If you have ever worked for a small family-owned business, you know the perils of speaking truth to power. No doubt you’ve witnessed incredible double standards of ethical behavior and a circle-the-wagons mentality that can make close family ties a business liability.
As a real estate and entertainment mogul, Donald Trump was comfortable with this approach. The federal government, however, is a public trust and responsibility with ethical canons and rules. The complexity of a son, daughter and son-in-law as part of the president’s advisory team dangerously mixes government service with family loyalty. If Trump wants to know why his approval ratings are at all-time lows except among his most ardent core supporters, nepotism is a big reason.
In a family business, conflicts of interests often are overlooked, excused or not punished as severely as they would be if committed by an employee outside the family. Family members often hold positions for which an applicant off the street with the same level of inexperience would be flatly rejected. Family members often become insulated from criticism and unfirable, the truth and incompetence be damned.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, a Texas Republican, broached this delicate subject publicly, calling on Trump to oust his children and in-law from the White House, in light of continuing revelations about their activities in the 2016 presidential campaign. “I’m going out on a limb here, but I would say that I think it would be in the president’s best interest if he removed all of his children from the White House,” Flores said. “Not only Donald Trump (Jr.), but Ivanka and Jared Kushner.”
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Government service has collided head-on with family matters. Donald Trump Jr., who doesn’t formally work for the White House, says in hindsight that he would have handled things differently regarding the Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in June 2016 to gather dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Trump directly, and through surrogates, has steadfastly doubled down on support for his son’s actions. The meeting with a Russian lawyer amounted to nothing, he says, and even if it had, the meeting was proper in the world of opposition research. And for son-in-law Jared Kushner’s failure to disclose meetings with Russians linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his intelligence apparatus, the defense is essentially the same. Nothing to see here, move along, don’t pick on us.
Kushner and Trump Jr.’s actions are being spun simultaneously as rookie mistakes and smart politics, a contradictory set of explanations. But the shifting excuses for what even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has described as “probably against the law in addition to being inappropriate” underscore the complicating factor of family ties.
Kushner apparently still has his security clearance and could be in legal jeopardy as new information dribbles out daily that more people attended the meeting with Veselnitskaya than was previously indicated. Would anyone who wasn’t related to the president by marriage still be part of the administration? Of course not.
Then there are the simply inappropriate moments, such as Ivanka Trump briefly representing the United States at a Group of 20 meeting. It’s bad form and an insult to world leaders, who should expect top-level communication with an experienced diplomat if the president is unavailable. Yet Trump turned it into a defense of the family: “I’m very proud of my daughter Ivanka, always have been from day one. 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.”
A 1967 federal law, the so-called Robert Kennedy amendment, was passed to prevent a president from appointing relatives to the Cabinet, as John F. Kennedy did when he selected his younger brother Robert to be his attorney general. The law never envisioned that any president would skirt the spirit of the measure and give politically inexperienced family members vast portfolios over more qualified people.
Walter Shaub, who has stepped down as the nation’s top ethics watchdog, has proposed several changes to toughen federal ethics policies on business ties and other matters, which in some instances, he says, he never imagined would be necessary before Trump’s election.
Anyone who works in the White House must work for the American people, not for dad. It’s time for a “Trump amendment” — now.
Reach Jim Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org.