When President-elect Donald Trump announced on Monday that his son-in-law Jared Kushner would serve as a senior White House adviser, many political analysts' first thoughts turned to concerns about nepotism.
It called to mind President Kennedy's decision to appoint his brother Robert as attorney general, later leading to the passage of an anti-nepotism law by Congress in 1967. Was Mr. Trump simply moving his family business to the White House?
Yet beneath the ethical concern was a quieter and more surprising reaction: relief.
While shades of nepotism remain a real worry, a handful of moderates and even liberals spoke highly of Mr. Kushner, expressing hope that the president’s closest adviser might serve as a moderating influence.
“I’ll tell you right off the bat, of all the names I hear of the people going in there, Jared Kushner is a more intelligent and more thoughtful person than an awful lot of them,” says Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush and professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Over the weekend, too, New York’s liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio praised Kushner, who is the head of his own prominent Manhattan real estate business.
“He’s someone I intend to stay in touch with on behalf of the people of New York City,” Mayor de Blasio said at a press conference on Monday. He added that he found the president-elect’s son-in-law “a lot more reasonable and a lot more moderate” than others joining the administration. “He’s someone who really cares about New York City and is someone who would be very helpful to us. So I’m certainly pleased he’ll be in that role.”
Both Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have described themselves as Millennials with tenuous ties to political parties. At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer, Ms. Trump railed against the gender pay gap – seen as a liberal issue – promising that her father would address the issue.
“As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put in place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce,” she said. “And he will focus on making quality child care affordable and accessible for all.”
Observers note that the president-elect has long run his business empire as a family business, and that his children have always made up his most trusted inner circle.
“Every president I've ever known has one or two people he intuitively and structurally trusts,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, long-time friend and current informal adviser to Trump, told Forbes in December. “I think Jared might be that person.”
The move gives the White House all the makings of a Manhattan Camelot.
In 2007, two years before he would become Trump's son-in-law, Kushner made history when he paid $1.8 billion for the famous skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue, an office and retail tower just three blocks south of the gold-trimmed entrance of the even more famous Trump Tower. At the time, it was the most ever spent on an office building anywhere in the world.
What the concerns are
Both towers are symbols of the family's billion-dollar wheeling and dealing. That points to their business status, but also to the ethical concerns.
This past weekend, reports surfaced that Kushner had met with Chinese real estate magnates just after the election in November. Negotiating a deal to redevelop 666 Fifth Avenue, the flagship property of Kushner Companies, Chinese executives toasted the incoming president, saying he would be good for global business and expressing a desire to meet the new president, The New York Times reported.
“One concern might be that people are using an office to enrich their families and provide jobs for people who are unqualified for office,” says Gerard Magliocca, professor of law at Indiana University. “I think second would be a concern about a family holding undue government power. It’s one thing to be president, it’s another thing to then staff the administration with family members.”
Professor Magliocca, however, agrees with Kushner’s attorneys, who have argued that the 1967 law does not apply to White House staff, but to federal “agencies.” Besides, he adds, “my view on this is that it would be unconstitutional for Congress to say that the president could not hire certain people to the White House staff – though Congress does have the power to say that they can’t be paid, since Congress has the power of the purse.”
Kushner announced that he would not be receiving a salary for his role as senior adviser. But he has also vowed to go further. His attorney said this week that Kushner will resign as chief executive of Kushner Companies, divesting his stakes in 666 Fifth Avenue and other investments that could pose conflicts of interest as he takes on an official role in the White House.
How Kushner has handled his finances
Kushner’s announced divestments stand in contrast to how the president-elect has handled ethics charges.
“And I have to give him some credit. He’s not doing what others are doing, he’s agreeing to be subject to the criminal conflict of interest statutes, which is good,” says Mr. Painter.
On Wednesday, Trump held a press conference in which an attorney laid out the legal structure that would wall him off from his business interests during his presidency, including putting those interests in a trust run by his two oldest sons, banning his companies from making foreign deals, and appointing an ethics officer to approve any domestic deals.
The moves fall short of selling off his businesses, which several ethics experts had urged but that the president-elect said would cost him unnecessarily.
The president is not subject to federal ethics laws, Painter notes.
Painter also worries about other members of the Trump administration, which includes numerous billionaires.
“The Kushner appointment is just a piece of a much larger puzzle,” he adds. “Now we’re starting to see the coalescence of financial power. With all the billionaires coming into the cabinet, ... all the wide range of concerns over appointees running agencies in which they may have financial stakes. If you put this all into perspective, that’s the pattern. Will public office be used for private gain?”
[Editor's note: The details of Kushner's purchase of 666 Fifth Avenue have been clarified.]