By Jackie Speier
While running for president, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.” He promised ethics reforms, changes to lobbying rules, and other reforms to “make our government honest once again.” Now, six months into his presidency, the only thing he has drained is our country’s reputation. In a sea of conflicts of interest and other gross ethical violations, among the worst has been the president doling out plum White House jobs not due to merit, but solely to reward blood and marriage. Historically, the competition for White House jobs has been extremely fierce. But Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump wouldn’t know about the vagaries of gaining government employment.
Nepotism is something more closely associated with dictatorships or puppet regimes, but it’s now been accepted with a shrug by Republicans as just how the Trump administration does business. This is the same Republican Party, of course, that howled when first lady Hillary Clinton dared take on health care reform. A loophole in the 1967 anti-nepotism statute bans the practice throughout the entirety of the federal government except the White House, where it is now needed most.
Nepotism runs in the Trump family, as it were. As with Donald Trump, Jared Kushner was passed control of the family business from his father. Now President Trump has entrusted him with the most wildly ambitious portfolio in the West Wing, covering everything from reform of a government he knows nothing about, to achieving a Middle East peace deal that has eluded career diplomats for decades. Kushner reportedly exerts greater influence on the president than Cabinet officials like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who achieved his four-star rank over 40-plus years of military service and handily earned Senate confirmation. Prior to her father’s inauguration, Ivanka Trump repeatedly said she didn’t want a role in the administration, instead planning to focus on her family and business. Yet there she was at the G-20 Summit, seated next to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has served as the elected leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations for almost 12 years.
It appears, however, that Ivanka Trump need not worry. Her business is doing just fine with her in the White House — some would argue because she’s in the White House. The same day she dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, the Chinese government (no stranger to corruption) granted Ivanka Trump three long sought-after and valuable trademarks, with an additional four granted shortly thereafter. Then, President Trump diplomatically dissed the nation of Qatar after the Qataris refused to finance a Kushner real estate venture to the tune of $500 million. While we don’t know whether there are direct connections between the Trump family’s private businesses and the president’s policies, we shouldn’t even be in a position where we need to ask these questions — particularly when we consider that these conflicts of interest are not just unfair and unethical, but potentially dangerous to our national security.
Which brings us to Russia. Jared Kushner’s contacts with Russian officials have been documented for months in press reports. One place they weren’t documented, however, is on his application for a security clearance. Standard Form (SF) 86 is the voluminous questionnaire that must be completed by applicants for positions requiring a clearance. Question 20.B.6 is about as clear as you can get: “Have you or any member of your immediate family in the past seven years had any contact with a foreign government, its establishment or its representatives, whether inside or outside the U.S.?” Kushner’s initial response to this question was “no.” As the press continues to expose previously undisclosed meetings with Russian nationals, Kushner has repeatedly revised his SF-86 — a total of three times so far, adding over 100 foreign contacts. Kushner’s legal team has provided laughable excuses for the “oversights,” readily dismissed by anyone who’s gone through the process themselves. Under any other president, a federal employee making such omissions already would have been fired, fined, or possibly convicted — all of which are penalties available for the intentional withholding of information from investigators. But with his father-in-law as the ultimate arbiter, Kushner will most likely retain his clearance, which grants him access to some of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence despite ongoing questions about his connections to one of America’s primary adversaries. And now there are questions about whether Ivanka Trump broke the law by failing to declare her husband’s contacts on her own SF-86, as required.