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Jared Kushner is showing us exactly why anti-nepotism laws exist

Here’s what the changes to the security clearance process in the White House could mean for Jared Kushner, President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The New York Times and CNN both say tensions are rising between White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Per the Times, Kelly is trying to rein in access to highly classified information for anyone with temporary security clearances. And that means Kushner, who despite his lack of a permanent clearance has a broad portfolio and has enjoyed access to the very sensitive President's Daily Brief (PDB):

Mr. Kushner, frustrated about the security clearance issue and concerned that Mr. Kelly has targeted him personally with the directive, has told colleagues at the White House that he is reluctant to give up his high-level access, the officials said. In the talks, the officials say, Mr. Kushner has insisted that he maintain his current level of access, including the ability to review the daily intelligence briefing when he sees fit.
But Mr. Kelly, who has been privately dismissive of Mr. Kushner since taking the post of chief of staff but has rarely taken him on directly, has made no guarantees, saying only that the president’s son-in-law will still have all the access he needs to do his job under the new system.

In other words, it's a power struggle with personal suspicions lying just beneath the surface. Kelly is trying to take away some of Kushner's authority, which is, at best, ill-defined. He can justifiably claim that it is a broadly applied reaction to the Rob Porter saga. (Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats even suggested last week that people like Kushner shouldn't have full access, after all.) But Kushner feels Kelly, who apparently has never had much regard for Kushner, is taking advantage of the situation to undercut him.

It's a mucky situation. And what makes it even muckier is one key fact: Kushner is not just Trump's senior adviser, but his family. And really, this is precisely the reason anti-nepotism laws exist.

When I first wrote about Kushner's appointment to the White House back in January 2017, I noted that part of the reason such laws exist is that family members often serve as the best partners in corrupt enterprises. But another big reason was that nepotism takes merit out of the equation and creates complications for those who have to work alongside the president's family members, who they may feel are above reproach.

Here's how Washington University government ethics expert Kathleen Clark put it to me at the time:

“It can undermine the morale of government officials. It can cause confusion about what the lines of authority are; in other words, the relative may have a particular title, but many may perceive the relative’s role as even more important than the title would suggest. It may be very difficult to say no to the president’s son-in-law. It may be very difficult to say, ‘That’s a bad idea’ to the president’s son-in-law, in a way it would be easier to say those things to someone whom the president hired but isn’t related to — someone who’s not the father of his grandchild or grandchildren.

The sound you hear is a bell going ding ding ding ding. This seems to be exactly what's happening. Kelly seems intent upon testing just how much stature Kushner actually has in the White House. Any normal person with the title of senior adviser would seem likely to lose that battle in a heartbeat.

But the calculus isn't so simple with Kushner. If Kushner loses his access to highly classified information, it risks looking like a proxy loss for the president, who has invested so much authority and responsibility in his son-in-law. If Kushner doesn't, it will look like Trump sided with his family over his chief of staff, and I'd imagine that would further damage Trump and Kelly's tenuous relationship.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted Tuesday that Kushner wouldn't lose access as part of the review. We'll see if that's the case. But the whole thing stands to get pretty messy, and that's largely thanks to implications that simply wouldn't exist were it not for Kushner being in Trump's family.