Trump’s family becomes flashpoint for new controversies

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Trump claims tariffs on foreign nations will rescue US steel industry: report Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report MORE’s family members are increasingly coming under fire, deepening the sense of crisis surrounding the White House.

Presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerOvernight Health Care: Lawsuit challenges Arkansas Medicaid work requirements | CVS program targets high-cost drugs | Google parent invests in ObamaCare startup Oscar Hillicon Valley: Omarosa drops bombshell claim about Trump, WikiLeaks | Dems turn up heat over fake FCC cyberattack | Uber hires ex-NSA official to improve security | FBI boosts cyber team Google parent invests 5M in ObamaCare startup Oscar MORE has lost his top-level security clearance, raising fresh doubts about whether he can still handle his broad portfolio and sparking new calls from Democrats for him to be fired.

His inability to pass a background check will prevent him from accessing sensitive intelligence related to China, Mexico and the Middle East — all areas Trump tapped him to oversee.

Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpSan Francisco ethics official sues Secret Service over Trump Jr. trip to India Spicer slams Omarosa on WH recordings: 'She will do anything to further her own being' White House staff offered discounts at Trump's NJ golf club: report MORE’s, recent trip to India drew fire from critics who accused him of blurring the lines between his family’s business and his father’s foreign policy agenda.

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump Jr. initially planned to deliver an address at a business conference titled “Reshaping Indo-Pacific Ties: The New Era of Cooperation.” But the title was reportedly changed after questions were raised about possible conflicts and the president’s son steered clear of political topics during his talk.

Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpPavlich: Ivanka Trump’s quiet success Poll: Majority of Republicans agree media is 'enemy of the people' White House staff offered discounts at Trump's NJ golf club: report MORE, Kushner’s wife and the president’s eldest daughter, has also raised alarms with those concerned about an overlap between the Trump family’s business and government work.

She separately had a tense moment with an NBC reporter this week when she refused to answer a question about allegations against her father of sexual misconduct. It was a stance that brought criticism from observers who said that as a White House aide, Ivanka Trump should expect such treatment.

“That’s not how it works,” Meghan McCain, the daughter of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainComey: Trump revoking Brennan's security clearance shows 'he will punish people who disagree with him' Businesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill GOP’s midterm strategy takes shape MORE (R-Ariz.), said Tuesday on ABC’s “The View.”

“When you’re in, you’re in, nothing is off limits, that’s how it works … She is working in the White House and has an office in the West Wing.”

All of the problems point to the complications of keeping family members in the White House — both in terms of managing staff and avoiding conflicts of interest — and to the unique weaving of the Trump brand and public service in the current administration.

“It places the entire White House in an awkward position with how to handle specific circumstances and situations involving Ivanka and Jared,” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight.

The issue is most acute with Kushner, particularly after a Wednesday report in The New York Times highlighting multiple instances in which the senior aide met with financiers at the White House who later lent money to his family’s real-estate business.

“We are all being given a living lesson in why governments adopt and enforce anti-nepotism standards,” said Kathleen Clark, a Washington University law professor who focuses on government ethics.

“There is a related question,” she added, “which is, to what degree is the president using his public office to enrich himself and his family members?”

The Times story is sure to provoke additional questions for the White House about Kushner’s own business interests on Thursday and in the weeks to come.
 
A spokesman for Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, told the Times he has followed ethics guidelines and “has taken no part of any business, loans or projects with or for” his family business since joining the White House.

“Stories like these attempt to make insinuating connections that do not exist to disparage the financial institutions and companies involved,” Kushner Companies spokeswoman Christine Taylor told the Times.

Kushner’s troubles come at the same time that Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksTrump officials pushing Hope Hicks to join 2020 campaign: report Hope Hicks spotted boarding Air Force One ahead of Trump rally Omarosa questioned by feds over Cohen ties to National Enquirer publisher: report MORE, one of Trump’s longest-serving advisers, is leaving the White House.

With Hicks's departure, Trump is losing his most trusted and loyal aide — and someone who is not in Trump’s family — at a time when he is confronting internal divisions in the White House related to family members.

Her exit was announced one day after Josh Raffel, a spokesman for Kushner and Trump, said he would leave the White House.

Kushner’s continued presence on the staff has frustrated some Trump allies, several of whom expressed weariness with the constant infighting

“The only person whose opinion matters is the president’s. It’s his son-in-law, he’s a favorite, so nobody is going to push him out, so Jared will probably have to make the decision for himself whether the humiliation is worth it,” said one outside adviser to the Trump administration.

