When Donald Trump ran for the presidency, one of his proponents’ chief arguments was that he was an outsider who would keep the White House out of the hands of an un-American dynasty. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, as the wife of a former president, was viewed more as a royalist than a populist by her detractors. But, in an ironic twist, it may turn out that President Trump will be more of a dynasty-builder than Bill and Hillary could ever hope to be.
In an unorthodox move, the Justice Department has cleared Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to serve as a White House advisor.
Kushner, 35, is the husband of widely-known Trump daughter Ivanka. He has been credited with adding some polish and poise to the brash, aggressive style of Donald Trump’s campaign. Like his famous father-in-law, Kushner is a real estate scion in his own right, coming from a wealthy family. Also like Donald Trump, Kushner’s grandparents came to the East Coast from Europe, providing a popular rags-to-riches story upon which conservative supporters can seize. Rich, handsome, and [now] politically-connected, Jared Kushner may well represent the next generation of a Trump dynasty.
Can Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump succeed in politics where other budding dynasties have failed? Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were widely considered shoo-ins for political success, but suffered upset losses in 2016. Chelsea Clinton and George W. Bush’s twin daughters have kept low profiles. The Kennedy clan has waned considerably from decades past. The Rockefellers have rolled away. Populist rhetoric easily explains this trend: American voters tend to be suspicious of potential “royal families.”
But could Kushner, whose last name differs from his presidential father-in-law, be the key to creating an ironic Trump dynasty? Without the Trump surname, he could enjoy the advantages of Donald’s connections and wealth without being blamed for the administration’s woes. By being a senior advisor rather than a bona fide cabinet secretary, as was Robert F. Kennedy, Kushner has more freedom to embrace the White House’s successes and distance himself from its failures.
This ability to politick is what makes Kushner’s appointment to the White House staff a bad precedent for the Justice Department. Congress was correct when it approved a law that barred presidents from naming siblings to their respective Cabinets in 1967. This anti-nepotism reform should be extended to prevent immediate family members, including grandchildren, in-laws, and first cousins, from being appointed to senior White House positions as well.
Given presidents’ increasing propensity to use the executive order, unconfirmed members of the executive branch, such as White House staff, have greater power than in past decades. A president who surrounds himself with family members can empower them, and be empowered by them, in unprecedented ways, particularly given the intensifying partisanship in Washington. Given increasing hostility between Democrats and Republicans, current and future presidents may be tempted to surround themselves with “comfort staff” of “yes men” [and women].
Presidents should not be allowed to build dynastic kingdoms around themselves, insulating themselves from the harshness of the office by seeking loyal staff who are bound by blood and marriage. Even if presidents do not seek to appoint sons-in-law as conscious attempts to build dynasties, the nepotism is still harmful to democracy. Whether or not Trump intends for Jared Kushner to someday become an elected politician, Kushner will automatically have an unfair advantage over others if he chooses to run.
By allowing Jared Kushner to serve under his father-in-law, the Justice Department has created a dangerous precedent. Presidents will seek to fill their staffs with family members, creating administrations ripe for problems. Family drama could quickly translate into government drama, potentially impacting the efficacy of the Office of the White House. Instead of a harmonious family helping a president operate at his or her intellectual and emotional peak, America risks a dysfunctional family sparking emotional crises within its chief executive.
When they say that you should never hire family, the adage applies to the White House as well.
Practicality aside, the practice of appointing family members to powerful positions in government, especially when there is no shortage of eager external applicants, violates the spirit of the U.S. Constitution. We established this nation on the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances for a distinct reason: To prevent the growth of central power. Allowing government power to be distributed among a group of individuals bound by both blood and law violates those aforementioned principles.
Since family members are bound emotionally by blood, and financially by law, they can never be trusted to operate as objectively and independently as anyone who is not related.
In the future, the Justice Department should be far stricter when determining which appointments constitute nepotism. Given the tremendous volume of qualified applicants for any position on the White House staff, it can hardly be argued by the incoming president that his or her family member is the only suitable candidate for the role. Today, any Democrat or Republican who wins the Electoral College will automatically have access to deep pools of experienced applicants for all appointments, preventing any need to rely on family. And, since the president is not paying his staff out of pocket, he or she cannot argue that hiring family is a cost-cutting alternative!