Is Accused Stalker and Kushner Family Friend Ken Kurson Donald Trump’s Most Disturbing Pardon?
One reason his pardon stood out is because of the ongoing threat that some of the people he allegedly stalked and harassed fear that he may pose to them now.
On the day that Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, a Facebook friend of former New York Observer editor-in-chief Ken Kurson’s wrote on his wall, “Congrats on being pardoned for your crimes, I guess.”
Kurson, a longtime close friend of Jared Kushner’s, had been arrested in October on charges of cyberstalking three people and harassing two in an elaborate revenge scheme to punish people he perceived as being responsible for the breakup of his marriage. Kurson, who has forcefully denied the allegations and had yet to go to trial, was one of the 74 people Donald Trump pardoned in the final hours of his presidency.
There are three reasons Kurson’s pardon stood out to me. First, because I know him. I was the editor in chief of The New York Observer in 2011 and 2012, and Kurson, despite his limited background in journalism, was one of my successors. I met him early in my tenure at the paper that Jared Kushner had purchased a few years after graduating from Harvard, because Kurson—a Republican political consultant who worked for Rudy Giuliani’s consulting firm, helped write his book Leadership and helped run his 2008 presidential campaign—was a close family friend who always seemed to be at events, in the office, or wherever the Kushners were. Second, while many of Trump’s pardons went to political cronies who’d committed crimes more or less on his behalf, Kurson’s was an obvious favor to Jared Kushner, whose father, Charles, also received a pardon. And finally, Kurson’s pardon stood out because of the ongoing threat that some of the people he allegedly stalked and harassed fear that he may pose to them now.
A bit about the case: According to the complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, which stemmed from an FBI background check as he was being vetted for an honorary White House role, Kurson was convinced in 2015 that his marriage had been undermined by a friend of his now ex-wife’s, a doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital. Using pseudonyms like “Jayden Wagner” and “Eddie Train,” Kurson allegedly began digitally tormenting the former friend and two of her colleagues. He also allegedly harassed another woman, who The New York Times identifies as his ex-wife, who filed a restraining order. Also outlined in the complaint: the alleged harassment included making false complaints with the victims’ employers, alleging inappropriate conduct with a minor, and claiming one of the victims was having an affair with her boss. He was accused of installing a keystroke monitor on one victim’s computer and using it to access their social media accounts. And, the complaint says, he showed up at Mount Sinai, asked about the doctor’s schedule and took photos of the lobby, which he then attached to negative Yelp reviews smearing the doctor. She got hang-ups on her cellphone and on her apartment phone that could only receive calls from other people inside the building. Mount Sinai increased its security presence in response.
When I first read about the charges, I was floored by the sheer amount of effort Kurson allegedly made to plot against and then pursue his victims on multiple fronts. Then again, a lot of stalkers do this in part because it’s easy to do. Anyone with an internet connection can conduct a campaign like this, and most people can do it without getting caught. Even if the perpetrators are caught, victims have very little recourse because cops and prosecutors are often ill-equipped to deal with activity of this nature, and sometimes dismissive when it’s directed toward women.
I work in politics now—my firm does polling and digital strategy—and one of my former political clients is Brianna Wu, who ran for Congress in Massachusetts. Brianna is probably best known as a technology entrepreneur who was one of the figures at the center of the Gamergate scandal, which involved a long campaign of cyberharassment against women who spoke out about sexism in gaming. She has moved houses, beefed up security and taken all of the precautions she can to protect herself from people who harass her, often anonymously, and in some cases, have showed up at her house. Someone threw a brick through her front window once. She still receives death threats, regularly.
When I spoke to her on Thursday, she pointed out that another common harassment tactic is to spin up anonymous accounts to destroy the victim’s reputation. This is what Kurson allegedly tried to do with the doctor by smearing her on Yelp and making false accusations to her bosses. That “isn’t even unique,” she said, noting how easy reputation destruction can be: “It’s a terrifying mix of male entitlement and our lawless digital frontier.”
Robbie Kaplan, a civil rights attorney best known for successfully arguing against the Defense of Marriage Act in the groundbreaking United States v. Windsor case that effectively legalized gay marriage and who is also representing E. Jean Carroll in her defamation case against Donald Trump, echoed Brianna’s assessment. “The combination of abusive men and the relatively few guardrails on social media can potentially, and often does create a very dangerous situation.” Not only can predatory men use digital tools to harass people themselves, they can also hire or encourage other people to do it via bots and fake accounts, and seeding campaigns on social media platforms.
