If President-elect Donald Trump does indeed make his son-in-law a key adviser, he will be continuing a long and troubling history of conflicts of interest in government.
From sitting presidents to state senators, American politicians have frequently influenced domestic and foreign policies for their own material benefit, often at the expense of ordinary citizens. It is high time to put the missing protections in place.
The intertwining of family business and politics goes back to at least the nineteenth century. In antebellum North Carolina, one extended family network (the Camerons and other related families) pushed legislation supporting internal improvement through the General Assembly, advocating the necessity for railroads and canals to transport goods to economic markets. They used their positions within the state government to obtain charters for their railroad corporations – and monetary support to build the railroads.
When one of these, the Raleigh and Gaston Rail Road, failed in 1845, the General Assembly authorized the governor to buy the company on behalf of the state of North Carolina. Six years later and 16 years after its first charter, the state reincorporated the company as a private corporation – with continued state involvement.
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Throughout these 16 years, men within a single extended family were involved in every possible way: on the corporation’s board of commissioners, in the General Assembly (including the committee that granted corporate charters), in the state bank, on the state supreme court, and as governor. Family business could not be separated from state power.
At the federal level, 19th-century presidents like James Madison also often appointed family members to serve as their private secretaries – a position that was essentially a precursor to the modern position of Chief of Staff. And, during Martin Van Buren’s presidency, his son Abraham served as his private secretary as well.
After the Civil War, however, laws were passed that prohibited the use of public office for personal financial gain. These laws require that officials in the Executive Branch (and members of Congress) recuse themselves on specific issues and divest themselves from specific holdings in order to protect against conflict of interest on policy decisions. These laws were strengthened following Watergate. Both the president and vice president were – and still are – exempt from these laws because of the vast responsibilities of the office.
Three of Trump’s children – Ivanka, Eric, and Donald, Jr. – and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, serve on the Executive Committee of his Presidential Transition Team. Ivanka and Kushner have even attended a meeting with a foreign head of state. He is also reportedly considering appointing Kushner to serve in his administration and has suggested that Kushner would be a good mediator to broker peace between Israel and Palestine. Many have labeled this decision nepotism, with one family controlling both the government’s executive branch and wide-ranging private business interests. The family would hold the power to influence domestic and foreign policy, government contracts, and more – a situation that many say is far from normal.
Recent presidents such as George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy placed their assets in a blind trust. When asked how he would protect against conflict of interests during a primary debate in January, Trump himself stated, “I would put it in a blind trust. Well, I don’t know if it’s a blind trust if Ivanka, Don, and Eric run it. Is that a blind trust? I don’t know.” This statement raised eyebrows about his access and influence over his businesses.
More recently, Trump tweeted that he will hold a press conference with his children on Dec. 15 to discuss his decision to leave his “great business in total.” He further stated that legal documents would take him “completely out of business operations.” Yet, he has said nothing about the future role of his children in his businesses or just how this separation will occur.
While Trump has claimed that transferring control to his children is a blind trust, he will still have knowledge and influence over them. He will also know what these assets are and what policies would benefit them.
Furthermore, if his children are granted a security clearance as Trump has requested in addition to their positions on his transition team, foreign governments could offer lucrative business deals to his children and gain favor with the president, potentially influencing foreign policy decisions as well as domestic.
Though the strong connections between family business and political power have occurred in the United States since its founding, the president-elect’s decisions would once again give a single family the power to shape economic and foreign policy to their own benefit – at the expense of ordinary Americans.
To prevent this both now and in the future, the current exemptions for the president and vice president in existing conflict of interest laws must be ended.
Mandy L. Cooper is a PhD candidate in history at Duke University.