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How Jared Kushner’s Newspaper Became a Favorite Outlet for WikiLeaks Election Hacks
The New York Observer, owned by Trump’s son-in-law, was a friendly outlet for the 2016 Russian hackers.
In the fall of 2014, Julian Assange, the embattled head of WikiLeaks, was meeting with a steady stream of supportive journalists in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had taken refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges. Among those seeking an audience with Assange was a freelancer working for the New York Observer, the newspaper owned and published by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and key advisor, Jared Kushner.
Ken Kurson, the newspaper’s editor in chief — along with a freelance writer he’d hired — helped arrange a “no-holds-barred” interview with Assange that October.
“My editor Ken Kurson (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I are very interested in an interview with Julian Assange. This would be a cover story.… We will be in London the first week of October,” wrote Jacques Hyzagi, a freelance reporter for the Observer, to a press consultant who arranged interviews for WikiLeaks.
Kurson, when contacted by Foreign Policy, said he did not attend that meeting and has never communicated with Assange; he insists that the profile was Hyzagi’s idea. “We ran an interview pitched to us by a freelancer,” he wrote in an email.
“I have never communicated in any way with Julian Assange and this sort of fact-free, evidenceless charge is analogous to pizzagate and other totally ludicrous conspiracies,” he added.
Hyzagi did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Yet a series of exchanges between Hyzagi and the WikiLeaks representative indicated that a meeting involving Kurson and Assange was in the works; at one point Leonardo DiCaprio was invited to tag along, according to emails obtained by FP. (DiCaprio did not end up attending.)
After that, the plan was to travel to Moscow to meet with Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor. Snowden’s team declined a request for an interview from Hyzagi, according to Ben Wizner, Snowden’s attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hyzagi’s meeting with Assange resulted in a friendly feature in the Observer and kicked off a long-running series of laudatory articles about the WikiLeaks founder — many of those stories including exclusive details about the Australian transparency advocate. Later, the Observer also became a favored outlet of Guccifer 2.0, a suspected Russian hacker, who along with WikiLeaks released troves of emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). WikiLeaks tweeted some of the Observer’s coverage, including stories expressing doubt that the Russians had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Kushner has long denied any collusion with the Russian government, which is suspected of targeting the 2016 election, but his newspaper proved a favored conduit for hacks, which the U.S. intelligence community says were carried out on Kremlin orders. The Observer was not the only outlet that received exclusive access to Guccifer 2.0 documents — or those from other outlets such as DC Leaks, widely believed to be part of the same campaign — but it was the only one owned by someone who was part of the Trump campaign.
“This would be of significant interest to law enforcement and investigators,” John Sipher, a former CIA officer who worked in Russia, wrote in an email to FP.
Kushner and his connection to WikiLeaks are now back in the crosshairs of congressional investigations, though there’s no indication his ownership of the Observer is part of that probe. Senate Judiciary Committee investigators are looking into emails Kushner received concerning WikiLeaks and a “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” according to Politico.
A congressional source told FP that Kushner, during testimony on Capitol Hill, said he never had contact with WikiLeaks or Assange — nor did anyone else on the campaign. In fact, the Atlantic reported this week that Donald Trump Jr. and Assange exchanged direct messages on Twitter during the campaign.
There’s no evidence that Kurson or anyone from the Observer was involved in linking WikiLeaks to Kushner or members of the Trump campaign, however.
A spokesperson for the Senate Intelligence Committee declined to comment on whether the Observer was part of the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the election.
When Jared Kushner purchased the New York Observer in 2006 for $10 million, the newspaper provided the young real estate magnate with a “voice in New York,” wrote Business Insider, in an article about his media work.
Before the meeting with Assange, the Observer, which focused primarily on New York politics and culture, had dedicated little space to the Australian transparency advocate, who achieved notoriety in 2010 after publishing hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Rex Reed, in a review for the Observer of an Assange biopic in October 2013, described him as an “Australian cyberpunk” who was “leaking top-secret government documents that endanger the lives of millions under the bogus guise of the public’s right to know.”
That tone changed in 2014, when the Observer published a feature story on Oct. 16 by Jacques Hyzagi titled “Free Julian Assange: An Exclusive Interview with the WikiLeaks Founder.” Following that article, there was a major uptick in coverage of Assange’s life and work — almost exclusively in a glowing light.
Kurson maintains that he had no direct connection to Assange and that the contributors who wrote the pieces do not represent the site because they are not full-time employees. “The writers who contacted Assange (first Hyzagi, then Celia Farber) were freelancers,” Kurson wrote. “They were not Observer employees and didn’t operate on Observer’s behalf.”
Sources familiar with the Observer disputed those claims, saying that Kurson selected freelancers and articles for publication. “Ken used to just take control of stuff that other people wouldn’t like,” said one source who worked with him. “He’d show up with the finished product and tell people to run it.”
