Eric Trump once dismissed objections to his father’s use of nepotism by saying that “nepotism is kind of a fact of life.” That is true. It is also a part of presidential history, but it is not a good part. I have long been a critic of nepotism in government. What is interesting is how costly the practice can be. The current controversy involving Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner are illustrative of those costs. Absent the family connection, neither Trump Jr. nor Kushner would likely have been able to avoid a separation from the White House (as was the case with Manafort and Flynn). Instead, Trump has had to double down and his defenders belittle the fact that Donald Jr. not only took the bait of this meeting but said that he would “love” to get information directly from the Russian government to help in the election. As I stated this weekend on NPR, while the collusion was not successful, there was clearly as willingness, if not an eagerness, to collude with the Russians in their seeking to influence the presidential election.
Below is my column in USA Today on the subject:
The perils of nepotism have been captured in President Trump’sresponses to his son and son-in-law eagerly attending a meeting that they believed was a Russian government lawyer bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton directly from the Russian government. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn and short-lived campaign manager Paul Manafort were shown the door over far less scandal — yet Trump declared of his relatives that “I think many people would have held that meeting.”
He called Donald Trump Jr. a “high quality person” who did nothing wrong, or even unwise. He added in his Paris press conference, “Politics is not the nicest business in the world, but it’s very standard.” Now NBC News reports that a former Soviet counterintelligence officer was also in the meeting. Does the president have any choice but to continue to defend his relatives?
With his comments to date, Trump has assumed the costs directly for their actions. And that is the real cost of nepotism. It reduces the range of motion in dealing with scandals. There is no option for political triage when family is on the line.
Jared Kushner came into the government as a senior adviser and “secretary of everything” through an act of nepotism. With his wife, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, he was given a high-ranking position based first and foremost on his familial relationship with the president. Federal bans on nepotism do not extend to the White House staff. Accordingly, Kushner’s appointment is perfectly legal. It is not, however, ethical or beneficial for the administration.
The term nepotism comes from the Latin root for nephew. Its origins are traced to the Middle Ages practice of Catholic popes giving high-ranking religious positions to their nephews. Nepotism became not the exception but the rule in religious appointments. It was eventually denounced as unethical and unwise. Nepotism elevates loyalty over capability. The “nephews” not only tended to do poor jobs, their scandals had a greater impact on their sponsors.
Trump does not stand out in his embrace of nepotism in the White House. John Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and others appointed relatives to high positions. Their failures often heightened the vulnerability of these presidents. Consider Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s administration reportedly employed dozens of his relatives. He then used his pardon power to benefit family members. One brother-in-law, James F. Casey, stole property from the New Orleans Customs Office but was still reappointed by Grant as collector of customs. Another brother-in-law, Abel R. Corbin, was accused of involvement in a bribery scheme. Yet another brother-in-law, Frederick Dent, made money by selling insider information as an usher. Grant’s reliance on ethically challenged relatives resulted in a scandal-plagued administration that forever tarnished his legacy. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner described Grant’s administration as exhibiting “a dropsical nepotism swollen to elephantiasis.”
By Grant’s standard, Kushner’s appointment and performance in office are stellar. However, everything in nepotism is … well … relative. Kushner’s effort to use Russian diplomatic resources to create a “back channel” for communications with Moscow was as stunning as it was stupid. His meeting with with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, was equally radioactive. The bank was the subject of U.S. sanctions and Gorkov’s resume includes a degree from the Academy of the Federal Security Service, the Russian spy school.
His failure to recall the meeting with the Russian lawyer is legitimately suspect, particularly when he was copied on emails that promised damaging information directly from the Russian government to help Trump win the election.
The Russian scandal shows that the real danger is not any imminent threat of criminal charges, but the familiar grind of nepotism on an administration. When Trump Jr. got into trouble as part of his position in the Trump campaign, Trump had to give his absolute support to his “high-quality” son. At best, his son had fallen for a bait-and-switch that made his team look like colossal chumps. However, you cannot distance yourself from your own blood.
Similarly, Kushner is not some aide, like Flynn, who can be simply sent home after a short but dismal performance in office. That would make Thanksgiving dinner a tad awkward. So the president must keep him — and his failures — close.
Trump only had to look to his campaign nemesis to understand the perils of nepotism. Bill Clinton (over the advice of many) appointed his wife to head his Health Care Task Force. A federal appeals court in Association of American Physicians and Surgeons v. Clinton found that Hillary Clinton was a “de facto” officer of the White House and suggested that, if nepotism laws applied to the White House, her position would be a violation.
However, the biggest problem was that Bill Clinton gave opponents a major advantage. The failure of the first lady would be his failure — adding to the incentive to run the project into the ground. On top of that strategic blunder, Hillary Clinton by 1994 had become highly unpopular among Republicans. Had the president selected a neutral leader to bridge the parties, he might have had a chance to secure real reforms.
While there is no compelling basis for prosecution on the current facts, Kushner could well be in legal jeopardy over the course of the unfolding federal and congressional investigations. Nepotism can have an impact on the legal defense strategy for the White House. Counsel cannot control or confine the damage if they cannot separate the president from a targeted official. You cannot cut off a target who is bound to the president by blood or marriage. That means the administration has limited options and has to double down when called out on the relationship — as the president did in Paris. That is the cost of nepotism, and those costs are only likely to grow with time.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.