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Nepotism in the White House: It’s All Relative

by Rich Rubino on April 11, 2017

President Donald Trump recently appointed his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as unpaid senior White House advisors. Some legal scholars argue that these “appointments” are in violation of The Federal Postal Act of 1967 signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The statute disallows the President from appointing a relative to a “civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control.”

The Trump administration argues that this decree does not apply to members of the White House staff. The law only states that no public official can hire a relative. The Trump administration argues that this does not apply to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner because they are working on a volunteer basis.

Interestingly, as a member of the U.S. Congress, Johnson had employed his brother Sam Houston Johnson as an administrative aide. After the President left office, Sam wrote a book about his experience working for his brother entitled: “My Brother Lyndon.” While the book is mostly complimentary of the President, it criticizes some of his methods as a boss.

The author of this 1967 ordinance was U.S. Representative Neal Smith (D-IA). He said it was aimed mostly at the U.S. Postal Service. However, it encompassed the entire Federal Government.

The issue of nepotism took center stage in the political arena in 1960 when President-Elect John F. Kennedy nominated his younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to the esteemed position of U.S. Attorney General. It was crystal clear to most political observers that the younger Kennedy was under-qualified for the position. Kennedy was just 35 years old and sported no courtroom experience. John F. Kennedy made light of his brother’s lack of experience and the nepotism charges, telling the Alfalfa Club that he nominated his brother: “to give him a little experience before he goes out to practice law.”

Actually, Kennedy was very apprehensive about nominating his brother, but did so at the beseeching of his father Joseph P. Kennedy. The U.S. Senate on a voice vote confirmed Kennedy expeditiously. Had there been a roll call vote, it is unlikely that Robert Kennedy would have been confirmed. Nation Magazine called the nomination: “the greatest example of nepotism this land has ever seen.”

In 1993, a Washington DC Court ruled that President Bill Clinton was allowed under the law to appoint his wife Hillary to lead his White House task force on Health Care. Judge Laurence Siberman wrote in the ruling: “a president would be barred from appointing his brother as attorney general, but perhaps not as a White House special assistant.”

Prior to the 1967 statute, there was a long history of presidents appointing or nominating relatives to administration jobs.

In 1797, President John Adams appointed his son John Quincy Adams as Minister to Prussia. In addition, President Adams appointed his son-in-law, William Stephens Smith, as a Customs Agent, and appointed John Quincy Adams’ Father-in-law, Joshua Johnson, to the position of Superintendent of Stamps.

In order to avoid charges of nepotism, President Andrew Jackson managed for his nephew Jack Donelson to be hired as a general land office clerk. Jackson then requested he be assigned to work with Jackson in the White House (at the time referred to as The Executive Mansion).

Jackson’s actions effectuated a chain reaction. His Presidential successor, Martin Van Buren, circumvented the system the same way, hiring his son Martin Jr. as a general land clerk and his other son Abraham as Second Auditor at the U.S. Treasury Department. He then had them transferred to the White House, and like Jackson, Van Buren utilized his sons as private secretaries. Presidents John Tyler and Millard Fillmore used these same methods to get their sons employed at the White House.

James K. Polk did not approve of this practice of making taxpayers pay for Presidential relatives on the federal payroll. However, he wanted his nephew James Knox Walker, to work at the White House. Accordingly, Polk paid his salary out of his personal account.

Later Presidents were upfront about their nepotism. Zachary Taylor employed his son-in-law, Colonel William W. W. Bliss, as his private secretary and advisor. James Buchanan did the same with his nephew James Henry.

Ulysses S. Grant was perhaps the worst Presidential offender. He appointed three of his brothers-in-law to federal government positions, including Fredrick Dent to the position of White House Usher. Dent used the position as a cash cow, selling insider information. Grant also appointed his cousin Silas A. Houston to the position of Ambassador to Guatemala.

President Rutherford B. Hayes employed his son, Webb Hayes, as his confidential secretary, personal assistant, and bodyguard. At the time of his hiring, the younger Hayes was just 21 years old. Webb also served as the official greeter at White House functions.

Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed his son James as an administrative aide, coordinating the activity of 17 federal agencies. The younger Roosevelt came under assault by The Saturday Evening Post for allegedly using his title as the President’s son to win contracts for his insurance firm. James vehemently denied these insinuations.

David Eisenhower, the son of incoming President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was used as a political football. During the traditional ride from the White House to the Presidential Inauguration, President-Elect Eisenhower asked outgoing President Harry S. Truman (who had ordered Eisenhower’s son John to return form active duty in the Korean War), to attend his father’s inauguration. Eisenhower feared that the public would view this as his son receiving preferential treatment. Truman testily retorted in the third person: “The President of the United States ordered your son to attend your inauguration. The President thought it was right and proper for your son to witness the swearing-in of his father to the Presidency. If you think somebody was trying to embarrass you by this order, then the President assumes full responsibility.” The two men had a rapprochement later in life, becoming good friends.

As for John Eisenhower, he was the last son of a President to serve his father in the White House. John served as the Assistant White House Staff Secretary and as an assistant to General Andrew Goodpaster.

During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon hired his brother Ed to superintend the mail operations during his Presidential campaign. Pleased with Ed’s work, President-Elect Nixon offered his brother the job of running the White House mailroom. Ed declined the offer, later telling The Times Union: “It was a nice gesture, but I knew it was not the job for me.”

