Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Trump's Nepotism Problem

The Trump Family
Robert Kennedy is a personal hero of mine.  His face adorns the wall of my library, and I think he's one of the best men of the 20th Century, and in my opinion the best president the United States never had.  As a result of that, it pains me to say this, but in the wake of recent events from the Trump administration, specifically those regarding his son Donald Trump, Jr. and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, it's quite obvious that Kennedy had no business being the Attorney General of the United States.

Admittedly, comparing Robert Kennedy to Donald Trump, Jr. is like comparing Meryl Streep to Tila Tequila.  By the time Kennedy had been confirmed to his position at the Justice Department, he had an extensive resume in politics and law.  A distinguished naval career and esteemed journalist, he had attended Harvard and the University of Virginia, he'd been a powerful political aide running his brother's campaign for the Senate and working on the Stevenson presidential campaigns. He'd been a star prosecutor for the US Attorney for Eastern New York, defied Joe McCarthy, taken on J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn in the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, and secured the release of Martin Luther King, Jr. from jail.  Nearly all of this Kennedy achieved before he was even old enough to serve as POTUS, as he turned 35 just after his brother won his election.

There is no comparison between RFK and Jared Kushner/Donald Trump, Jr. except perhaps for the pedigree of their educations (proving that money can at least by academic prestige).  Neither man had served in public office or in the political sphere prior to being in office, and while Kushner had some experience in journalism, it was more from a business-standpoint than from a public policy aspect (additionally, the New York Observer became essentially another NYC trash tabloid while under his guidance).  Neither man has even close to Kennedy's pedigree.  One could make a pretty sound argument that if RFK's last name was Smith rather than Kennedy, he would still have been considered for the job at AG (or at least been qualified for it), but the same cannot be said for Kushner or Trump-these men have their positions thanks to the luck of inheritance and genetics; they have not distinguished themselves enough for anyone to claim otherwise.

The reason I'm equating them, however, now, is that the two are linked in that both served in the administration of a close relative.  Yes, you can quibble that Donald Trump, Jr. isn't in his father's administration, but he still oversees a vast media empire that has gained enormously from the decisions of his father's tenure in the White House, and was clearly an important campaign surrogate.  Kushner is a presidential adviser, for all intents and purposes as important as a cabinet secretary, and so probably should be treated as such.  In fact, they aren't the only ones who are involved with the Trump political empire, as Donald Jr's younger brother Eric co-runs the Trump Organization with him, his sister Ivanka is a presidential advisor and has actually sat in for POTUS at G20 meetings, and Eric's wife Lara works in the marketing branch of the Trump campaign still.  All told, there are five members of Trump's immediate family who are currently employed because of his political career or run businesses that are enormously profiting from Trump's tenure as POTUS.

This is wrong, as America is supposed to be a meritocracy, and not a monarchy, and also because it gives undue influence to a group of people that are not qualified for their roles or are using their roles for personal gain.  I mentioned RFK's qualifications above, but his being in charge of the Justice Department caused undue tension with a number of figures in the administration at the time (principally Vice President Johnson and FBI Director Hoover), and put most officials in an impossible situation-defying the AG essentially meant defying the president, and the reality was that there were people that at least technically outranked him and should have been able to question him.  Robert Kennedy made a fine Attorney General in my opinion, but only a hypocrite would point out that there wasn't a conflict of interest here.  So much was this an obvious conflict of interest that a law was passed in 1967 to forbid immediate family members from serving in a presidential cabinet.

Since then, this law has been flouted but never as egregiously misused as during the presidency of Donald Trump.  Despite arguably having the qualifications to do so, women such as Rosalynn Carter and Marilyn Quayle were not allowed to serve in an official capacity when their husbands won the White House.  Hillary Clinton was asked to head a task force under her husband, and was certainly more qualified to do so than Kushner or Trump based on her past experience, but the situation went horribly array and quite frankly was another case where the conflict of interest law seemed pretty horribly misused.

The reality is that whenever family members get involved in politics, it's almost always a terrible idea.  Ranging from Billy Carter to Hugh Rodham to Neil Bush, siblings or family members who tried to use the presidency to their advantage is a consistent trend, but one that almost always ends in disaster, and none of these men had near the authority that Trump's family does in his administration.  The only exceptions to the "family members are good for family politics" is perhaps when they run for office in their own right.  Ted Kennedy served in the US Senate during the presidency of his older brother, while Jeb Bush was governor during the presidency of his brother.  Here the politicians had success in politics, but with the added legitimacy of being elected by the people for those spots.  It's hard not to see that they likely had an advantage for these positions due to their famous relatives, but at the very least they had been legally elected to their positions-there could be no questioning of whether it was appropriate for them to meet with the president in an official capacity.

Because this isn't just about conflict-of-interest, but also the fact that hiring relatives for these positions sends off the appearance of illegitimacy, that the government itself is being run by nepotism and not be skill or knowledge.  Particularly for a White House that has been accused of mass incompetence, having a family member in charge gives little cover-Trump's children being so improperly and incompetently involved in the government reflects directly on him, because if it weren't for him they would have never been hired as they weren't qualified.  Additionally, the president himself is going to be the one who has to fire these people as I doubt Reince Priebus wants to fire the president's daughter, or even mention it as an option, even though it likely would be on the table otherwise.  As a result, these relatives become reminders of the president's failure to run a steady White House, and are the most difficult to fire as it's nearly impossible for POTUS to publicly state he let go his own children as it has to be tough as a parent, not to mention firing your kids is going to look like awful politics.

All-in-all, there is no advantage here politically, with almost entirely certain downsides to hiring a relative, and (at best) a net neutral if they do well in the position.  Bobby Kennedy's success in his role (he went on to become a US Senator and a presidential frontrunner before he died), has left a dirty legacy of cronyism, corruption, and stupidity, something RFK himself would abhor, culminating in what could well prove to have crossed the line into the illegal in the case of Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner.  It is time that we stop allowing the president to hire his or her relatives to positions of power.  Family members can be sources of support and unofficial counsel, but they should not serve in any capacity within the administration, and that includes finding a loophole to let your daughter get an office in the White House.

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