughter).
Kurson’s correspondence also contradicts another aspect of his “reporting notes.” The editor states that, when the first reporter “resigned” from the story—apparently for fear of Schneiderman’s press secretary—he immediately reassigned the piece to Craig. In fact Kurson declared, in an email dated September 9, that he would be “reporting this myself going forward.” He didn’t reassign the piece to Craig until late October.
The emails, and Trump’s own tweets, are especially noteworthy because of how extensively Craig’s story depends on Trump’s eyewitness testimony. Trump alleges, for instance, that Schneiderman told him that President Obama is “the most overrated human being there is. Wouldn’t be president if he weren’t black.”
“That is absolutely false,” Damien LaVera told Gawker in an email. He continued:
It’s a shame that a once great newspaper chose to use its front page to regurgitate a discredited complaint filed by the father in law of the paper’s publisher. They should have saved themselves eight months of work and simply published Mr. Trump’s complaint verbatim. It probably would have been shorter and easier to read.
But the principal issue at stake here isn’t just blood relations. Yes: it’s a conflict of interest for a paper owned by Trump’s son-in-law to publish a piece that attacks one of Trump’s political enemies, based on Trump’s own word. The biggest problem with the Observer’s dependence on Donald Trump, though, is Donald Trump himself.
For over three years, Trump has waged a very public campaign against Barack Obama on the premise that the president was not born in America and that he has lied and altered records to conceal his secret foreign identity. More recently he accused a married BuzzFeed reporter of ogling women at his Mar-a-Lago resort, to exact revenge for the reporter’s negative profile of him. He manufactures wild falsehoods, over and over again, to serve his own political and financial ends. He’s a liar and a buffoon and—as former Observer editor Graydon Carter’s Spy memorably called him—a short-fingered vulgarian.
Maybe Schneiderman is a disingenuous extortionist. Most New York politicians are. But if Trump really had the goods, would it make sense for him to launder them through a family rag in a manner that was guaranteed to invite mockery and contempt?
Trump is a thoroughly discredited public figure. At the Observer, however, he’s considered a reliable source. And Dad.
Ken Kurson declined repeated requests for comment.
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