It’s hard to think of a worse example of the “swamp” that needs draining than a president hiring his unqualified, inexperienced 30-something daughter and son-in-law with a myriad of conflicts (some involving foreign countries) who refuse to fully divest while given broad, undefined duties ranging over the entire government. The nepotism all by itself is regrettable and arguably violates at least the spirit of the anti-nepotism law; the rest of it makes the Trumps seem like the Clintons on steroids — or maybe a throwback to the Romanovs.
The New York Times reports that while Ivanka Trump’s effectiveness is an open question, she is “an all-around West Wing confidante, an adviser whose portfolio seems to have few parameters.” Jared Kushner has been put in charge of Middle East peace, redesigning the whole government, acting as a “shadow diplomat,” tackling the opioid epidemic and running something called the White House Office of American Innovation. With such sweeping duties, they inevitably come in contact with functions of government that impact their businesses.
An ad from 2012 recently surfaced featuring Ivanka Trump promoting the Trump hotel in the Philippines, a property Trump still owns. In the wake of his bizarre, widely criticized invitation for strongman Rodrigo Duterte to visit, one has to ask whose interests the Trump gang represents. “Despite its age, the Ivanka [ad] serves to remind anyone who’d forgotten that the Trumps have a major Trump-branded property in Duterte-land,” says legal maven Laurence Tribe. “The fact that nobody can be confident about how big a role that financial interest might have played in Trump’s kissing up to the murderous dictator of the Philippines itself underscores the importance of his Foreign Emoluments Clause violations.”
Kushner is also in the news. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, didn’t identify on his government financial disclosure form that he is currently a part-owner of a real-estate finance startup and has a number of loans from banks on properties he co-owns, according to securities filings.
Mr. Kushner’s stake in Cadre—a tech startup that pairs investors with big real-estate projects—means the senior White House official is currently a business partner of Goldman Sachs Group and billionaires including George Soros and Peter Thiel, according to people close to the company.
The Cadre stake is one of many interests—and ties to large financial institutions—that Mr. Kushner didn’t identify on his disclosure form, according to a Wall Street Journal review of securities and other filings. Others include loans totaling at least $1 billion, from more than 20 lenders, to properties and companies part-owned by Mr. Kushner, the Journal found. He has also provided personal guarantees on more than $300 million of the debt, according to the analysis.
His lawyer claims Cadre is “housed” within another entity and will appear on his revised disclosure form.
This follows last month’s discovery that he failed to disclose his contacts with Russian officials (including head of a Russian bank) and other foreign leaders as part of the security clearance process. So much forgetting.
Kushner’s lawyer’s assurance that Kushner will recuse himself consistent with ethics rules is rather meaningless. It’s often unclear how specific a conflict must be to require recusal. With his enormous business portfolio (while he divested of many holdings, he “is retaining more than 200 other assets, worth a total of at least $116 million, according to his disclosures”) and his gigantic government portfolio of responsibilities, it is hard to avoid, at the very least, the appearance of conflicts of interest. In many cases, these things boil down to exercise of good judgment, something Kushner and Ivanka Trump haven’t demonstrated. (They have not divested themselves of all holdings that could pose potential ethical problems and have not employed truly blind trusts, either.)
“This highlights how just little we know about Jared Kushner’s financial investments, his investors, partners and creditors from his initial White House filing and highlights why he must, at the very minimum, recuse himself from matters involving the financial services industry as well as those involving the people he does business with,” a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington tells me. “It also highlights the need for greater transparency from Kushner about the real estate holdings in which he retained an interest. His and his wife’s retained holdings present additional conflicts of interest with respect to trade issues involving intellectual property and textiles and with countries in which her company does business, such as China.”
Kushner’s dizzying array of duties and financial interests cry out for some hard and fast rules. “This is why we have called for broad recusals for Jared, for example from the financial regulatory reform that could affect these banks and other counter parties,” ethics expert Norman Eisen says. “That is both because of his own potential conflicts, and those of his wife that are imputed to him by law.” He noted in a recent op-ed co-authored with Richard Painter and Virginia Canter that “while [Jared’s financial disclosure] report discloses his personal lines of credit, it does not disclose the lenders and investors for the family businesses in which he retains an interest, which create further conflicts.” Eisen argues, “The couple’s recusals should cut broadly within other important policy areas like trade, tax reform and China. Given Jared’s exceptional authority in government, and the gaps in his disclosures, the bare minimum required by law just won’t cut it here for him or his wife.” He concludes, “Using a narrow, de minimis application of the law to scrape by under these circumstances is unwise. It puts Jared, and his wife, at risk of stumbling into legal violations, if they have not done so already. In that regard, they would do well to note that the appearance of conflict is also prohibited under the ethics regulations.”
Taking a step back, the entire situation is unsightly and inappropriate, creating the impression that the United States is ruled by a royal-ish family for whom the normal rules and norms do not apply. Congress could, of course, hold hearings and legislate on the matter, but until Republicans lose control of committees in the House and/or Senate, expect them to keep on ignoring the Trumps’ shenanigans.