When Brianna first experienced anonymous threats, she went to local law enforcement. They didn’t know what to do with it. She called the FBI. They couldn’t do anything. She talked to local prosecutors. They were no help, either.
“So what can you do with these threats?” she said. “Nothing. It’s just background radiation in my life now.”
One of the worst incidents for Brianna wasn’t even a death threat but “a false rumor that I had killed my dog.” Her dog, Crash, had died during the middle of Gamergate and, she recalls, “people were sending me photoshopped (pictures) of my dog on fire.”
Brianna points out the Trump pardon sets a particularly bad precedent because the Kurson case was one where it seemed to her like the victims might actually get justice, which is all too rare. She also holds platforms that enable this kind of harassment responsible. There’s a mentality that the Internet is the Wild West, where anything goes.
She also notes, almost as an afterthought, that women who work in tech and are parents are often doubly silenced by even the prospect of this kind of harassment because they worry that their children could be targeted, too.
The alleged events at Mount Sinai all happened while Kurson was the editor of the Observer. During that time, he also allegedly sexually harassed the writer and journalist Deborah Copaken, who never filed charges but later wrote in The Atlantic about her experience with him. (Asked to comment on Copaken’s essay by The New York Times, Kurson denied any inappropriate behavior.)
And during that time, Kurson, who has repeatedly said that his ties to the Trump administration did not affect the paper’s coverage, was caught advising the Trump campaign on a speech to AIPAC and was spotted in the Trump family box at the Republican National Convention. His Observer tenure is perhaps best remembered for the 7,000-word smear piece that he assigned on then New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who was suing Trump University.
On Wednesday, I spoke to Deborah Copaken, who said her partner told her at about 4 a.m. that Kurson had been pardoned. She then spent inauguration day talking to two lawyers and a security expert wanting to know if she should be afraid, and asking for advice about what to do. She was waiting to hear back after emailing the FBI agent she had spoken with when Kurson was being investigated.
“This should have been a really great day,” said Copaken, referring to Biden’s inauguration, “and instead I spent today in a PTSD fugue state. I’m terrified I’m going to be looking over my shoulder every day.”
The Trump administration’s description of the pardon notes that his ex-wife never wanted an investigation and asked the FBI to drop it. It doesn’t mention his other alleged victims.
Here I should mention that I’ve met Kurson’s ex-wife because I went to dinner with several Observer staffers at their house once. My now husband was running the Observer’s commercial real estate trade publication and Kurson was his boss. His wife was warm and friendly and I only remember good things about her.
But another moment from that dinner sticks out. When I first met Kurson years prior, during my own Observer tenure, I thought of him as a kind of goofy and essentially harmless person. He was friendly, talkative, and very solicitous of everyone he met. Sometimes he would act overfamiliar, hover a little too closely, do other things that gave me a bit of a creepy vibe, but I thought it might just be an innocuous failure to read social cues.
At the dinner, which consisted of maybe eight to ten people around a large family style table, we all had a group discussion, much of which was pleasant. But at some point, someone brought up the editor of a New Jersey newspaper that heavily covered Jared Kushner’s father Charlie’s trial and sentencing. Kurson, who had been affable a second earlier, exploded. He said he hated that guy and wanted to kill him. The air went out of the room. People use the expression “I want to kill him” all the time to express that they’re angry. But Kurson said it in a way that made everyone uncomfortable. There seemed to be genuine rage there.
On some level, I understand Copaken’s fears about what Kurson might be capable of doing now, and how he might retaliate if she spoke up again about him. I’ve been publicly very critical of Jared Kushner, and I know from experience that both he and his father, a former felon who was also pardoned by the Trump administration, are vindictive and unafraid of consequences. Every time I write about Jared, I put the very rational self-preservation-oriented thoughts in my brain that he has the money and resources to hurt me in a box and I pretend it’s not there.
This is something I’ve learned as a journalist and I’ve done the same thing when I’ve gotten threats from Scientologists, legal threats from insanely wealthy people, and subjects who don’t like reporting threatening to ruin me, not to mention the kind of anonymous online death and rape threats women columnists get as a matter of course. This kind of self-delusion is the only way I can do my job. But it has certainly occurred to me that writing this piece puts me on Kurson’s radar, and back on Jared’s.
Copaken hopes that being public about what she says Kurson did in the past might offer some protection if he acted the same way now. That at least people would be more inclined to believe her. She says she’s spoken since Kurson’s pardon was announced to other women who allege that he harassed them, and that they have similar concerns.
“Victims have no rights,” she said. “And these are crazy games we’re playing with our own safety.
“Maybe we should set up a GoFundMe for women who need protection now.”