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Kids in the White House: Is it OK?

Dr. G. Aubrey Lee, Community Voices • Sep 2, 2018 at 8:00 AM

We have lots of relatives in positions in the White House. Real close relatives. Three of President Trump’s children and his son-in-law now occupy key advisory positions to the President.

Many have criticized these appointments, which are nepotism, defined by Merriam-Webster as "favoritism based on kinship." Most organizations avoid nepotism and have policies preventing it — policies that make sense if the potential issues created by nepotism are objectively considered.

Considerable research on the impact of nepotism points to its negative influence on organizational performance and says extra-organizational personal relationships are very dangerous. Nepotism is bad for employees who are forced to weigh conflicting obligations — forced to decide if they do what’s best for the organization or appease someone in the family. Coworkers can become demoralized if they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the boss’s relatives get preferential treatment when comes to better pay, working conditions or have more influence with their relative-boss. But perhaps the most damaging issue created is the that the family member may not be the best person for the job.

Despite the issues nepotism can create, the Trump family members are in fact legally appointed. Federal law, at 5 U.S.C. § 3110, generally prohibits a federal official from appointing a “relative” of the official to any agency or department over which the official exercises authority or control. But Justice Department memos issued in the Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Obama administrations that supported this law and said it was illegal for presidents to appoint family members were overridden in January 2017 by a Justice Department lawyer.

Readers can form their own opinion about White House nepotism by considering what the Trump children and son-in-law do and have done since they began serving their father. And, er, our country.

Don Jr. currently serves as a senior adviser to his father. He still works with brother Eric as a trustee and executive director of a trust that controls the Trump Organization, a trust that was established to oversee all his father's assets during his presidency. The news has been full of credible reports outlining the conflicts of interest Trump’s family has by not completely divesting themselves of the family business. Trump Jr. said he doesn’t talk to his father about the family business, saying it would be “trite” to discuss such matters with the president of the United States. He later said he would discuss “bottom line” issues with him. It doesn’t appear the president has divested himself from the business.

Daughter Ivanka is also a senior adviser to the president. She worked on his campaign and began advising her father unofficially during the first two months of his administration. She became a federal employee in March 2017. She takes no salary. She recently closed her fashion design company, saying she is pursuing a career in public policy. She campaigned for her father wearing Ivanka Trump products during high-profile interviews and speeches, drawing lots of criticism.

Son Eric began supporting his father's 2016 presidential campaign by serving as a key adviser, fundraiser and campaign surrogate. But he’s best known for his leadership of the Donald J. Trump Foundation. In fairness, the foundation has donated to many worthy causes. But it has been scrutinized for possible illegal support to President Trump as opposed to supporting the charities for which foundation donations were intended.

Jared Kushner, Ivanka’s husband, was named senior White House adviser in January 2017. He has been accused of using his position to benefit family interests and has refused to fully divest his business interests, keeping most of his holdings in the Kushner real estate companies. Additionally, he holds real estate and other investments valued at $761 million. Legal and ethical experts say this could lead to serious conflicts of interest.

To be sure, relatives of other presidents have served in the White House, served in governmental positions or benefited from a relative’s presidency. Hillary provided leadership in Bill’s administration to promote healthcare legislation that never passed. JFK appointed brother Bobby to be the U.S. attorney general. And 150 years ago, U.S. Grant’s administration is said to have benefited some 40 of his relatives.

Regarding business owners in the White House, Jimmy Carter’s family had a peanut business that came under legal scrutiny for loans it received. But the special counsel investigating the matter found there was no basis for prosecution. His brother Billy, known for endorsing “Billy” beer, generated negative publicity. He was chastised by Jimmy for receiving funds from Libya, causing the president to say Billy would “have no influence on foreign policy.”

But back to kids in the White house. We must decide for ourselves. Trump’s family members are appointed legally. But are they the best people to be some of the president’s closest advisers in matters of national security, complex domestic issues, foreign policy and much more?

Dr. G. Aubrey Lee of Johnson City is a professor in the School of Business and Economics at King University in Bristol.

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