When Bill and Hillary Clinton moved into the White House in 1993, the newly installed first couple was nearly destroyed for making an offer they thought America could not refuse — a two-for-one special on Yale-trained lawyers interested in national public policy. Not only would Bill Clinton become the president, but Hillary Clinton would set up shop in the West Wing and go about the business of trying to overhaul the nation’s health care system. The arrangement wasn’t technically illegal, but it made many uncomfortable and played a big part in health care reform being declared DOA in Congress at the time.
More than 20 years later, President-elect Donald Trump has an even bigger, better deal for the American people. Instead of two for one, like the Clintons, how about five for one? That’s right, America, for a limited time only, you can will get Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump and Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, to run your government, all for the low, low price of Donald Trump. Just one of them was elected, and none of them have experience, but you’re going to love them once you try them. All of them.
So far, the transition is going great. Even though Trump père has pledged to turn his business empire over to his children to avoid conflicts of interest between his commercial holdings and his job as president, the transition to the White House has featured all of the adult Trumps, early and often. Ivanka and Jared joined the prime minister of Japan for a casual sit-down in Trump Tower. Don Jr. reportedly helped select the secretary of the Interior because he loves the outdoors. (Don’t we all?) And all three older Trump children sat in on Trump’s meeting with the biggest names in the tech industry on Wednesday to talk about tax reform, immigration and other policy items.
Trump’s staff has been busy this week explaining why all of this is perfectly legal. RNC spokesman Sean Spicer told CNN there’s no conflict of interest if the family’s involvement in the transition is transparent, like the photo that showed all of the multiple Trump offspring who literally had a seat at the table for the tech meeting. Kellyanne Conway explained to “Morning Joe” Thursday that Trump’s lawyers have decided that the anti-nepotism laws (like the one passed after Robert Kennedy served as JFK’s Attorney General) wouldn’t apply to the West Wing staff, so we can enjoy all of the Trumps, guilt-free.
But arguing the points of whether or not Trump can have his children at the table misses the point — that Trump shouldn’t have his children in the room at all for reasons that go well beyond the sheer helicopter-parent weirdness of the arrangement.
The first and most obvious reason not to have the Trump children so deeply involved in the transition is the fact that a group of revolutionaries went to an enormous amount of work three centuries ago to specifically avoid living in a monarchy. If they had wanted one man to lead their country and have his family, his businesses and their government under one roof, they would have all stayed in England and saved themselves the trip across the Atlantic and a bad case of scurvy. Beyond the gold-dipped arm chairs in Trump Tower, the images of Trump’s children meeting with heads of state and industry for no reason other than their relationship to their father bears an uncomfortable closeness to the trappings of a monarchy. We live in a democracy where, the Clintons learned eventually, we elect a person, not a family, to lead our republic.
The presence of the Trump children in the transition meetings also misunderstands the meaning of the term “blind trust” that is supposed to be the remedy for conflicts of interest, which is actually a double-blind trust. That means not only should a President Trump know nothing about the day-to-day operations of his businesses, his businesses (including the presumed leaders Don Jr. and Eric) should have no role in and know nothing about the inner workings of their father’s government. Even as it is being formed.
Finally, Donald Trump has gone to great lengths to tell us all he is not a typical politician. But history is littered with politicians who have had gigantic blind spots where their families were concerned. Some of the individual members of Congress’ worst ethical lapses were fueled by family members getting special treatment or unique access because of who they were related to. Does that arrangement sound familiar?
If President-elect Trump wants to become just another corrupt politician, he should just keep the lines of responsibility between his family, his business, and our government as they are — blurred, inappropriate, and known only to him. But if he wants to protect both his future presidency and the children he says he trusts to run his empire, he needs to separate them all now.
None of this is to say that the Trump children are not good people with good intentions. I admired Ivanka Trump and her Instagram feed long before her father ever ran for anything and the Trump boys were an asset to their dad in their appearances on the campaign trail. But the road to disgrace in Washington is always paved with good intentions. And it’s usually somebody’s family member driving the getaway car.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.