A former White House official said there are plenty of people who would have preferred that Kushner and Ivanka Trump remained in New York, but that virtually nobody on staff is willing to challenge their presence.

“[People] find a way to work within the system, unusual as it is,” said the former official, who then referenced the special counsel investigating Russia’s involvement the presidential election. “He’s an immovable object, except for, perhaps, Bob Mueller.”

The idea that Trump’s business empire could be a problem for his presidency was mentioned during the campaign, but didn’t really become a huge focus until his surprising win over Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report Fox News host hits Giuliani: Dossier isn't why Mueller probe was started MORE.

Before taking office, Trump put his two oldest sons in charge of his businesses to counter criticism that his political career would advance his business interests. But he did not fully divest from his companies, a move watchdogs said was necessary to eliminate the possibility of conflicts.

Trump announced at his Manhattan high-rise nine days before his inauguration that he would resign from his positions at his business and place his assets into trust that he would not actively manage, an effort to prevent him from taking actions as president that would enrich his businesses.

But at the same time, Trump asserted that he has “a no-conflict situation because I’m president.”

Kushner’s troubles and Trump Jr.’s trip give critics ammunition that Trump’s presidency is advancing his family’s business interests.

The decision to give Kushner and Ivanka Trump senior positions in the White House broke with decades of precedent regarding presidential relatives’ involvement in official government business.

The federal anti-nepotism law was adopted in 1967, six years after President John F. Kennedy tapped his brother, Robert, to serve as attorney general. It was intended to eliminate conflicts of interests and management problems that arise from the president’s close family serving in official roles.

The Justice Department ruled one day after Trump’s inauguration that Kushner’s role would not violate the law, arguing it applies to Cabinet, but not White House, officials.

Kushner played a key role in advising Trump during the campaign, which relied heavily on members of Trump’s family and political outsiders. The president was determined to staff his White House with people from his inner circle who he could trust.

In a statement announcing his hiring, Trump called Kushner a “tremendous asset and trusted advisor” and also someone who has been “incredibly successful, in both business and now politics.”

But accusations of a double standard have flourished.

Clark pointed out that four Commerce Department officials lost their jobs over issues with their background checks, while Kushner has kept his.

Doug Heye, a Republican operative, said it is normal for politicians to consult with family members about key decisions, but the equation changes when they are on staff.

“It complicates things. There are loyalties there that other staff members won’t have and levels of access that could create the type of competition and infighting that we are currently seeing,” said Heye, who has worked in Congress, on the Republican National Committee and in the White House.

Kushner appears increasingly to be at odds with White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, who made the call to downgrade Kushner’s security clearance.

Kelly has reportedly been frustrated with Kushner’s access to Trump, an issue that has also come up with Ivanka Trump. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonDems want GOP chairman to subpoena State Department over cyber docs Overnight Energy: Trump elephant trophy tweets blindsided staff | Execs of chemical plant that exploded during hurricane indicted | Interior to reverse pesticide ban at wildlife refuges Administration should use its leverage to get Egypt to improve its human rights record MORE reportedly was critical of the decision to have Ivanka Trump, who has no prior government experience, meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss the two nation’s joint efforts to counter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The security downgrade sparked a string of anonymously sourced news stories that pitted members of Trump's family against Kelly, who was accused of using the clearance issue to carry out a vendetta against Kushner.

Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciScaramucci: There's a 'quiet majority' that wants Trump to succeed Sanders to appear next week on Colbert's 'Late Show' Scaramucci on Trump supporters heckling CNN reporter: This is not who we are MORE, who for a very brief period last summer served as the White House communications director, lashed out at Kelly publicly on Thursday, calling him “General Jackass” and blaming the chief of staff for low morale in the White House.

The growing criticism of Trump’s family has frustrated the president, who believes Kushner is being treated unfairly by the media, a sentiment also shared by some Trump supporters.

“Jared's done an outstanding job. I think he's been treated very unfairly,” Trump told reporters last week. “He's a high-quality person.”

Trump also defended his daughter’s trip to South Korea, saying “we cannot get a better representative.”

Kelly issued a statement Feb. 20 defending Kushner, saying that “everyone in the White House is grateful” for his “valuable contributions” and that “there is no truth to any suggestion otherwise.”

“As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico,” the chief of staff said.

 Jonathan Easley contributed.