Why do these conflicts matter? It’s not just the danger that Kushner might enrich himself using his ties in government, though that’s a real issue. (Last year, the Office of Government Ethics recommended that Trump aide Kellyanne Conway be disciplined for using the White House to boost Ivanka Trump’s clothing line.) Tuesday night, The Washington Post added some details on why Kushner had been unable to get a permanent clearance:
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.
Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said.
Rules and norms about conflicts of interest exist because without them, they open the federal government up to manipulation—by domestic interests, and by foreign governments. The Post also reported that Kushner had flouted procedures for ensuring the National Security Council was informed about interactions with foreign officials.
The third norm is against hiring relatives to work in the White House. After John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as attorney general, Congress established laws preventing the president from appointing relatives to certain posts. In the case of Kushner (and his wife, Ivanka Trump), the Trump team circumvented the rules in two ways. First, it pointed to a precedent set by Hillary Clinton that the White House was exempt from the rules, and second, it announced that Kushner would work without pay.
But the question of Kushner’s clearance has pitted him against Kelly, which creates a tense dilemma for Trump. The well-sourced Jonathan Swan reported that Donald Trump Jr. is angry at Kelly for hanging his brother-in-law out to dry, and quoted one official as saying, “Javanka and Kelly are locked in a death match. Two enter. Only one survives.” It’s a battle that pits two aides with little political experience and no accomplishments, one of whom faces serious legal risk from Mueller’s probe, against a chief of staff whose own limitations have become clear, but who has established greater discipline in Trump’s White House than anyone else. For most presidents, this would be a no-brainer: You keep Kelly and let Kushner go. But that’s harder to do when Kushner is your son-in-law. Once again: The rules are there to protect you, if you’re willing to let them.
A miniature version of this drama is playing out at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Secretary Ben Carson, who before accepting a nomination said he was unqualified because of lack of experience with housing, relied on his wife, Candy, and son, Ben Jr., as top advisers, upsetting HUD employees. As The Washington Post reported in January, he was warned by HUD officials about letting Ben Jr. organize an event in Baltimore but did it anyway. On Tuesday, The Guardian reported on a lawsuit from a career staffer who alleges she was demoted after refusing to break the law by approving an expensive redecoration of Carson’s office. Later that day, The New York Times added on, noting that Carson spent $31,000 on a dining set. The enormous spending comes as HUD slashes budgets; Carson has also warned against public housing being too nice. These are all embarrassing stories, which make Carson and the administration look like they are living lavishly on the taxpayer dime at best, and like callous plutocrats at worst. Yet every one of these errors could have been avoided by simply sticking to the rules.
There is an irony to how this is shaking out. The Trump administration decided early on that the rules did not, or ought not to, apply to them, and that the rules were punitive. Slowly, it’s becoming clear that even if you don’t obey the rules, the imperatives that created them don’t go away—and if you ignore those, you may indeed be punished for it.