Almost immediately after Donald Trump was elected president, he faced reports that he was trying to install his children into the highest levels of government. “I am not trying to get ‘top level security clearance’ for my children,” Trump tweeted in response. “This was a typically false news story.” It only took eight weeks for Trump to appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his senior advisor. Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, said she was joining her husband in Washington to “take time to settle our three young children into their new home and schools.” But two months later, Ivanka is getting that top-level security clearance, along with an office in the West Wing of the White House.
I am not trying to get "top level security clearance" for my children. This was a typically false news story.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 16, 2016
According to Politico, Ivanka’s new White House office will be located next to senior advisor Dina Powell. Technically she will not be considered a member of Trump’s administration, and she won’t be given a salary. Yet as a non-employee, she’ll receive government-issued communications devices, and yes, a security clearance.
In a statement, Ivanka graciously pledged to “follow the rules.”
“I will continue to offer my father my candid advice and counsel, as I have for my entire life,” she said. “While there is no modern precedent for an adult child of the president, I will voluntarily follow all of the ethics rules placed on government employees.”
Ivanka is, in all but title, working for her father, flouting anti-nepotism laws and amassing enough conflict of interest violations to paper a skyscraper. How exactly is this being allowed to happen?
The trouble, according to Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility for Ethics in Washington, is that if Ivanka is “voluntarily” following ethics rules, she can just as easily opt out of following them. But rules, by definition, are not optional. How is Ivanka allowed to justify following them conditionally?
“It appears that she’s claiming the rules don’t apply to her, but she’ll follow them anyway because she wants to,” Libowitz said carefully.
And on what basis would the rules not apply to her?
“That is a very good question,” he said. Ivanka said vaguely that she has “worked through” any conflicts of interest, though she and the White House declined to comment further.
As Lisa Gilbert, the Vice President of Legislative Affairs at the consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen put it: “It’s utterly flagrant and obvious that they do not care what the conflicts of interest are or what the public is perceiving.”
“I think we’re incredibly worried about what this means in terms of influence, and it’s obviously the next phase in a long line of the Trump administration blending business and the presidency,” she said.
Most chillingly, though, is that virtually no one can hold Ivanka accountable if and when she decides to reverse course. Any investigation would fall to the Executive Office of the President, which is to say, her father, along with White House Counsel Don McGhan, who, as Libowitz puts it, “has been somewhat lax so far in being proactive about these issues.” And that’s assuming Ivanka chooses to follow the rules. If she doesn’t, well, “that’s an area we’ve never seen before,” Libowitz said.
The United States Office of Government Ethics could take a look, Libowitz said, but as an advisory body the most they can do is make recommendations to McGhan and Trump.
According to an OGE spokesperson, the agency was notified of the “general contours” of Ivanka’s plan. The agency declined further comment.
Like so much of Trump’s reign, these issues have no historical precedent, meaning there are very few laws to address them. An anti-nepotism measure was enacted in 1967 after John F. Kennedy appointed his brother, Robert Kennedy, as attorney general. And the conflict of interest statutes that do exist were made intentionally vague to allow the president more freedom.
“They weren’t considering that the president could have a multinational, multibillion dollar operation attached to his name,” Libowitz said.
Congress could, of course, pass new laws that would strengthen the existing statutes — Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced one such bill in January. But with Republicans dominating both chambers, it’s highly unlikely that such a bill would pass.
Ivanka was already criticized in November for attempting to shill a $10,800 bracelet during an appearance she made alongside her father. In February, Trump fired off a series of angry tweets at Nordstrom after the company dropped Ivanka’s clothing line, citing poor sales. The water was further muddied after Kellyanne Conway implored viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” on an interview on Fox News, which prompted a jump in sales.
The incident instigated a number of lawsuits from competitors of Ivanka, including one San Francisco clothing line who filed a class action suit on Monday on the basis of “unfair advantage.”
The Nordstrom kerfuffle alone was relatively harmless, Libowitz said, but it could be a harbinger of things to come. The bigger issue is that such conflicts could come to dictate how consequential geopolitical decisions are made in the West Wing. Trump’s business, and the businesses of his family, have significant interests around the world, including the Middle East.
“Are decisions being made in the West Wing with Trump’s businesses in mind? With his family’s businesses in mind?” Libowtiz asked. “If so, will the day come when the military is forced to choose between defending America, or defending the business interests of the Trump family?”
Politico reports that Ivanka “has divested her common stock, tech investments, investment funds — and they will all appear on Kushner’s 278 financial disclosure form, required by all Cabinet nominees.” The couple sold as much as $36.7 million in assets to comply with federal ethics rules, according to the Office of Government Ethics.
But Ivanka’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, acknowledged the virtual impossibility of untangling herself from her eponymous brand completely, even in the unlikely event that she wanted to.
“The one thing I would like to be clear on: we don’t believe it eliminates conflicts in every way,” Gorelick told Politico. “She has the conflicts that derive from the ownership of this brand. We’re trying to minimize those to the extent possible.”
So to clarify: If the Trumps decide to destroy the country, there’s precious little that will stop them.
“Cooler heads could prevail?” Libowitz suggested. “In terms of enforcement, there’s not a ton to be done.”