Last September, after the handbag designer Ivanka Trump declared that childcare for working families would be her top policy priority if her father were president, I wrote a column about what I thought would happen if Donald Trump won.
My fear was that Trump would run his White House the way he had run his business empire — as a right of inheritance. The convention in Cleveland had made it clear to anyone paying attention that Trump wasn’t running as a Republican, but rather as the patriarch of a celebrity clan. I called the column “Ivanka Trump, White House czar.”
I was wrong. In an administration where women play only supportive roles, Ivanka has settled for assistant White House czar. The bigger job belongs to her 36-year-old husband, Jared Kushner, whose portfolio so far includes brokering Middle East peace, negotiating trade deals, reconfiguring the federal government, stamping out opioids, establishing ties with China and Mexico and — as of this week — surveying our strategy in Iraq.
I guess all that’s left is to put him in charge of financial regulation and criminal prosecutions, and then the entire aging Cabinet can spend the next three-plus years swimming and swing dancing at Mar-a-Lago, like characters from “Cocoon.”
A raft of critics have recently come after Jared and Ivanka, alleging that they don’t know a thing about policy (well, yeah) and that they’re awash in ethical conflicts (like that matters). But the problem with Washington’s newest power couple is larger and more pervasive than any of that, and it illuminates the underlying darkness in this administration.
Before we get to that, though, let’s put all this in some context. It’s not uncommon for presidents to rely on the guidance of spouses or other relatives, as we all do. But you’d have to go back to the early 1960s to find anything remotely comparable to the familial power center in Trump’s White House.
I’ve just read a terrific forthcoming book called “The Revolution of Robert Kennedy,” by the historian John R. Bohrer, which reminded me of how blatantly the Kennedys made their White House a family affair. It was Joseph Kennedy, the president’s father, who decreed that another of his sons, Robert, would be the attorney general. No one spoke to John Kennedy more, or had more influence across the entire spectrum of policy, than his brother.
So blatant was it, in fact, that in 1967 Congress passed a law barring any president from naming a relative to the Cabinet or to the helm of any federal agency. (That also applies to posts in the District of Columbia government, in case Trump was thinking of annexing the city and making Tiffany its provincial governor.) This is why Jared can’t actually have the jobs of all the Cabinet secretaries he’s displacing.
But let’s be real: Drawing a line from RFK to Jared Kushner is like trying to compare B.B. King to Drake. By the time he became attorney general at 35, Kennedy — again, with some assistance from his father — had already achieved notoriety as the unflinching lead counsel for a mob-busting Senate committee. He’d been a government prosecutor for a decade.
Kushner hadn’t served a day on a school board before Trump put him in charge of, you know, America. Near as I can tell, his sole achievement in his young life — much like his wife’s — is to have spent his parents’ money on cool stuff, like some buildings and a once trendy newspaper you’ve never read. (Kushner does have one thing in common with Bobby Kennedy: His father gave a ton of money to Harvard before he attended.)
The Trump family exhibits little defensiveness about Jared. “Nepotism is a kind of factor of life,” the sage philosopher Eric Trump told Forbes for a story this week. Which is certainly true if your life begins with the name “Eric Trump,” but probably less so if you’re one of those voters who want America made great again because your children will not inherit an empire of golf resorts.
And in an interview with CBS this week, Ivanka noted that a lot of these same critics said her father didn’t have the qualifications to run for president, and here he is, which I guess was supposed to be a good thing. “Jared is incredibly smart, very talented, has enormous capacity,” she said.
Well, OK. But first of all, whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, and I’m a skeptic, let’s acknowledge that he did harness the courage to actually run for office and the skills necessary to win. He’s accountable to the voters who put him here and to a lot of Americans who did not.
Jared and Ivanka are accountable to exactly no one. Unlike a Robert Kennedy, neither of them even had to be confirmed by the Senate before wielding unparalleled power in the West Wing. No one got to vote on their empty résumés.
As for how smart Kushner is, I’ve never met him, and I’ve no reason to doubt he’s a quick study and a sharp conversationalist. But, you know, you can’t walk down a street on the Upper East Side without bumping into three smart guys with real estate fortunes. It’s not as if he represents some rare commodity in public life.
Then there are the ethical quandaries around money, which truly are unprecedented in the executive branch. Ivanka first tried to avoid being subject to any conflict-of-interest rules at all by serving as an informal adviser. When that tactic proved even too cute for the White House legal team, she agreed to take a title as assistant to the president and to remove herself, ostensibly, from the management of her businesses — but not from the profits.
She’s still making money off the Trump hotel in Washington, where you can bet a lot of foreign officials will be plunking down cash in the months ahead.
Kushner’s already come under scrutiny because of a deal in which an influential Chinese company offered to invest $400 million in a building owned by his family. The Kushners backed off that one, but it’s clear enough now that the only thing keeping Jared from mixing our business with his is the threat of public scrutiny.
And this gets to the heart of my issue with Kushner and Ivanka, and with the Trump family acquisition of the White House generally. Basically, they’ve decided all of a sudden that they’d very much like to run the country for a spell, but they’re not willing to sacrifice a damn thing for the privilege.
Robert Kennedy could probably have doubled his fortune had he wanted to stay outside of government and profit from his brother’s name. That was never the idea.
Whether you loved the power-thirsty Kennedys or hated them, whether you agreed with their vision for the country or not, no one could reasonably argue that they didn’t choose to serve our interests over their own. The same was true for the Bushes, by the way.
Not so with the Trumps, from Donald on down. Public service is a playground to them, an accidental hobby. (Though apparently not as important a hobby as skiing, which is what Jared and Ivanka were doing while the health care bill was cratering.)
The idea that they should lose anything in order to govern, that doing this with integrity should cost them any real wealth or opportunity, seems as foreign and misguided to them as a North Korean haircut.
I’d be willing to give Jared and Ivanka the benefit of the doubt — even absent any obvious humility or aptitude for their jobs — if they were willing to entirely divest themselves from competing interests, as Cabinet secretaries do. They won’t, because it’s not their way to sacrifice for any greater good, and because they have an evident disdain for those who devote their lives to bettering the country.
To the Trump-Kushner axis, those people are just suckers who don’t have what it takes to get rich, or at least to be born that way.
The privileges they inherited are theirs to keep while they meddle around with policies that affect the rest of us. The honor, I guess, is all ours.
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