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A family affair: Children and other relatives of Biden aides get administration jobs

Steve Ricchetti after playing a round of golf with President Biden at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware on April 17.
Steve Ricchetti after playing a round of golf with President Biden at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware on April 17. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Barely a week into office, President Biden made a promise that signaled a sharp break from his predecessor: No member of his family would be involved in government.

But that vow did not extend to his senior staff and their relatives. In the first few months of Biden’s presidency, at least five children of his top aides have secured coveted jobs in the new administration. They include two sons and a daughter of the White House counselor, the daughter of a deputy White House chief of staff and the daughter of the director of presidential personnel.

The pattern — which continued this week with the Treasury Department’s announcement that it was hiring J.J. Ricchetti, son of Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti — has drawn concerns from ethics experts, diversity advocates and others. They say it is disappointing that Biden didn’t shift even further from the practices of Donald Trump’s presidency, which they thought reeked of nepotism and cronyism.

“While it may not be as bad as appointing your son or daughter to a top government post as Trump did with Jared and Ivanka, it is still bad,” said Walter Shaub, who served as director of the Office of Government Ethics from 2013 to 2017. “ ‘Not as bad as Trump’ cannot be the new standard.”

Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, worked in the White House as unpaid senior advisers, moves that outraged ethics experts, even as a Justice Department opinion found that the president has special hiring authorities. Some relatives of top Trump officials and aides also were hired into the administration.

Beyond children, other relatives of top Biden aides also have secured high-level administration jobs or nominations. They include the wife of White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and the sister of White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Federal law generally prohibits government officials from hiring close relatives or encouraging their hiring, and there is no evidence that any of Biden’s aides have played a role in securing the jobs for their children or other relatives.

The White House has maintained that everyone hired is well qualified for their positions.

“The president has instituted the highest ethical standards of anyone to ever hold this office,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said. “And he’s proud to have staffed the most diverse administration in American history with well-qualified public servants who reflect his values.”

But the hiring of senior aides’ children remains alarming to ethics experts, because it suggests that people with ties to high-ranking public servants might be getting an advantage over similarly qualified people for low-ranking positions, which often serve as a foot in the door to a career in government and politics.

Many Biden supporters hoped the new administration, which has stressed its commitment to inclusivity and diversity, would fill those positions with qualified applicants who lack powerful connections. Some argue that goal is hindered by hiring the children of Biden’s closest aides, who are mostly White and some of whom are wealthy.

On Monday, the Treasury Department announced the hiring of J.J. Ricchetti, a 2020 college graduate whose father is one of Biden’s most trusted West Wing aides. Ricchetti is assuming a junior-level position as special assistant in the Office of Legislative Affairs.

Lobbyist brother of top Biden adviser poses challenges to president’s ethics promises

Steve Ricchetti’s daughter, Shannon Ricchetti, who graduated from college in 2016, is deputy associate director of the office of the White House social secretary, a job she secured after working at the Aspen Institute and on the Biden transition team. Bruce Reed, a deputy White House chief of staff and longtime Biden confidant, has a daughter, Julia Reed, who graduated college in 2015 and works as Biden’s day scheduler.

Some of the more experienced sons and daughters of White House officials hold higher-level jobs. Steve Ricchetti’s son Daniel Ricchetti is a senior adviser in the office of the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He previously worked for seven years on the staff of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, most recently as a policy analyst.

Cathy Russell, director of presidential personnel in the White House, has a daughter, Sarah Donilon, who graduated from college in 2019 and works on the White House National Security Council. Sarah Donilon’s uncle, Mike Donilon, is a senior adviser to Biden in the White House. Russell’s office does not oversee hiring at the White House or the National Security Council, according to a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The official said those hired were well-qualified and cited examples of how their experience levels were commensurate with some of their predecessors.

Sarah Donilon, for example, worked as a McCain Institute fellow with Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council coordinator for the Indo Pacific, with whom she now works in the White House, the White House official said. The official also said the Biden administration places a priority on hiring former campaign volunteers and that J.J. Ricchetti is a former volunteer. Julia Reed earned praise from Biden aides for her work on the advance staff of his presidential campaign.

