The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are a case study in why nepotism is problematic

In 2018, President Trump ordered chief of staff John Kelly to give his son-in-law Jared Kushner a top-secret security clearance, despite officials' concerns. (Video: Reuters)

A new book about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner reports that President Trump has sought to oust his daughter and son-in-law from their high-profile White House jobs — to no avail.

Via the New York Times’s Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, who obtained a copy of Vicky Ward’s book, “Kushner, Inc.”:

When he hired John F. Kelly as his chief of staff, a move that Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner supported at the time, he gave an early directive: “Get rid of my kids; get them back to New York.”
Mr. Trump complained, according to the book, that his children “didn’t know how to play the game” and generated cycles of bad press. Mr. Kelly responded that it would be difficult to fire them, but he and the president agreed that they would make life difficult enough to force the pair to offer their resignations, which the president would then accept.

The passage confirms previous reporting from Haberman and another colleague in March 2018, but Kushner’s ethics counsel sought to call Ward’s reporting into question through a broad denial. “Every point that Ms. Ward mentioned in what she called her ‘fact checking’ stage was entirely false,” said spokesman Peter Mirijanian. "It seems she has written a book of fiction rather than any serious attempt to get the facts. Correcting everything wrong would take too long and be pointless.”

Consider this the latest example of why nepotism is discouraged in politics. In fact, the growing picture of Ivanka Trump’s and Kushner’s time in the White House presents a pretty solid case study in why hiring family can be problematic.

I wrote back when they were elevated to their positions about the problems with hiring family members in positions of power and the reasons anti-nepotism laws exist. One was that family risk being viewed as bulletproof and unfireable. Another was that they are often viewed as being given responsibilities that are not commensurate with their experience. A third was that it muddles the power dynamics that would otherwise be clear thanks to job titles and ranks. And a fourth was that the boss might be tempted to give them special treatment.

Check, check, check and check.

It’s worth noting that these aren’t the first people Trump has apparently struggled to fire; the president who’s catchphrase on “The Apprentice” was “You’re fired” is actually notoriously averse to terminating people. But the reporting suggests it has been particularly tricky in this case — to the point where Trump went to great lengths to obscure his intentions and avoid actually having to fire them. The Times reported last year that, “Mr. Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Mr. Kelly for his help in moving them out.” It’s difficult to believe the fact that they’re family doesn’t play into that.

As for being given responsibilities they might not be qualified for, Kushner’s massive portfolio, which includes Middle East peace, has been a punchline since the day he got it. More recently there has been talk of Ivanka Trump serving as ambassador to the United Nations or even head of the World Bank. She has also increasingly served as a de facto diplomat for the United States abroad. When her name was floated for the U.N. job, Trump tweeted, “everyone wants Ivanka Trump to be the new United Nations Ambassador. She would be incredible, but I can already hear the chants of Nepotism!”

The unusual power dynamics have been on display from the start, with Stephen K. Bannon losing his job after clashing with Ivanka Trump and Kushner, and Chris Christie recently pointing to Kushner as the source of his ouster from the Trump transition team. Kushner holds a major title, which would make him someone to contend with in any White House. But it wouldn’t seem a coincidence that this political neophyte has won multiple power struggles with high-ranking officials who happen to be experienced political operators. And the fact that he has can only feed the idea among other staff that they are dealing with someone in a unique position of power.

Which brings us to the fourth item: special treatment. We found out recently that Trump last year disregarded the advice of career intelligence officials who had held up Kushner’s security clearance and ordered Kelly to award him one. Those intelligence officials had worried that Kushner’s foreign business entanglements could present a security risk and that foreign governments could potentially seek leverage on him. CNN has reported Trump did the same with Ivanka Trump’s security clearance. There is no public evidence that the president has gone to such great lengths for other staffers who might have run into similar problems.

It was always unlikely that there would be one massive scandal that would put the spotlight on nepotism in the White House. Some might argue Kushner’s clearance is that scandal, but this is technically a power that a president can exercise at will.

The larger body of evidence, though, suggests concerns about nepotism were well-founded — and that Trump has done very little to guard against the problems it could create. As Trump’s presidency progresses, the inherently unique roles enjoyed by his daughter and son-in-law only become more evident.