Nepotism is a funny thing: We all like it, and we all hate it. We like it on a small scale — say, when we can patronize a family-run bakery or hire a plumber whose business name ends with "& Sons" — and we very much like it when it happens to us, as when a friend hooks you up with a job at their work. But we hate nepotism when it happens on a large scale — and by "large" I mean involving significant quantities of money or power, especially state power — and we especially hate it when it doesn't work.
President Trump's employ of his favorite daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, as senior advisers in the White House fits both latter bills. The couple vaulted from a cushy life of family-provided luxury in New York City to a cushy life of family-provided power in the nation's capitol. And aside from Kushner's admirable work in pushing federal prison reform across the desk of a president with a terrible record on justice, it is not clear that Trump fille and her husband are doing the country any good.
Part of that is because it is not clear what they are doing at all. We cannot judge their job performances because we have no concrete notion of what those jobs are. "Senior adviser" is an empty, malleable title with no fixed responsibilities. It is not the title these two should have.
Why, for example, is Ivanka the recipient of an apology from Britain's trade minister over embarrassing diplomatic cables that leaked this past weekend? Why is Ivanka meeting with the British trade minister at all? Is Trump's trade war in her advisory portfolio? Does she have thoughts on tariffs?
Or consider her presence at the G20 summit at the beginning of this month, where a viral video showed the first daughter awkwardly attempting to join a conversational circle of French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the IMF's Christine Lagarde. The president declared Ivanka's performance at the conference of world leaders "amazing," but why was she there? What diplomatic authority does she wield? Can she make policy decisions or merely influence and schmooze?
"She's not secretary of state, but she's acting like she has the same clout as Mike Pompeo," University of Virginia politics professor Jennifer Lawless mused to The Washington Post. "She is not a formal diplomat, but she's the one having formal conversations."
"Deputy President" Kushner's duties are likewise uncertain. Reportedly inducted into his position with an (embittered?) invitation by then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to do "whatever you want," Kushner seems to have done exactly that. Per his father-in-law, his scope includes Veterans Affairs, diplomacy with China and Mexico, criminal justice reform, the exceedingly vague "White House Office of American Innovation," the national opioid epidemic, and peace in Israel-Palestine — you know, just a few little jobs that only require about a billion hours in the day plus multiple lifetimes' worth of diverse expertise which Kushner, 38, cannot possibly possess.
"We should have excellence in government," Kushner has opined from the West Wing. "The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens." The sentiment is good, but the analogy isn't quite right: If the federal government is like a business, the American people are not so much its customers as its board of directors. And the board really needs more information on what two of the president's most controversial hires actually do.
As simply not having the president's daughter and son-in-law working in the White House doesn't seem to be an option at the moment, the next best scenario is giving Ivanka and Jared real jobs. They need established roles with clear responsibilities that allow us to have concrete expectations. "Senior adviser" means nothing and everything. Something like "press secretary" or "communications director" — both recently refilled but historically transitory — is far more defined. We can't judge how the presidential children are doing in a slippery adviser role, but we can evaluate a press secretary against press secretaries past.
Trump himself could be open to formalizing his family's roles. He has repeatedly considered his daughter for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, declining to nominate her because, he tweeted, he "can already hear the chants of Nepotism!"
That's true, but the nepotism is already happening. At least as U.N. ambassador Ivanka would be subject to the scrutiny of Senate confirmation and a rubric of known expectations once in office. This is not to say Ivanka Trump or Jared Kushner are qualified for this job or any other of the 1,200 Senate-confirmed positions the Trump administration has only partially filled. But if we can't get rid of the nepotism, we might at least try to make it measurable.