clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nepotism and the 2020 election, explained

Joe Biden isn’t the only candidate with family in question in this campaign.

Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Tiffany Trump sit on the stage during their father’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House on August 27.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It has been clear for over a year that Team Trump’s main plan for running against former Vice President Joe Biden was to try to gin up a scandal related to Biden’s son Hunter’s work in Ukraine.

It was clear from President Trump’s efforts to coerce the Ukrainian government into launching a criminal investigation into Hunter Biden over this, which ended with his impeachment. That, in turn, led Trump to back away from the issue, for a while.

But this October, Rudy Giuliani and the New York Post have used a hard drive they say a computer repair store in Delaware gave them to revive the story. They don’t have evidence that Hunter’s influence was why a Ukrainian prosecutor got fired. But the laptop does contain evidence (yet to be authenticated) that Hunter had wide-ranging business interests, and no particular qualifications as a business partner other than his father being vice president.

It is true that on basic anti-nepotism grounds, Joe Biden is far from an ideal candidate. He certainly falls short of the standard set by several modern presidents.

But Trump himself stands out from his predecessors as particularly bad on the corruption front. Not only does he still own and profit from businesses involved in dealings with foreign nationals, he has several adult children and in-laws who have business careers that are enmeshed with his political fortunes.

To assess nepotism as an issue in the 2020 campaign requires a comprehensive look at the two candidates’ approaches.

Hunter Biden makes a living off the family name

It seems pretty clear that Hunter Biden, along with the traumas in his family and his personal struggles with addiction, has for years basically been cashing checks based on his relationship with his father.

In the world of political scandals, there are actual crimes and there’s simply shady behavior — and perhaps the real scandal is what’s legal. To be clear, there does not appear to be anything illegal about Hunter Biden’s various roles, but someone getting jobs because his dad is important doesn’t sit well with those who want to see less special interest influence in Washington.

Back when MBNA was a major Delaware-based credit card issuer and Joe Biden was a congressional champion of the credit card industry, Hunter was on their staff in a murky consulting role. The simple corruption story would be that Sen. Biden was backing the industry’s priority legislation because Hunter was a consultant for MBNA. But that interpretation is surely backward: Senators support their home-state companies’ priorities all the time, especially in a small state like Delaware. It’s much more likely that Hunter just got to cash some lucrative checks as part of his fortunate family situation enmeshed in the Delaware elite than that he had to work for anything.

In 2006, George W. Bush appointed Hunter to the Amtrak board. Introducing him at confirmation hearings, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) basically explained that Hunter’s qualifications were just being a Delaware politics guy who rides the train a lot:

More specifically, though, and for our purposes and for the purpose of this nomination, Hunter Biden has spent a lot of time on Amtrak trains. Like his father, like our Congressman, Mike Castle and myself, Hunter Biden has lived in Delaware while using Amtrak to commute to his job as we commute to our job in Washington almost every day of the week. You know, you learn a lot about what could work and what would work better at Amtrak by riding trains and talking to the passengers, the commuters, the passengers, the folks who work on the trains and make them work every day. You also have a chance to see the huge economic benefit the region receives from having a strong passenger rail corridor, something that should be available in a lot of other parts of our country.

A senator’s unqualified son being appointed to the Amtrak board is not the reason that US passenger rail underperforms by developed world standards. Rather, US passenger rail underperformance reflects the fact that the US political system doesn’t take Amtrak seriously — treating it like the kind of organization where a senator can stash his somewhat embarrassing son.

That’s the context for Hunter’s work at the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. It’s overwhelmingly clear that getting Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin fired was a consensus view, including among Senate Republicans and the European Union.

Back when Barack Obama was president, US officials and Western governments believed that Ukraine’s chief prosecutor was soft on corruption. He eventually was fired in March of 2016, and the New York Times reported that “the United States and other Western nations had for months called for the ousting of Mr. Shokin, who was widely criticized for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite.”

Shokin, of course, did not like that interpretation of events and eventually latched onto another story that painted him in a better light. In that version, he was fired because he was investigating corruption at a Ukrainian company called Burisma that had bought the loyalty of the United States government by giving Biden’s son Hunter a lucrative job on the company board. This story is not true unless you believe that Hunter could control Senate Republicans, the European Union, and the government of Canada.

