Nepo­tism of­ten ends badly. Its real cost is height­ened vul­ner­a­bil­ity to scan­dal.

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Jonathan Tur­ley

The per­ils of nepo­tism have been cap­tured in Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­sponses to his son and son- in- law ea­gerly meet­ing with a woman they be­lieved was a Rus­sian govern­ment lawyer bring­ing dirt on Hil­lary Clin­ton. 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. This cus­tom 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. TARNISHED LEGACIES 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. His re­liance on eth­i­cally chal­lenged rel­a­tives re­sulted in a scan­dal- plagued ad­min­is­tra­tion that for­ever tarnished his legacy.

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 il­lus­trates 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 who can sim­ply be 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. THE CLIN­TON EX­AM­PLE 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. And in do­ing so, he 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 also 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.

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.


White House ad­viser Jared Kush­ner

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