Donald Trump chose to keep his family more involved in his campaign and presidency than basically any American in modern times. That's looking like a very bad call — though not really for the reasons we expected.
Before he became president and as he flirted with the idea of installing his children into senior White House roles and to run his business, there were worries about nepotism and the potential conflicts of interest it would create. Those concerns are still very real and crop up from time to time.
But it's the actions of Trump's family in relation to the Russia investigation that are now giving him his biggest problems. The biggest reported leads in that probe are now pointing squarely at Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And their problems are compounding the president's own, as he faces an obstruction of justice investigation.
Trump Jr. now faces the most heat of all, after he released emails Tuesday showing he set up a meeting during the 2016 campaign with a Russian lawyer promising compromising information on Hillary Clinton, supposedly courtesy of the Russian government. Those emails also show Trump Jr. was informed that the Russian government was trying to aid his father's candidacy, and they represent arguably the first smoking gun in the investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Trump Jr. has only compounded these problems by offering an ever-shifting and contradictory set of comments about Russian meddling in the election and his own actions. He denied ever meeting with Russians about the campaign, he denied they were helping his father, and he said the meeting was about adoption.
Before Trump Jr. found himself on the hot seat, it was Kushner, the senior White House adviser and husband of Ivanka Trump. In late May, The Washington Post broke the news that he was a focal point of the Russia investigation — making him the first person currently inside the White House facing scrutiny. (The news about Trump's obstruction probe would follow later.) At issue were Kushner's meetings in December with Russia's ambassador to the United States and a banker with ties to the Kremlin. Investigators were reportedly looking at possible financial crimes in addition to collusion. Kushner has for months been seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in financing for an apparently troubled real estate project at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, though it's not clear whether that is the focus of investigators.
The Post has also reported that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak told Moscow that Kushner floated the idea of a secret communications channel — or back channel — with the Kremlin, the appropriateness of which would be highly questionable, considering that Trump was still only the president-elect at the time.
Neither Trump Jr. nor Kushner has been charged with any crimes, but they have emerged as arguably President Trump's chief liabilities in the Russia investigation.
Part of the reason for that is because others who posed problems have been cast aside. The White House effectively fired Michael Flynn as national security adviser and disowned other former aides who also had suspect dealings with Russians — including former campaign head Paul Manafort, longtime informal Trump adviser Roger Stone and foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The White House has gone on to minimize their roles in ways that strain credulity, even claiming Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited period of time” on the campaign.
But disowning or minimizing his own family isn't really an option for Trump, and that's where the family problem comes in. Even if Trump weren't as loyal as he is to his relatives — and it seems that he gave Kushner and Trump Jr. plenty of berth to do what they pleased — the optics of firing Kushner or distancing the White House from Trump Jr.'s problems would be hugely damaging by themselves. They would be tacit admissions of wrongdoing. In other words, the fact that they are family may have been a problem on the front end, and it's definitely a problem on the back end.
It's also not terribly surprising, in one way. It's a setup that has proven a problem for many governments over the course of human history. Leaders installing family members has a way of leading to corruption, hence anti-nepotism laws. Here's what I wrote about that in May:
As any expert on corrupt authoritarian regimes throughout history will tell you, those regimes' wrongdoing will often run through family members with official titles. …
“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.”
Again, we don't know if Kushner or Trump Jr. has actually done something wrong or illegal, but this sure seems to be following a familiar arc. And the fact that they have found themselves front and center in the Russia investigation is a big, stubborn problem for a president who has his own big, stubborn problems.