Over the next few years, the Observer gave WikiLeaks a platform, running pieces on the organization’s crowdfunding of information about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and on exactly “Why Julian Assange Doesn’t Want Hillary Clinton to Be President.”
As the 2016 presidential campaign kicked off, and WikiLeaks started getting sources offering access to emails deep within the Democratic Party, the coverage ramped up. The site gave WikiLeaks credit for proving “the [Democratic] primary was rigged” and for exposing dangerous corruption at the DNC. The Observer published dozens of stories largely celebrating WikiLeaks and the revelations it was helping expose.
Most of those articles were written by Michael Sainato, a regular contributor. Kurson said he never edited Sainato’s work and that he was not a staffer.
Sainato did not respond to request for comment.
Assange has repeatedly refused to discuss his sources for the DNC leaks WikiLeaks published just before the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 2016. He suggested that “some” of the leaks could’ve come from Russia but never publicly identified any connection with Guccifer 2.0, who is widely suspected of being connected to the Russian government.
But when Guccifer 2.0 started releasing DNC documents, the Observer was one of the outlets that received the leaks.
Writers working for the Observer trumpeted exclusive access to various DNC hack releases and solicited those leaks openly, describing how they were passed files for news coverage.
Possibly the most controversial piece that the Observer published concerned exclusive documents that supposedly exonerated Assange from allegations that he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden. Describing the case against him, which never went to trial, as potential “Nordic neurosis,” the piece argued that the encounters with the two women were simply “fumbling, bleak and unromantic.”
Not all of the Observer’s coverage of the leaks has been positive. Observer contributor and former NSA analyst John Schindler published columns pointing to the Kremlin’s “brazen effort to intimidate American elected officials” by hacking emails and dumping them all over the internet, pandering to journalists craving a new story — while the website he wrote for engaged in exactly that activity.
“I was way ahead of everybody on the WikiLeaks is a Russian front story, The Observer fully supported that,” Schindler wrote in an email to FP. He said he never witnessed any closeness between the outlet and WikiLeaks. “I am not aware of any ‘special’ ties between Ken Kurson or anyone else at The Observer and WikiLeaks. I have no editorial duties, I am a contributor.”
Yet Schindler’s coverage was the exception, as the Observer continued to publish a steady stream of leaks on the Democratic Party.
“Russian hackers now leaking directly to Jared Kushner’s paper. Trump campaign not even being subtle anymore,” tweeted Brian Fallon, then a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in September 2016.
When Mother Jones wrote about Fallon’s comments, Sainato responded on Twitter that those claims were “more Red Dawn Russian conspiracies” but admitted he had “asked Guccifer on twitter for docs.” He later deleted that tweet.
Kurson told FP that he wasn’t aware of the tweet or Sainato’s reporting strategies.
As the Observer published leaks targeting the Democratic presidential campaign, Kurson maintained a close relationship with his publisher, Jared Kushner, and the rest of the Trump campaign. According to an interview Kurson gave to Recode Media, Kushner never pushed for certain coverage or political support — but would talk politics with him almost every day.
“Jared never — never — asked me or any other Observer reporter to cover Assange, Wikileaks or anything connected to Wiki. There were no ‘exchanges’ with Wikileaks by me or any other Observer staffer, to my knowledge,” Kurson wrote in an email.
He said he did not recall ever discussing the DNC leaks with Kushner during the presidential campaign.
The two did appear to spend significant time together during the campaign. Kurson sat in the Trump family box during the Republican National Convention (RNC) and in March 2016 helped Kushner craft a speech Trump gave at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference.
He later made it a policy at the Observer not to review material for political candidates. Yet the newspaper continued to take positions favorable to Trump — or at least heavily critical of Clinton.
But the connections between Kurson and the Observer with Assange and the Trump campaign simultaneously made some onlookers nervous, looking back.
“When I saw Ken Kurson seated with the Trump family at the RNC, I immediately felt uncomfortable. I had one of those lightbulb moments — then the lightbulb exploded,” said Andy Stepanian, then a public relations specialist for FitzGibbon Media, who helped arrange the interview between Hyzagi and Assange. “I became more and more concerned looking back on the scale of the Observer’s coverage.”
The Observer’s last print edition was on Nov. 9, 2016, just one day after Trump, whom the paper had endorsed in the Republican primaries, was elected president. Kushner gave up direct control of the news outlet when he formally accepted a job in the administration but hasn’t sold it and instead plans to transfer it to a family trust.
Kurson stepped down as editor in chief in May, and no replacement has been named nor is one listed on the masthead.
“I edited the Observer for almost five years and am proud of the work we did there and the 7x growth in traffic,” he told FP. “I resigned because I’d gotten a great offer from a great company and felt that I had accomplished at Observer what I set out to do.”