It’s clear, however, that Hunter Biden had no particular qualifications to be on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Presumably, the company was hoping in some diffuse sense to secure political friendship in Washington. It doesn’t seem to have been put to any particularly noteworthy use or involved any noteworthy acts of corruption.

The whole Hunter Biden situation, from top to bottom, reeks of the kind of cozy cronyism that makes a lot of people detest establishment politics and explains the appeal of the idea of a rich businessman who can’t be bought swooping in to drain the swamp.

And then there’s the reality of Trump.

Trump’s daughter wields unprecedented influence

Joe Biden’s son got a job on the Amtrak board that he was not particularly qualified for. Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who was no more qualified than Hunter for any public sector position, instead got a role as a White House senior staffer. Her husband, Jared Kushner, also is totally unqualified for government work and also has a job as a White House senior staffer. Their father intervened to get them security clearances.

Ivanka Trump is involved in policymaking in a way that’s simply unheard of for a presidential child, especially one with zero prior experience in politics and government:

While not qualified for any of these roles, she’s also managed to repeatedly break the law in public service. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington once documented a 48-hour period in early October during which she violated the Hatch Act eight times. She then violated it 11 more times by October 20.

It’s normal for a politician’s adult child to be involved in promoting his election campaign. But that in turn underscores how unusual (and inappropriate) it is to also install your daughter in the West Wing as a senior government official.

Ivanka is not just someone who lacks the résumé for such a position; she has an extremely checkered career in business that’s involved extensive excursions into legal gray areas:

The overall picture is one of much more nepotistic influence over government policy and much more involvement in graft and corruption than anything that’s been alleged about Hunter Biden. But Trump has more kids! And it’s actually Trump’s son-in-law who is truly in the eye of the corruption storm.

Jared Kushner has myriad conflicts of interest

Jared Kushner is a fascinating figure.

His father, Charles Kushner, is a wealthy criminal (and Democratic Party donor) whom Chris Christie sent to jail back when Christie was the US attorney for New Jersey during George W. Bush’s administration. Also during this period, Kushner had the misfortune of being a case study in Daniel Golden’s book about corruption in the college admission process. Golden details the ways Kushner’s father wielded his influence, not only as a Harvard donor but as a donor to Ted Kennedy and other influential figures, to help his son gain admission to Harvard. Then, in a somewhat harsh section of the book, Golden details Kushner’s lack of conventional intellectual or academic qualifications:

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former [official at Jared’s high school] told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not. I believe that Jared, for the longest time, didn’t want to talk about any of this, because he felt a little bit upset or guilty that he may have taken somebody else’s place. One of the things the Ivies ask is, ‘was this student in the most challenging courses offered in the school?’ We could not answer that question yes.”

But at school, rather than coasting like an underqualified rich kid might be inclined to do, Jared used his dad’s money to become a landlord who owned several rental properties in the nearby town of Somerville. Kushner, according to a 2006 profile in the New York Sun, regarded spending his dad’s money and occasionally calling a plumber to be a major achievement:

Having raised venture capital from his parents and a handful of family friends, the younger Mr. Kushner in 2000 established Somerville Building Associates — a division of his father’s Kushner Companies — and put down a reported $10 million on seven residential rental buildings in Somerville, Mass., which borders Cambridge. Soon thereafter, he purchased an additional investment property in Somerville.

“I’d be in class, and get a call that a toilet broke, and have to get a contractor over there,” Mr. Kushner, a Livingston, N.J., native, said.

“At this point, multitasking is what I do best,” he said. “I believe you have to push yourself, until one or the other begins suffering and then you have to make choices.”

That multitasking experience is important, because as a White House staffer, Kushner has in his portfolio everything from overseeing the US-Mexico border wall to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and solving the opioid crisis to managing the nation’s medical stockpile amid the coronavirus crisis.

The combination of a vast policy portfolio, no obvious qualifications for government, and a large fortune inherited from his criminal father has left Kushner with myriad financial conflicts of interest. Consider the real estate investment firm Cadre where Kushner has a 25 percent stake that he initially failed to disclose on government forms.

Cadre has benefited from Opportunity Zone tax breaks that were created by the 2017 tax reform law and, while intended to help low-income communities, were in fact structured with such lax terms that they’ve been a windfall for people like Kushner. The Guardian reported in 2019 that Cadre has received $90 million in opaque investments from offshore vehicles, meaning that we don’t really know who Kushner’s foreign business partners are. But as David Corn reports, we do know that Cadre was actively seeking investment opportunities related to the pandemic even as Kushner was coordinating the nation’s medical supply procurement.

