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Nepotism and the Impeachment Inquiry

The issue of family favoritism is in the spotlight.

November 25, 2019
Saul Loeb/Getty

As the House’s impeach­ment inquiry into Pres­id­ent Trump’s deal­ings with Ukraine progresses, the issue of nepot­ism has become one of the subplots. Pres­id­ent Trump is accused of with­hold­ing U.S. milit­ary aid as he pres­sured Ukraine’s pres­id­ent to invest­ig­ate Hunter Biden, the son of pres­id­en­tial candid­ate Joe Biden. As recently as Novem­ber 20, the rank­ing member of the House Intel­li­gence Commit­tee sugges­ted that Hunter Biden should be subpoenaed to testify. Mean­while, Donald Trump Jr., of all people, alleges that Hunter Biden is profit­ing off his father’s name. As many have been quick to point out, the same critique could apply to Donald Jr., Ivanka, Eric, and Jared Kush­ner. 

Nepot­ism comes from the Italian word for nephew, nipote. Back in the Middle Ages and during the Renais­sance, “nepot­ism” referred to the objec­tion­able prac­tice of popes giving favors and jobs to their neph­ews. The “neph­ews” in ques­tion were really ille­git­im­ate sons of the should-have-been-celib­ate popes. A prime example of this nepot­ism was Pope Alex­an­der VI, who was also known as Rodrigo Borgia, and whose son Cesare Borgia was a cardinal.

There is a differ­ence between what is collo­qui­ally called “nepot­ism” — typic­ally getting any private sector job through a family member, and legally prohib­ited nepot­ism, which is only triggered in narrow circum­stances related to certain govern­ment jobs.

Today, nepot­ism has a legal mean­ing that differs from state to state and at the federal level. In some states, it is illegal to hire a relat­ive to a govern­ment posi­tion. In my home state of Flor­ida, a govern­ment offi­cial may not hire a relat­ive, unless they live in a town smal­ler than 35,000 people. Mean­while in Minnesota, it is perfectly legal for a govern­mental offi­cial to hire a family member. If you’re curi­ous about nepot­ism rules in your state, the National Coun­cil of State Legis­latures has a nifty chart.

Federal anti-nepot­ism rules were adop­ted after Pres­id­ent John F. Kennedy appoin­ted his brother Robert attor­ney general, a move that rubbed lots of people the wrong way — and for good reason. The attor­ney general should repres­ent the interests of the Amer­ican people. But with a sibling sitting in the White House, the legal over­sight of the Justice Depart­ment’s top offi­cial could easily be clouded by familial ties. Now, a law prohib­its federal offi­cials, includ­ing members of Congress, from appoint­ing relat­ives to any agency or depart­ment over which the offi­cial exer­cises author­ity. This prohib­i­tion includes parents, chil­dren, spouses, aunts, uncles, first cous­ins, in-laws, nieces and neph­ews.

So what are Jared and Ivanka Trump doing work­ing in the White House given this law? Accord­ing to the Justice Depart­ment Office of Legal Coun­sel, while the law prevents the pres­id­ent from appoint­ing them to an agency, like the Depart­ment of Justice, it does­n’t apply to Jared and Ivanka because the White House is not tech­nic­ally an agency. As the Bren­nan Center’s National Task Force on Rule of Law & Demo­cracy high­lighted in a recent report, and as this example shows, anti-nepot­ism rules should be tightened to include the White House.

Outside of govern­ment, hiring relat­ives is not typic­ally prohib­ited by law. It’s perfectly legal and not unusual for the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion, a private family busi­ness, to be staffed with people related to Donald Trump. It’s accur­ate to say that, with Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump running the company, which was foun­ded by their grand­father, there is nepot­ism at the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion — but that’s not neces­sar­ily prob­lem­atic.

Certainly, there are advant­ages to having the same name as a well-known politi­cian when enter­ing polit­ics. Just ask Kentucky Gov.-elect Andy Beshear, whose father, Gov. Steve Beshear, held office from 2007 to 2015. Having the same last name likely helped Andy clinch a razor-thin victory, though it was the voters who ulti­mately empowered him.

But being related to a rich, power­ful, or famous person can carry other advant­ages. Hunter Biden himself has said that he would not have had certain doors open to him if he were not related to Joe Biden. But like Trump hiring his own family in his personal busi­ness and in the White House, that is not a crime.

Still, the beha­vior of the Trumps and the Bidens can be distin­guished. While Trump hired his daugh­ter and his son-in-law for govern­ment jobs, there’s no evid­ence that Joe Biden during his time as vice pres­id­ent actively used his influ­ence to help Hunter find employ­ment or with his work.

Mean­while, Pres­id­ent Trump is promot­ing — wait for it — the new book by his son, Donald Trump Jr. Doing this is a viol­a­tion of federal ethics rules for every­one who draws a U.S. govern­ment paycheck — except for the pres­id­ent.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.