Jared Kushner has just been revealed as the senior White House adviser who is under investigation in the Russia probe — which is news that comes as little surprise. Indeed, when The Washington Post reported last week that a then-unnamed top Trump adviser was a focus, many quickly assumed it was Kushner.
But while those assumptions were based on his known contacts with Russians and his status as one of few senior White House aides, there's another reason his naming fits the puzzle: He's related to Trump.
Kushner's ability to even work in the White House has been the subject of plenty of debate because he is Trump's son-in-law. (Kushner has made concessions to try and avoid violating a federal anti-nepotism law, including forgoing a paycheck.) And a big reason anti-nepotism laws exist is to avoid the corruption that all too often comes with installing your relatives in positions of power. As any expert on corrupt authoritarian regimes throughout history will tell you, those regimes' wrongdoing will often run through family members with official titles.
It isn't clear what possible crimes might be under investigation, and it's important to emphasize that Kushner hasn't been charged with anything. We don't know where this will lead, if anywhere.
But here's a key part of The Post's story:
In addition to possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election, investigators are also looking broadly into possible financial crimes — but the people familiar with the matter, who were not authorized to speak publicly, did not specify who or what was being examined.
In other words, this isn't just about whether Kushner or anyone else facilitated collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign; indeed, the two meetings he had with Russians that have been spotlighted actually came in December, after Trump was elected. Federal investigators appear to be cluing on some other potential crimes that may or may not be related to that.
Kushner met with Russian Ambassdor Sergey Kislyak and then with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, which faced U.S. sanctions after Russia's annexation of Crimea. Beyond that, there aren't many details.
If it does lead down a path to corruption allegations, though, there will be plenty of I-told-you-sos.
“You’ve seen it in countries all over the world where they’ve appointed family members, whether it’s their son, daughter, in-laws — it provides for tremendous opportunities for corruption,” Shruti Shah, an international corruption expert at Coalition for Integrity, told HuffPost last month. “People who want to curry favor find their way to provide favors to family members as a way to get closer to the person in power.”
Added Gerald Feierstein, a former top State Department official and ambassador to Yemen in the Obama administration: “For many countries and governments, certainly in the Gulf, in the Middle East, they would recognize this pattern immediately. ... I think that they would find it completely normal that leaders mix personal business interests with government affairs and would use family members in various official responsibilities.”
Kushner has already come under scrutiny for his family possibly benefiting personally from his proximity to his leader-of-the-free-world father-in-law. His sister earlier this month mentioned Kushner's advisory role in the White House while pitching Chinese investors on a New Jersey housing development.
Former Obama administration ethics counsel Norman L. Eisen was among those criticizing that move. And here's what Eisen said back in December, when Kushner's potential role in the Trump White House first made news:
The problem with it is it sends a message that if you want to have influence in the administration, do it through the kids. And there’s a tradition. This is not the first time this has happened. I’m just shocked it’s happened in the United States.
It's possible that Kushner's familial relationship with Trump is part of the reason he's been subjected to more scrutiny than any other White House adviser in this probe. And as emphasized above, we have no idea what will come of this.
But if scrutiny of Kushner becomes more intense and there appears to be some validity to it, it will reinforce a central reason why ethics experts say these kinds of arrangements are to be avoided in the first place.