When families run the business, writes Elizabeth Spiers, incompetence is no surprise
In my early 20s, I worked for a hedge fund manager as an analyst, performing due diligence on companies he was considering for investment. I visited a wide range of businesses — storage area network companies, broadband providers, medical-device manufacturers and less tech-oriented ventures, including one whose only products were couches and chairs that converted into beds. Sometimes the companies were interesting and innovative, and sometimes they were complete disasters. The disasters had many of the same markers: poor performance, murky financials and, at least once, a supercar of Italian extraction leased by management in the parking lot.
One other trend stood out: If my boss told me that I’d be looking at a “family run” company, there would probably be additional red flags. These didn’t always emerge, but when they did, they were consistent. Senior managers would be woefully unqualified or incompetent or both, and inevitably related to the chief executive. Certain employees, also related to the CEO, would be regarded as un-fireable. Their excessive compensation (it was always excessive) would in no way be tied to performance. Succession plans would consist of elevating and installing relatives in unearned positions designed primarily to satisfy the founder’s fantasies of creating a dynasty.
I encountered those same dynamics years later when, as editor in chief of the New York Observer, I assigned and edited stories about commercial real estate in the city. New York real estate is very dynastic and insular; a few families have run the largest companies over the course of several generations. One of them is the family of Jared Kushner, then the Observer’s owner and now a senior White House adviser and son-in-law to President
Trump. Another, of course, is Trump’s. Both Kushner and Trump are second-generation executives in their family businesses (I would use the word “were” here, but neither of them have completely divested themselves), and Trump’s children are third-generation.
So when the Trump family business became running the United States of America, naturally, the head of the household could not resist installing his nearest and dearest in positions of senior management. Kushner and Ivanka Trump were given adviser positions and West Wing offices; Donald Trump Jr. and his brother Eric were left to nominally run the Trump Organization. And if I were conducting due diligence on either operation today — the United States or Trump’s business — I wouldn’t recommend getting involved. The controversy this past week prompted by Trump Jr.’s disclosure that he met with a Russian lawyer to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s support for Trump may have overshadowed the controversy the previous week prompted by Trump’s decision to let Ivanka represent the United States at a Group of 20 meeting. But they’re symptoms of the same underlying dysfunction: The unearned power Trump’s children wield simply because they’re his children.
When Kushner and Ivanka Trump first arrived in the White House, their presence was greeted with a tiny bit of hope on the part of liberals and anti-Trump Republicans that the two might be able to moderate the president’s worst impulses. They were going to persuade him to prioritize climate change, advance progressive workplace rules for women and families, and defend gay rights. But so far there’s no concrete evidence that they’ve gotten anything done except to accompany Trump in meetings when convenient, exploit the office for access to people they wouldn’t meet otherwise and pose for photo ops.
Trump has made it no secret that he views Ivanka as a potential successor of sorts — he once suggested he could name her as his running mate. So although it was wildly inappropriate, it’s not the least bit surprising that both of them thought it was fine for her to sit in for Dad at the G-20 summit. The conclave was not, of course, a Take Your Daughter to Work event. But for someone who recently claimed to “stay out of politics,” Ivanka didn’t seem to have any objection to being slotted into a position with very big political stakes. In her mind, apparently, it was hers to take. Similarly, her husband seems to feel qualified, despite a lack of anything resembling relevant experience or expertise, to assume the mantle of director in charge of everything the president doesn’t understand or wants to delegate or that Kushner would simply like to run.
Kushner’s appointment(s) are already backfiring, though, in part because last year, he took part in meetings with a number of Russian operatives and neglected to mention them on crucial security forms — including Trump Jr.’s meeting.
That meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was a product of Trump Jr.’s own license to take charge of anything his family’s name touches. Like all his siblings and his brother-in-law, Trump Jr. had no experience working in politics before last year, but that didn’t stop him from meeting with sketchy operatives and dragging the ostensible professionals, such as campaign manager Paul Manafort, into them.
This past week, after news of the meeting burst into the open, the president first offered a head-scratching defense of his son, applauding Jr.’s transparency (something Trump has never valued in any incarnation) and tepidly referring to him as “a high-quality person,” a designation ambiguously located on the president’s usual scale of “loser” to “tremendous,” and not exactly the term of endearment you’d expect from a protective parent. Trump also pleaded ignorance of the meeting in question, which strains credulity even more than it probably strains the family bonds. Asked about it at a news conference in Paris on Thursday, he stuck with the general line that his namesake hadn’t done anything wrong: “I have a son who’s a great young man. He’s a fine person. He took a meeting with a lawyer from Russia. It lasted for a very short period, and nothing came of the meeting. And I think it’s a meeting that most people in politics probably would have taken.”
The one upside that may have appealed to the CEOs of all those family-owned corporations — and, apparently, the head of our newly family-owned federal government — is that putting otherwise unqualified relatives into positions of power does buy a certain amount of blind loyalty. Maybe Trump’s motivation for having Kushner and Ivanka in the White House with him was not that he ever intended to rely on them as advisers (there’s no evidence that they’ve ever been able to sway him on policy), but rather that they provide some psychological comfort, in the sense that he can trust them not to stab him in the back.
The dysfunction of Trump’s nepotistic impulses goes hand in hand with his family’s odd notion of loyalty. It’s a sentiment that runs only one way: Everyone in the family demands loyalty, but none of them necessarily expects to reciprocate it, especially to anyone outside the family. (I include Kushner here, who once told me that a predecessor of mine was someone he admired because he was a “loyal guy,” neglecting to mention that the “loyal guy” was someone he had fired.) This view is evidently shared by Trump Jr., who in 2012 tweeted the following: “At dinner w our greenskeeper who missed his sister’s wedding 2 work (luv loyalty 2 us) ‘No big deal hopefully she’ll have another someday’ ;)”
Ultimately, the mess Trump and his administration have landed in was an obvious consequence of this most disastrous of family-run enterprises. People related to the president were put in senior positions, once again, despite having no being woefully unqualified or incompetent or both. They were, and are, regarded as un-fireable and not held to normal performance standards. And much of this is driven by the family patriarch’s fantasies of dynasty.
All of the red flags are there; not even family wins out. And certainly not the country. The only real loyalty Trump has ever had is to himself.
Donald Trump Jr. listens to his father’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial before the inauguration in January. He and brother Eric took over his father’s role in the family business.