The White House has refused to answer questions about Kushner’s business meetings in China, but a 2018 report in the Washington Post revealed: “Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.”

Kushner’s conflicts of interest are so vast as to almost defy accounting. But a few highlights:

Kushner’s business partnerships and White House portfolio are so wide-ranging that it’s hard to know where to even draw a line around graft. But Trump has two more sons who play a more defined role in the world running the Trump Organization’s hotel business, and their profiteering can be more precisely defined.

Donald Jr. and Eric Trump are breaking the rules

On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump consistently promised to divest from control over the Trump Organization’s business assets. The fact that he chose to break this promise has come to make it seem inevitable that he would, but it’s worth recalling that he absolutely did promise to do this and he could have done it.

Nothing was stopping him from selling his various hotels and golf clubs and then placing the proceeds into a blind trust investment or just putting the money into index funds.

Instead, Trump simply turned active management of the businesses over to his sons Eric and Donald Jr. And as the New York Times reported a year ago, they’ve been actively pursuing business arrangements all around the world:

Last month, the Trump family business received approval from a local government in Scotland for a major expansion of its golf resort near Aberdeen, marking the largest real estate development financed by the Trump Organization since the 2016 election.

In August, President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., flew to Jakarta to help kick-start sales at a pair of Trump-branded luxury resorts planned for Indonesia. He appeared at a private event with wealthy prospective buyers and joined his politically connected billionaire Indonesian business partner at a news conference.

And last year, Donald Jr. visited India to sell condos at future Trump-branded towers, appearing at an event that also featured India’s prime minister.

This is roughly the wrongdoing that Hunter is accused of. But unlike Hunter, the Trump sons are actively involved in their father’s business interests and their father’s political career — speaking on his behalf at the Republican National Convention, appearing as frequent surrogates in the media, and serving as all-around political confidants.

Foreign money has poured into the Trump International Hotel near the White House, and Trump’s sons’ international travel has cost the Secret Service hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course, security expenses for the president’s family are a public investment worth making. But it does seem notable that a large share of that Secret Service tab has ended up being paid to properties the Trump family owns. In other words, it’s not just that Eric and Donald Jr. are touring the world at taxpayer expense to use their family connections to cut business deals; they are personally pocketing some of the government’s cash as they do it.

The stakes in 2020

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all had kids who were too young to be involved in business while they were in the White House. Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush, had two grown children who obviously did seek to capitalize on their dad’s political connections, but did so primarily in order to advance their own political ambitions rather than for money.

That kind of situation is probably better for everyone than the one that exists with top officials’ adult children kicking around with independent business careers.

Since both the Trump and Biden families are similarly situated, in this case, you can get a good comparative look at the situation. Hunter seems to have a more troubled personal life than many of the Trumps or various Trump-in-laws.

But the relevant figures of the extended Trump clan are simply more numerous, creating a wider range of actual and potential conflicts of interest. More importantly, Donald Trump has made his family members key advisers on critical political and policy decisions in a way that Biden simply hasn’t. The Trump kids show a lot more hustle and ingenuity at using their positions of privilege to attract more privilege. Jia Tolentino recounts the story Ivanka Trump tells in her biography of how she milked her family’s domestic servants for kickbacks via a lemonade stand:

When Ivanka was a kid, she got frustrated because she couldn’t set up a lemonade stand in Trump Tower. “We had no such advantages,” she writes, meaning, in this case, an ordinary home on an ordinary street. She and her brothers finally tried to sell lemonade at their summer place in Connecticut, but their neighborhood was so ritzy that there was no foot traffic. “As good fortune would have it, we had a bodyguard that summer,” she writes. They persuaded their bodyguard to buy lemonade, and then their driver, and then the maids, who “dug deep for their spare change.” The lesson, she says, is that the kids “made the best of a bad situation.”

This is fundamentally similar to the Kushner situation at Harvard — there for reasons other than his own merit, instead of coasting, he further peddled his dad’s money into a little business hustle. With Trump in office, Jared and Ivanka make policy. Eric and Don Jr. tour the world actively seeking new business opportunities.

It’s much more entrepreneurial than the Hunter Biden story, and much more in keeping with a certain vision of the American work ethic. But it’s infinitely more corrosive than a guy who has had drug problems scoring the occasional no-show job thanks to his dad’s influence.