THE FALL OF JARED AND DON JR.
Nepotism often ends badly. Its real cost is heightened vulnerability to scandal.
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