The hereditary principle is not only un-American but harmful to the children of great men, Benjamin Franklin declared soon after the Revolutionary War, as rumors flew of plots to establish a new aristocracy with George Washington at its head. To honor parents is reasonable, Franklin admitted, but to reward descendants for an accident of birth is “not only groundless and absurd but often hurtful to that posterity.”
Much about President Donald Trump would dismay the Founding Fathers. The tumult now embroiling his children and son-in-law surely would have nudged them toward outright alarm.
Even Franklin, a prescient sort, might have failed to imagine an American president’s child expressing willingness to receive “very high level and sensitive information” about a political opponent from a hostile foreign power — as Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., admittedly did during the election of 2016.
Long before that was known, however, the president’s use of his progeny as White House counselors and as managers of his real-estate empire — spurning advice to place his businesses in a blind trust — posed a grave threat to the checks and balances crafted by the founders.
Defenders of nepotism — they do exist — argue that close relatives are able to offer presidents more candid advice than any outsider. They note that by some counts 16 presidential children have worked in the White House, variously as private secretaries — a tradition begun by the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, himself a president’s son — or as unpaid gatekeepers, as with Anna Roosevelt, daughter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, or as formal advisers: President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son, John, served as a national security aide.
Such a defense breaks down, however, when America has a bad president. When ordinary aides find themselves in that unhappy situation, a sense of duty to their country, to their office or to the rule of law may prompt them to question furtive actions and poor decisions, or to resign. Other aides may be more strongly moved by self-interest or a desire to keep their good name from being soiled by an unfit boss.
When a child wields power at the pleasure of a parent, however, fidelity to country or to the law must vie with deeper, more visceral loyalties. That tug of loyalties is more painful still when a parent is like Trump, a clannish, vengeful man who, by his own son’s account, would send him to school with the growled warning, “Don’t trust anyone.” As for trying to preserve a free-standing good name, that is tricky if your name is Donald Trump Jr.
Checks and balances also are disrupted when a child-counselor to a president is at fault. Trump may still resent the fact that he had to sack his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for lying about contacts with the Russians. Nonetheless, the systems of control and accountability that caught Flynn, starting with a free press, did Trump a favor. Senior Trump administration officials and Republicans in Congress found Flynn, an angry and conspiratorial ex-general, almost impossible to work with.
In contrast, any hint of disrespect for a Trump child provokes indignation from the president, so that few Republicans in Congress care to exercise robust oversight of his daughter, Ivanka, or her husband, Jared Kushner, both of whom serve as senior advisers, with Kushner wielding influence over dossiers from domestic economics to peace in the Middle East.