Washington: Donald Trump would not the first president to give a family member an important job. John F Kennedy appointed his brother, Bobby Kennedy, as attorney-general, a job for which he was almost universally considered to be too young and inexperienced. Bill Clinton put his wife, Hillary Clinton, in charge of reforming America’s health-care system. Had Mrs Clinton defeated Mr Trump in last year’s election, she might well have given her husband a job in her administration, too.
Even so, if Mr Trump wishes to avoid accusations of nepotism, he would be wise not to appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner (pictured), as his senior adviser. Yet that is preciselywhat he is about to do, according to statements from his transition team and Mr Kushner’s lawyer on January 9th. Kennedy and Mr Clinton were widely criticised—even sued—for appointing a relative to a government job. “It is simply not good enough to name a bright young political manager, no matter how bright or how young or how personally loyal, to a major post in government,” thundered an editorial in the New York Times in 1961. “A travesty of justice,” was Newsweek’s verdict.
Six years after Kennedy’s appointment of his brother, Congress passed a federal anti-nepotism law that was nicknamed the “Bobby Kennedy Law”. It stipulates that “a public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official.” The law defines “public official” to include the president and “relative” to include a son-in-law.
The statute seems to provide a clear-cut case to bar Mr Kushner, who is married to Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka, from a job at the White House. But legal experts differ on its interpretation. Mr Kushner hired WilmerHale, a leading law firm, to advise him on compliance with federal ethics legislation. Its lawyers concluded that the federal nepotism law doesn’t apply to Mr Kushner, because the White House is not an agency and therefore exempt from the law. Other ethics-law experts take the opposite view.
Mr Kushner’s appointment is not unexpected. During the campaign Mr Trump relied on his counsel as much as on the advice of his three children from his first marriage, possibly even more. He is said to be largely responsible for the ousting of Corey Lewandowksi as campaign manager and of Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, as head of the transition team. (The Kushners, who are from New Jersey, are no fans for their governor. Mr Christie played a role in the imprisonment of Charles Kushner, Mr Kushner’s father, for tax evasion, witness tampering and other crimes.)
Mr Kushner has been preparing his move to Washington, DC, where he recently found a house for his family, since mid-November. He has tried hard to defuse concerns over his future role in government. Jamie Gorelick, Mr Kushner’s lawyer, said in several interviews that her client is prepared to resign from his family business and as publisher of The New York Observer, a newspaper, and sell substantial assets, including his stake in his family’s flagship building, 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City, as well as his shares in his brother’s venture-capital firm, Thrive Capital, to avoid conflicts of interest. Mr Kushner is also willing to accept his job as senior adviser without pay.
Mr Kushner’s move to sell most of his business interests follows the decision of Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, to sever all ties with ExxonMobil, the oil giant he used to run. It increases pressure on Mr Trump to do the same. The president-elect is planning to hold a much-postponed press conference on January 11th to discuss his plans for dealing with the myriad potential conflicts of interest raised by his sprawling international hotel, retail and entertainment empire. Mr Trump should listen to his son-in-law, as he often does, on this particular topic and follow the precedent he set. At least Mr Kushner did whatever he could do to take the wind out of the sails of those who will criticise him for conflicts of interest. They will still, justifiably, accuse his father-in-law of nepotism.