Hiring family members to work at the White House is currently at the forefront of the national dialogue. Norman Eisen, who served as an ethics attorney during the administration of President Barack Obama, maintains that Trump is in violation of the Federal Postal Act of 1967. However, Eisen also realizes the complexity of this issue. He recently told CNN: “reasonable minds can disagree.” History teaches us that the appointments of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner by President Trump are far from unique or unusual.

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by Rich Rubino on April 1, 2017

Due to the opposition of the conservative Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was forced to pull proposed legislation supported by President Donald Trump to “Repeal and Replace” the Affordable Care Act. In response, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is hinting that the President may campaign against some Freedom Caucus members in the 2018 primary elections. Trump is quickly learning that the Republican Party is far from monolithic.

In a system with only two major political parties, factionalism permeates each party. The Democratic House minority has members from the center of the political spectrum (known as Blue Dogs) to the avowedly progressive members of the “Progressive Caucus.” Contrariwise, The Republican Party is host to the center-left Republican Main Street Partnership and the conservative Freedom Caucus.

At election time, the Presidential candidate usually tries to downplay internecine battles within his party and campaigns for party members from all factions within the party. It is rare but not unprecedented for a President to get involved in a primary against an incumbent member of his own party.

Even in 2006, when the more conservative Republican Steve Laffey challenged liberal incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) in the primary, President George W. Bush and the GOP high command supported Chafee. They did this despite the fact that Chafee was the only Republican to vote against the administration on the authorization for the use of force in Iraq, and despite the fact that Chafee opposed the Bush tax cuts and the Bush administration’s Prescription Drugs program.

There have been examples of Presidents campaigning in primaries against recalcitrant members of their own parties. However, usually embarrass themselves in the process.

For example, in 1910, the Republican Party was split asunder between progressives who favored an activist Federal Government, and the more conservative faction known as “the standpatters” led by President William Howard Taft. Taft actively campaigned for conservative challengers to his progressive opponents. The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee even funded conservative challengers and sent Taft out on the campaign trail to lambaste the Progressives.

The Progressives responded by forming “Progressive Republican Clubs” in a bid to become the dominant faction in the party. Taft’s efforts floundered as progressives upended 40 incumbent conservatives in the primary.

The effort continued in 1912, as the progressives rallied around former President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt announced that if he lost the nomination, he would run for President as the nominee of a third party. After that announcement, Roosevelt won a string of Republican primary victories. He won 284 delegates in the primaries compared to just 125 for Taft. However, Taft secured the nomination because of the support from “pledged delegates” (individual Republicans who had a vote at the convention).

In addition, Roosevelt forces alleged that GOP Chairman Elihu Root rigged the convention for Taft. True to his word, Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party and ran as the nominee of the Progressive, a.k.a. Bull Moose Party.

In the General Election, the Republican Party was split. Progressives voted for Roosevelt and conservatives marked ballots for Taft. Democrat Woodrow Wilson walked away with the election.

After the election, some progressives came back to the GOP fold. However, in 1924 the progressive bloodline became disillusioned by the conservative policies of Republican President Calvin Coolidge. Progressive Republican U.S. Senator Robert La Follette Sr. (R-WI) accepted the nomination of the Progressive Party. La Follette won 16.6% of the vote and only one state, Wisconsin.

Twelve maverick GOP U.S. House members supported the candidacy of La Follette. U.S. House Speaker Nicolas Longworth (R-OH) reprimanded them. He barred these electoral mutineers from serving on important committees during the next Congressional session. In the U.S. Senate, La Follette and three of his Republican colleagues who had supported his candidacy lost their committee assignments.

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was extremely popular in the South. Many conservative members of Congress had won re-election the last two times by tethering themselves to him even though they did not support his progressive domestic “New Deal” legislative programs. This betrayal of loyalty irked Roosevelt.

Accordingly, Roosevelt hit the campaign hustings, stumping for progressive Democrats who opposed conservative, mostly Southern Democratic incumbents. However, his efforts failed, as most conservatives won renomination. In fact, only one Roosevelt-supported challenger ousted an incumbent Democrat. Roosevelt imprudently envisioned an ideologically homogenous Democratic Party which would support all his initiatives.

There is at least one instance where Presidential intervention in a primary was successful. Although he supported most incumbent Democrats in the 1918 mid-term primary elections, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made one exception. He endorsed challenger Pat Harrison against the incumbent Democrat, U.S. Senator James K. Vardaman (D-MS). Wilson was inflamed that Vardaman had voted against the Congressional Declaration of War with Germany. Harrison, as a member of the House, was a loyal supporter of Wilson, and supported the declaration. Vardaman did not take Wilson’s endorsement of Harrison very well. He called Wilson: “the coldest blooded, most selfish ruler beneath the stars today.” Harrison won that election.

Trump is learning a hard lesson that just because his party controls both houses of Congress does not mean that all Republicans will vote in lockstep. While Trump handily won most Congressional Districts of Freedom Caucus members, members will likely win plaudits from their conservative constituents for arguing that the Trump-supported version of Health Care does not go far enough in repealing and replacing Obamacare.

As long as two parties dominate the political landscape, there will always be intramural cleavages. Furthermore, campaigns against incumbent party members almost always backfire. Spicer suggested that wayward Republicans will “probably pay a price at home.”If that means that Trump will campaign against them, the historical precedent informs us that Trump’s efforts will be unsuccessful.

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In politics, most candidates would probably rather lose in an electoral avalanche than lose by a razor-thin margin. A candidate will always have second thoughts regarding what he/she could have done to win the election. A mishap or day off the campaign trail can haunt candidates for the rest of their lives. Richard M. Nixon […]

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