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What is nepotism, and is it illegal?

Fast facts about President Trump, Jared, Ivanka and keeping the Oval Office in the family.
what is nepotism jared kushner ivanka trump
Photo: Getty Images

Amid the controversy about presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner's inability to get a full White House security clearance, it's often been referred to as "the problem with nepotism" or "the reason we have nepotism laws." What is nepotism, technically, and is it illegal in the White House?

What is nepotism, and is it illegal?

Nepotism is showing favoritism to family members in business, and giving them opportunities or advantageous treatment not shown others, or that they may not be qualified for. The term originated in the Italian Catholic church of the Middle Ages, when popes and bishops would give their nephews ("nepos" in Latin) preferential positions. (Having taken a vow of chastity, the clergymen had no children of their own.)

More recently, a federal anti-nepotism law was enacted after the Kennedy administration, in which John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Bobby to be his attorney general and his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to be the first director of the Peace Corps. Although there was no wrongdoing involved, Congress decided it was best for the country to avoid even the appearance of favoritism in the Oval Office on down: It was once common for Congressmen to hire their wives as secretaries, and married people can't be compelled to testify against each other.

The 1967 federal nepotism law states, "A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official."

Nepotism in the Trump White House

So how to explain Javanka? Wouldn't that fall solidly under the answer to what is nepotism?

Some political analysts predicted that the 1967 law would prevent President Trump from appointing his daughter Ivanka and Jared Kushner to advisory positions. That was not so. The issue is the word "agency" in the statute — the definition is not settled law, and a judge has proclaimed that the Oval Office is technically not an agency.

For that, the left might want to blame Hillary Clinton. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, he appointed his wife, Hillary, to head a health-care task force. A lobbying group filed a lawsuit to compel her to release her records. In a passing mention in the ruling, a D.C. court judge reasoned that the nepotism law doesn't cover White House staff or the Executive Office of the President. Wrote Judge Laurence Silberman: "So, for example, a president would be barred from appointing his brother as attorney general, but perhaps not as a White House special assistant."

That definition is controversial, and it's not law. But it provided enough ambiguity to allow Jared and Ivanka to be hired — if not, necessarily, to stay.