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Trump family advisers: 'Probably legal . . . not wise politically'

Whatever else comes of the Donald Trump presidency, it is sure to generate shelves of case studies in government ethics.

Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Kushner will become a senior adviser to the next president and Ivanka is also in line for a White House spot.
Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Kushner will become a senior adviser to the next president and Ivanka is also in line for a White House spot.Read moreAndy Katz/Pacific Press/Sipa USA/TNS

Whatever else comes of the Donald Trump presidency, it is sure to generate shelves of case studies in government ethics.

Son-in-law Jared Kushner, who emerged as the president-elect's most trusted counselor during the campaign, will join the White House staff as senior adviser to Trump. Kushner is married to favorite daughter Ivanka Trump, who is in line for a White House role herself, perhaps assuming some of the traditional duties of the first lady, as Trump's wife, Melania, continues to live in New York City. Ivanka also has advised her father on policy.

It sounds more like a royal court than a modern U.S. presidential administration. Experts say that the arrangement could test the federal antinepotism law, though some interpretations say the president is exempt, and that it also raises a host of ethical issues and creates a potential image problem.

"It's probably legal, but it's not wise politically," said Darrell M. West, a political scientist who directs governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "These things aggravate the public, reinforce their worst feelings about politicians. They don't like nepotism. They don't like self-dealing."

Trump, after all, vowed in the campaign to "drain the swamp" of Washington corruption.

In addition, there could be conflicts of interest for Kushner, 36, in the vast real estate holdings of his family company, which has numerous foreign investors. For instance, the New York Times reported earlier this month that Kushner has negotiated with a Chinese financial firm that has state ties to redevelop the family's office tower in Midtown Manhattan. In the West Wing, where he will have a broad portfolio, he could be called on to offer advice about relations with China and trade issues.

When Trump announced last week that his son-in-law would join the White House staff, Kushner said he would sell his interest in that office tower and other top investments and resign as chief executive of the Kushner Cos. But most of the real estate holdings will stay in the family, so some ethics lawyers argue Kushner is not truly insulated from them.

Trump himself plans to turn over management of his network of businesses in trust to his two adult sons and a longtime executive but will retain ownership of the assets. Many experts, including the head of the Office of Government Ethics, say that is not enough to avoid conflicts or the appearance of them.

In modern times, most presidents have sold off assets and put their money under the control of an independent trustee, with no information about how it is invested, a so-called blind trust.

Whether Kushner's appointment violates the nepotism law depends on the meaning of "agency."

The 1967 statute, passed in response to John F. Kennedy's appointment of his brother Robert as attorney general, seems straightforward. It says no federal official, including the president, can appoint or hire a relative for "a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control." Son-in-law is on the list of covered relatives.

When President Bill Clinton appointed his wife, Hillary, to run his task force on health-care reform, opponents challenged the move in court. In a 1993 opinion, a federal judge allowed that appointment and wrote that the West Wing staff is not an "agency" like a cabinet department.

"The president does have discretion to choose a staff of his own liking," Trump aide Kellyanne Conway said in an interview last month on MSNBC, citing the case.

But bringing Kushner into the West Wing could have a chilling effect. "It will make it more difficult to have open discussions in the White House," West said. "Everybody's going to be looking over their shoulder at the son-in-law who has a special relationship with the president they don't have."

Hillary Clinton's health-care task force failed in part because she did not receive competing advice, West said. "No one wanted to tell the president's wife she was wrong."

Kushner, a native of northern New Jersey, had the reputation in the Trump campaign of being able to handle difficult situations, such as persuading the reluctant candidate to pump $10 million more of his own money into an advertising push near the end.

Former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D., N.J.), a friend of the Kushner family, said Jared Kushner would be a "moderating influence on some of the more extreme political forces that might attempt to influence the president-elect" and would bring professionalism to the White House.

"Jared Kushner is about results, not ideology," Torricelli said in an interview Friday.

Ivanka Trump's role has not been spelled out, though transition officials have said it's reasonable to assume she will have one in the new administration. She was an active adviser in the campaign, pushing Donald Trump to support paid maternity leave and tax credits to help parents afford child care. She also campaigned for him; Trump strategists deployed her several times to the Philadelphia suburbs, where the candidate was lagging among female voters.

The first-lady-to-be, Melania Trump, has said she does not want to move to Washington at least until her son, Barron, 10, is finished with the school year in June. She is said to be less than thrilled with the idea of living in the White House fishbowl. This has led to speculation that the president-elect's elder daughter might fill in with some of the social duties usually handled by first ladies.

"Ivanka has said she might be her father's hostess, and there is precedent for someone other than a president's spouse to do that," said Myra Gutin, a communications professor at Rider University in New Jersey, who is a scholar of modern first ladies.

In the Kennedy White House, she said, the president's sisters and Lady Bird Johnson, the vice president's wife, sometimes filled in for Jacqueline Kennedy, especially as the first lady recovered from a difficult childbirth and the death of their son Patrick.

Ivanka Trump made it clear in a Facebook post that she intends to work for some causes, whatever her formal role in the White House. She said she wants to promote "the education and empowerment of girls and women" and "unleash the potential of women in the workplace" and foster entrepreneurship among women.

"The American public is split on first ladies," Gutin said. "Half would like them to be like Bess Truman - to pour tea and say nothing. The other half says you have a powerful platform here to do good and it shouldn't be wasted."

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald

Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.