“In a country that had just come through a pandemic, how can these children of political appointees be the only people who are qualified for employment?” Shaub said.

The familial web in the Biden administration extends beyond children of White House officials. The White House press secretary’s sister, Stephanie Psaki, was appointed a senior adviser at the Health and Human Services Department in March. Klain’s wife, Monica Medina, was nominated for assistant secretary of state focused on oceans and the environment. Both have extensive experience in their fields.

Stephanie Psaki has a Ph.D. in public health from Johns Hopkins University and her work has been published in leading journals such as the Lancet, according to her HHS biography. Medina is a former deputy undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere and former special assistant to the defense secretary.

Others also come with a long list of credentials, such as White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s wife, Maggie Goodlander, who works as counsel to Attorney General Merrick Garland, for whom she clerked when he was an appellate judge. Sullivan’s brother, Tom Sullivan, is a State Department official and Tom’s wife, Rose Sullivan, is an official at the Department of Health and Human Services.

For Biden, family has been central to his decades-long political ascent. His sister, Valerie Biden Owens, has been perhaps his most influential aide, helming his campaigns for local, state and national office over the years. The tragic deaths of his wife and infant daughter in a 1972 car crash, and his son Beau, who succumbed to brain cancer in 2015, have become core parts of his political identity through stories he tells about overcoming grief. His fondness for his grandchildren is on frequent public display and he spends many weekends as president at home with family in Wilmington, Del.

But the image he has cultivated as a family-first husband, father and grandfather hasn’t always been a political asset. Biden’s son Hunter Biden’s foreign business deals were a distraction during Biden’s campaign, and they prompted concerns from ethics experts about how Biden would navigate the thorny intersection of family, government and business once in office.

After Trump’s practices, there was an appetite among Democrats for strict new limits on family hirings. Biden aimed to show he was serious about fulfilling campaign promises to end some of the most brazen personnel strategies of the Trump years.

“No one in our family and extended family is going to be involved in any government undertaking or foreign policy,” Biden told People magazine in January. “And nobody has an office in this place.”

Tracking nominees to fill key roles in Biden’s administration

On his first day in office, he signed an executive order implementing ethics rules that in key ways went further than the Obama administration's policies. But nothing in the regulations prevented the administration from hiring people who are related to White House officials.

Mark Hanis, the co-founder of Inclusive America, a group focused on making the government workforce more diverse, said that the hiring of relatives of White House officials highlights a larger problem of transparency in how senior appointments are made.

“All political appointees should be hired similar to the way the rest of the world is hired, where it is posted, competitive and transparent,” he said. He pointed to studies that showed that hiring based on preexisting relationships has a tendency to reinforce a lack of diversity, as those recruiting candidates tend to pick people similar in background to themselves.

“Unfortunately, with a lot of these political positions, it is relational. It’s more about who you know,” he added.

Hanis credited Biden for largely following through on his campaign promise to staff an administration that reflected a rapidly diversifying country. He has made appointments that have brought historic diversity to government, including naming the first Native American Cabinet secretary and the first Black man to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Biden transition effort collected tens of thousands of résumés after posting a public Web portal to allow people with no ties to politics to apply for jobs, the White House official said.

Of the approximately 1,500 agency appointees hired by the 100-day mark of Biden’s presidency, 58 percent were women, 18 percent identified as Black or African American, 15 percent identified as Latino or Hispanic, and 15 percent identified as Asian American or Pacific Islander, all according to the White House. Nearly a third were naturalized citizens or the children of immigrants, and 15 percent were the first in their family to go to college.

As for the number of children of senior Biden aides working in government, the network stretches beyond the executive branch. In addition to Steve Ricchetti’s three children in the administration, a fourth, Tyler “Tiger” Ricchetti, has worked for two years as an aide for Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.).

Alice Crites contributed to this report.