In 1967, Congress passed a bill that sought to do an end to nepotism in the highest reaches of the US government.
Fifty-one years later, we’re receiving a crash course on the wisdom of Congress’s decision.
I’m referring of course to “Javanka” — the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who, over the past week, have reminded us why presidents should not be hiring their children to staff their White House.
Nepotism prizes family loyalty and proximity over policymaking ability — and it’s hard to think of a better example than Ivanka and Jared. This week, the president’s daughter traveled to South Korea to lead the US delegation to the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. While there, she briefed the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, on new economic sanctions imposed by the United States against North Korea — even though Trump has no policy knowledge about North Korea and is, as far as we know, uninvolved in administration discussions on the nuclear-armed state. Perhaps a background in developing a fashion line and working at a real estate company is essential to engaging in international diplomacy, and I should expand my horizons. Still, I feel comfortable pointing out that if she was named Ivanka Smith, her meeting with Moon would not have occurred.
As for Kushner, he’s practically set a record for having a lack of policy experience and still being given powerful and important policy portfolios. Since he was appointed as a top aide to the president, he’s been given responsibility for solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, being the point man on US-Mexico relations, bringing business ingenuity to the government, reforming the criminal justice system, and tackling the opioid crisis.
Kushner’s lack of experience was so profound, and his conflicts of interest and business entanglements so corrupting, that the Washington Post reported on how “officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate” him.
White House officials even expressed concern that Kushner was “naïve and being tricked” in meetings with foreign officials who were far more interested in meeting with him, rather than US officials with more experience and greater policy knowledge.
Considering that Kushner can’t even get a full security clearance — and, as of last week, had his clearance demoted — there is little chance that he’d have any job in the White House, if not for the fact that he’s married to the president’s daughter.
The second major problem with Javanka came to the fore while Ivanka was in South Korea. During an interview with NBC’s Peter Alexander, she became indignant over a question about allegations of sexual assault that have been lodged against the president. Trump complained that it would be inappropriate for her to talk about issues related to her father. “I don’t think that’s a question you would ask many other daughters,” Trump said, as she apparently forgot that, as a White House adviser, she works for the American people and can’t use the “I’m his daughter” to avoid questions about the president.
Ivanka’s loyalty is to her father, which is understandable, but is also the reason why nepotism is so dangerous. Public officials swear an oath to the Constitution, not to the president. Things don’t always work out that way, particularly in the hothouse of a White House under siege, but there’s even less chance of it happening when the president’s own family is involved.
Ivanka’s refusal to talk about her father’s sexual improprieties is a reminder that she will likely always put her family’s best interests ahead of the country — and not just her father’s political interests, but possibly those that are financial. After all, Trump has distanced himself from his business holdings in name only, and the same goes for Ivanka and Kushner. If either chose to use their public position to feather their own private nest, does anyone believe that Trump will hold them accountable? Who on the White House staff will want to challenge the president over his treatment of his family members? Indeed, Trump could unilaterally grant Jared Kushner a security clearance, even though the FBI won’t.
To be sure, there are so many outrageous, norm-violating elements of this administration that it’s hard to sustain outrage over Trump’s nepotism. When Javanka were brought into the administration, the story was quickly overtaken by fresh scandals. But as we’ve seen this week, this particular norm violation continues to not only be a problem, but in the case of Kushner, may represent a true national security crisis — having a largely unaccountable figure vulnerable to blackmail and foreign manipulation at the right hand of the president of the United States. Congress may not get everything right, but it was on to something when it codified into law the notion that presidents and their family members should not mix in the halls of power.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.