The president has operated effectively since taking office as though the law doesn’t apply to him, but that doesn’t mean that the law won’t catch up to him anyway.
One area of interest for ethics experts and officials within the Trump administration has been personnel. Although a large number of senior officials have left the White House since the president took office and installed his first round of underlings, the issue is with who has stayed behind.
Earlier this year, Trump appointed his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner to unpaid, senior advisory roles within the White House, even though there are laws against the appointment of relatives.
Kushner’s appointment and the eventual appointment of Ivanka were both allowed by a senior Justice Department official, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Daniel Koffsky, overruling past Justice Department memos that ruled that anti-nepotism laws did, in fact, apply to the president. Koffsky’s reasoning was that a 1978 law “conferring broad authority on the president to appoint White House officials” overruled anti-nepotism laws.
POLITICO has now obtained the Justice Department memos that Koffsky overruled through a Freedom of Information Act request, and they don’t spell good news for the legality of the personnel arrangement in Trump’s White House.
The memos span several presidential administrations going all the way back to the Nixon era.
The anti-nepotism law that prompted the concerns was passed in 1967, and POLITICO described it as being “long perceived as a response to President John F. Kennedy’s appointment of his brother Robert Kennedy as Attorney General.”
Among the situations covered by the memos was the prospective appointment of First Lady Rosalynn Carter to the chairmanship of a Commission on Mental Health. Acting Assistant Attorney General John Harmon and career government attorney Edwin Kneedler both concluded at the time that her taking on any official role would be illegal — but she could take on an “honorary” chairmanship.
Other situations covered by the memos included the prospective appointment of President Obama’s sister-in-law Maya Soetoro-Ng to what’s described as “a commission on White House fellowships,” along with the prospective appointment of the president’s brother-in-law Conrad Robinson to a commission on physical fitness. Both of those appointments were shot down by the Justice Department in 2009.
These prospective appointments were all illegal, but the Trump White House wants us to believe that the appointments of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump aren’t?
This situation isn’t even the first one in which the president has used something “technically” not illegal to his advantage. He has behaved similarly when it comes to the question of conflicts of interest; although the precedent is for presidents to fully disengage from their businesses. Although it’s explicitly legally required for lower level officials to do so, Donald Trump did not do so when assuming office.
The investigation into the Trump team led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein earlier this year, is ongoing. Its scope includes not only possible Trump collusion but also possible White House misconduct.
Jared Kushner’s longtime lawyer Jamie Gorelick did not comment on the memos being released, but back in January, when the memos were overruled, she spoke glowingly of the decision.
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