WASHINGTON — Barely a week into office, President Biden made a promise that signaled a sharp break from his predecessor: No member of his family would be involved in government.
But that vow did not extend to his senior staff and their relatives. In the first few months of Biden’s presidency, at least five children of his top aides have secured coveted jobs in the new administration. They include two sons and a daughter of the White House counselor, the daughter of a deputy White House chief of staff, and the daughter of the director of presidential personnel.
The pattern — which continued this week with the Treasury Department’s announcement that it was hiring J.J. Ricchetti, son of Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti — has drawn concerns from ethics experts, diversity advocates, and others. They say it is disappointing that Biden didn’t shift even further from the practices of Donald Trump’s presidency, which they felt reeked of nepotism and cronyism.
“While it may not be as bad as appointing your son or daughter to a top government post as Trump did with Jared and Ivanka, it is still bad,” said Walter Shaub, who served as director of the Office of Government Ethics from 2013-17. “‘Not as bad as Trump’ cannot be the new standard.”
Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner worked in the White House as unpaid senior advisers, moves that outraged ethics experts, even as a Justice Department opinion found the president has special hiring authorities. Some relatives of top Trump officials and aides also were hired into the administration.
Beyond children, other relatives of top Biden aides also have secured high-level administration jobs or nominations. They include the wife of White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and the sister of White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Federal law generally prohibits government officials from hiring close relatives or encouraging their hiring, and there is no evidence that any of Biden’s aides have played a role in securing the jobs for their children or other relatives.
The White House has maintained that everyone hired has been well-qualified for their positions.
“The president has instituted the highest ethical standards of anyone to ever hold this office,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said. “And he’s proud to have staffed the most diverse administration in American history with well-qualified public servants who reflect his values.”
But the hiring of senior aides’ children remains alarming to ethics experts, because it suggests that people with ties to high-ranking public servants might be getting an advantage over similarly qualified people for low-ranking positions, which often serve as a foot in the door to a career in government and politics.
Many Biden supporters hoped the new administration, which has stressed its commitment to inclusivity and diversity, would fill those positions with qualified applicants who often lack powerful connections. Some argue that goal is hindered by hiring the children of Biden’s closest aides, who are mostly white and some of whom are wealthy.
On Monday, the Treasury Department announced the hiring of J.J. Ricchetti, a 2020 college graduate whose father is one of Biden’s most trusted West Wing aides. Ricchetti is assuming a junior-level position as special assistant in the Office of Legislative Affairs.
Steve Ricchetti’s daughter, Shannon Ricchetti, who graduated from college in 2016, is deputy associate director of the office of the White House social secretary, a job she secured after working at the Aspen Institute and on the Biden transition team. Bruce Reed, a deputy White House chief of staff and longtime Biden confidant, has a daughter, Julia Reed, who graduated college in 2015 and works as Biden’s day scheduler.
Some of the more experienced sons and daughters of White House officials hold higher-level jobs. Steve Ricchetti’s son Daniel Ricchetti is a senior adviser in the office of the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He previously worked for seven years on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, most recently as a policy analyst.
Cathy Russell, the director of presidential personnel in the White House, has a daughter, Sarah Donilon, who graduated college in 2019 and works in the White House National Security Council. Sarah Donilon’s uncle, Mike Donilon, is a senior adviser to Biden in the White House. Russell’s office does not oversee hiring at the White House or NSC, according to a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The official said those hired were well-qualified applicants and cited examples of how their experience levels were commensurate with some of their predecessors.
Sarah Donilon, for example, worked as a McCain Institute Fellow with Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, with whom she now works in the White House, the White House official said. The official also said the Biden administration places a priority on hiring former campaign volunteers and that J.J. Ricchetti is a former volunteer. Julia Reed earned praise from Biden aides for her work on the advance staff of his presidential campaign.
“In a country that had just come through a pandemic, how can these children of political appointees be the only people who are qualified for employment?” Shaub said.