At this weekend’s Gridiron Dinner in Washington, President Trump made light of his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s recent woes. “I wanted to apologize for arriving a little bit late,” he told the white-tie crowd. “We were late tonight because Jared could not get through security.”
The White House chief of staff’s decision to strip Mr. Kushner of his provisional security clearance isn’t just a punchline – it exposes serious problems with the administration’s handling of the security clearance process. But what should really trouble all of us is how weak federal ethics protections allowed someone with so many vulnerabilities to access the country’s most confidential, coveted information in the first place.
Let’s back up for a second. President Trump made it clear from the outset that he would appoint his son-in-law to a senior White House role shortly after the 2016 election. As that appointment took shape, it was obvious that Mr. Kushner would be subject to conflict of interest rules that require appointees – though not the president himself – to avoid situations where their public duties are likely to conflict with their private financial interests. The notion of public service as a public trust is a bedrock principle of American government, and we have long expected officials to put the interests of the American people first. Or at least that’s the idea.
Mr. Kushner was duly vetted by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), and the transition team came up with a plan to place certain of his assets in trust and separate him from the day-to-day dealings of his family real estate company. He also filled out a variety of disclosure forms (many later revised), and, according to ethics filings, resigned from hundreds of corporate positions.
But early on, it was clear that such plans were glaringly insufficient. Hardly four months into the new administration, Mr. Kushner’s sister urged a conclave of wealthy Chinese investors to invest in a New Jersey development that would help them score sought-after investor visas. Promotional materials billed her as Jared’s sister. It was the first of many instances where it seemed Mr. Kushner or his family stood to profit personally from his public service.
Fast forward to today. Jared Kushner is now taking heat for meeting with financial firms in the White House shortly before his family companies secured loans from the same entities. He’s also under fire for the Trump administration’s role in supporting the Saudi blockade of Qatar, coincidentally after the Qatari investment fund declined to finance one of the Kushner family’s financially troubled properties.
This could all be just that: coincidental (and with such a complicated network of financial dealings, that’s not such a small possibility). But in some ways, the damage is done. The disentangling we require of our public officials, including our president, is insufficient in preventing both actual conflicts of interest and the appearance of such conflicts.
Why do appearances matter? Let’s presume, for a moment, that Mr. Kushner is a victim of circumstance more than any kind of malfeasance. But even the suggestion that he is engaging in self-dealing weakens his position. Imagine a meeting with Middle East peace negotiators, or trade envoys, or even American CEOs. Will they question his motives because of his complicated business arrangements? Will they choose to deal with him differently because he’s become so compromised?
Indeed, news reports indicate that even without clear evidence of wrongdoing, Mr. Kushner has become more of a headache for his father-in-law than he may be worth.
In these cases, it’s easy to pin the blame on Mr. Kushner and his family — or, if you prefer, on the media for hyping controversies and running with storylines about the Kushner family’s financial dealings and wealth without proof of intentional wrongdoing. But perhaps Congress should share the responsibility.
Watergate-era ethics rules are robust on paper, but they’re enforced by an agency (OGE) whose director the president can fire at any time and which doesn’t have much in the way of actual power. Moreover, the all-important prohibition on financial conflicts of interest simply exempts the two most powerful officials of all, the president and vice president. Even disclosure requirements that provide some modicum of accountability have significant loopholes that allow officials to readily mask details of their affairs.
These are problems only Congress can fix. To start, it should grant the ethics office greater independence and authority (and clarify that the agency’s rules apply to White House staffers like Mr. Kushner, something the Trump Administration has questioned). It should also shore up ethics transparency rules. And it should eliminate the loophole in federal conflict of interest law for the president and vice president.
None of this is intended to let Mr. Kushner (or his boss) off the hook. But the scandals swirling around various members of the Administration have exposed a set of problems bigger than any one person or party. If we continue to rely on outmoded ethics rules to guide our public officials, we run the very real risk of hobbling our government’s effectiveness and compromising its integrity in the eyes of the American people and the world. That should worry everyone, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum.