When Donald Trump was running for president, it was always assumed that if he won, he would try to bring aboard some of his family member in a professional capacity. So the moment Trump won the White House, reporters turned to experts in government ethics to interpret the federal anti-nepotism law, which states that “a public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official.”
The consensus seemed to be that Trump could skirt the law if family members were unpaid and not federal employees. But instead, hours after he was inaugurated in January, the Justice Department declared in a 14-page opinion that the new president was exempt from the anti-nepotism law. Trump then appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a senior White House adviser, and later made his daughter Ivanka—Kushner’s wife—an assistant to the president. While the press made a minor fuss over these hires, they made barely a ripple among Republicans and even Democrats. As son Eric Trump put it in April, nepotism “is a beautiful thing.”
Now, predictably, two of the president’s children have been caught in political controversy, showing in very different ways the dangers of nepotism in the White House.
At a G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Ivanka Trump took her father’s seat at the table alongside such world leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Father and daughter were also photographed hobnobbing with Xi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Although Merkel downplayed the Ivanka’s prominence, many critics seized on it as an example of the Trump administration’s scorn for democratic norms. “What qualifications and experience does Ivanka Trump have in her background that should put her at the table with world leaders like Theresa May and Vladimir Putin?” Zerlina Maxwell, a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer asked on MSNBC. “This just goes to, I think, the level of inherent corruption in this administration.”
Trump brushed aside these complaints. “I’m very proud of my daughter Ivanka, always have been from day one,” he said on Saturday. “I have to tell you that, from day one. If she weren’t my daughter, it’d be so much easier for her. It might be the only bad thing she has going, if you want to know the truth.” But Trump was rattled enough to return to defending himself on this issue on Twitter on Monday:
The last comment hints at Trump’s potential motive (to build a political dynasty, with Ivanka as his successor) while underscoring the problem (using a state meeting for so personal and partisan an end is degrading to democracy).
Not to be outdone by his sister, Donald Trump Jr. also blurred the lines between politics and family. If Ivanka is the glamorous public face of nepotism, Trump Jr. shows how nepotism works in private. On Sunday, The New York Times revealed that Trump Jr., contrary to his previous accounts, met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June last year to discuss supposedly damaging information about Hillary Clinton—and on Monday the paper revealed that he was told beforehand, in an email from the publicist who arranged the meeting, that it was part of a Russian plot to help his father’s campaign. Also in attendance were Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband and Donald Jr.’s brother-in-law, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager at the time.
Trump Jr.’s statement, before Monday’s bombshell, was designed to provide cover for both his brother-in-law and for his father. “I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign,” he explained. “I was not told her name prior to the meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to attend, but told them nothing of the substance.... My father knew nothing of the meeting or these events.”
Trump Jr. is in effect running interference for his father and Kushner (who, we’re to believe, went into a 30-minute meeting during the height of the campaign, not knowing who he was about to meet). Unlike Trump Jr., Kushner and Trump Sr. have government jobs and are therefore more vulnerable to the accusation of breaking government rules. Kushner could lose his security clearance because he hadn’t initially reported the meeting, as he was required to do when he became senior White House adviser.
Trump Jr. shows how corrupting Trump’s nepotism can be. Given how Trump parades his family around, it’s perfectly natural that someone like Veselnitskaya would assume that the best way to get Trump’s ear is through his children. Trump Jr. was acting as a representative of his father, but once the meeting became controversial, he insisted that his father knew nothing about it. This claim is highly improbable for reasons MSNBC host Joy Reid explained: The meeting was set up by a music promoter whom Trump himself had long done business with.
In April, I argued that Trump’s tropism toward nepotism was one of the major signs of his authoritarianism, and I cited a Georgia State University political scientist who described Trump as creating an American form of “Sultanism.” “The U.S. presidency has always been prone to sultantistic tendencies, but under a Trump presidency what were once isolated incidents could become a way of governing,” Henry F. Carey wrote. “Instead of a ‘team of rivals’ under the rule of law, the Trump presidency may be akin to medieval monarchy, with decisions made by court politics, not legal procedures.”
Critics of nepotism, like Carey, have been largely ignored because both political parties have found it convenient to accept Trump’s way of doing business. Republicans’ accept Trump’s nepotism because they need his help to deliver on their promises to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes for the rich. Democrats have been somewhat muted on the subject out of misplaced hope that Ivanka and her husband would act as moderating forces in the Trump administration. The time for such easy indulgence is over.
The great danger of Trumpian nepotism is the corruption of American democracy, but it’s also a threat to the Trump clan itself. As the administration’s scandals heat up, members of the family may may feel compelled to sell each other out to avoid legal repercussions. After all, intramural legal battles are a familiar story for the family. Trump once cut off medical funding for his nephew’s infant son during a legacy dispute. Jared Kushner’s father, Charles, once hired a sex worker to sleep with his brother-in-law and filmed the encounter, in an elaborate revenge plot spurred by Charles’s belief that his family had betrayed him to prosecutors.
When the law and family mix, the results can be ugly. The Trumps already know that, but they could soon discover how a “beautiful thing” like nepotism can turn uglier than they ever imagined.