If you search Google for the meaning of “nepotism,” a prescient example pops up below this definition: “The practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.”
To illustrate, there is this hypothetical: “Hiring my daughter was not nepotism - it was just good business.”
Was it coincidence or did someone edit that example last month after learning Ivanka Trump would be joining her father and husband as a White House staffer?
The president has, in fact, made no business claims to justify bringing her on, without pay, for the post, though critics claim it will be good branding for her business. Although Donald Trump doesn’t feel the need to justify much, he could have made a good case for making his daughter executive vice president of real estate development and acquisition in his business years earlier. The 35-year-old is clearly smart and schooled in business, having graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
But White House advisers should be well-versed on more than shrewd business strategy, and if deal-making qualifies one to handle government negotiations, it sure didn’t count for much when the president failed to replace the Affordable Care Act as he had promised. There should be some knowledge or experience in governance, an advanced understanding of national and international policy priorities, war and peace, balancing budgets and more.
Ivanka Trump has a clothing, shoe and handbag line in her name. She has hosted the Miss Teen USA pageant and worked on the TV show, “Born Rich,” among others. But she has never held a public-service position, nor is she a scholar of politics, government or history. Granted, it’s an unpaid job that was created for her last month by her father in response to ethics concerns that the informal advisory role she was playing in the White House was not subject to financial disclosure rules. But Newsweek describes the new position as equal in rank to the national security adviser and chief of staff, which it calls two of the most powerful positions in government.
So Ivanka now serves along with her husband, businessman Jared Kushner, whom Trump early on appointed as senior adviser, charging him with the task of crafting a peace plan between Israel and Palestine. “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can,” Trump reportedly told his son-in-law. But as far as the public knows, being Orthodox Jewish was Kushner’s main qualification.
Sure, both Ivanka Trump and her husband are donating their time in the service of the nation. Then again, neither is hurting for money, they’re young and it’s not a bad credential to have on your resume - or to market your brand. The New York Times observed Ivanka’s hashtag, #womenwhowork, “meshes with her carefully developed image as an advocate for women in the Oval Office.”
That aside, what makes these family appointments problematic? For one thing, they suggest Trump is either so ego-driven he really believes his kin are the most qualified people in the country to offer advice, or he doesn’t believe in a meritocracy. Either would call into question his suitability for the presidential role.
But the more logical explanation is that Donald Trump doesn’t trust anyone, except possibly his immediate family members, and just wants to surround himself with “yes” men and women. Who better than your daughter and son-in-law over whom, regardless of their accomplishments, you will always have some parental authority? By contrast, Barack Obama surrounded himself with people with different views from his own, who would challenge him.
This family arrangement is likely to make others on Trump’s team uncomfortable, fearful that blood is always thicker, and if they disagree with the president, his kids will defer to him. And what message does it send to all the people who’ve spent their lives devoted to or preparing for public service?
Ivanka Trump says she wants to advocate on women’s issues such as maternity leave and affordable child care. White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Ivanka would “lead initiatives driving real policy benefits for the American public.” Is she qualified for that? If that were an administration priority, couldn’t Trump get authentic leadership from someone who struggled to pay for child care and faced the loss of a job for taking time off with a newborn instead of someone born into privilege? Does the president think having Ivanka chatting up women’s issues makes up for the lack of diversity in his inner circle, or for his anti-woman policies and statements?
It’s also possible Trump needs his daughter around to help rein in his volatility and his penchant for attacking others in tweets. And if he doesn’t trust anyone else to side with him, maybe there’s good reason they won’t.
Last month brought evidence suggesting the Trump White House was trying to steer a House investigation into Trump’s so-far-unverified claims of being wiretapped by Obama. And Gen. Michael Flynn claims to have a story to tell in exchange for immunity involving Russia’s influence with this administration. But the kids have the president’s back. Maybe.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.