Francois Fillon in 2014. Photo courtesy the European People's Party.
Much has been made of President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint his son-in-law Jared Kushner to his White House staff.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has cleared Kushner to serve as a “senior adviser” despite initial questions as to whether the appointment ran afoul of anti-nepotism laws. Daniel Koffsky, the OLC deputy assistant attorney general, noted in his opinion that the White House is not classified as an “executive agency” and that the president has an unusual degree of freedom in picking his personal staff.
Of course, the OLC’s decision has not stopped Trump’s critics from claiming that the president is observing the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit in which it was clearly intended. Koffsky himself acknowledged that the decision contrasts with historical precedent, including an incident in which Jimmy Carter’s son was not permitted to serve as a White House intern, but argued that the new opinion offered a fuller, more accurate reading of the legal situation than such precedents. Yet even some observers who do not object the OLC’s logic on its face have argued that Trump’s decision to appoint Kushner just plain looks bad.
Americans should take comfort, though; it could be much worse.
As a for-instance, we need only look to France’s current presidential race. Francois Fillon seemed to be the leading candidate only a few weeks ago, until allegations came to light that he had arranged improper government payments to his wife and two children for doing little or no work. Fillon has maintained that he has done nothing illegal and that his family members earned their salaries, even while acknowledging that hiring them as “assistants” during his time as a member of the National Assembly and Senate was unwise. Though Fillon has vowed to stay in the race, he has been summoned for questioning over this matter.
Even if we stick to America, however, we can observe a long tradition of jobs granted by a man in power to those close to him. Consider the distinctly less family-friendly example of Wayne Hays, a congressman from Ohio and chairman of the House Administration Committee. In 1976, The Washington Post broke a story on Hays’ secretary, Elizabeth Ray, who freely admitted she held no qualifications for the position she was hired to fill. “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone,” Ray told the Post. Ray said she approached the newspaper after Hays divorced his wife to marry his secretary. The problem was that secretary he married wasn’t Ray, but rather his Ohio office secretary, Pat Peak. Hays initially denied any impropriety, but a few days after the story broke he confessed to most of the allegations on the House floor and resigned later that year.
For those readers too young to remember 1976, a more recent example is former Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Fla. Mahoney ended up under investigation by the FBI for allegations of buying off his former staffer, who was also his former mistress, with the promise of a $50,000-per-year job at his campaign ad agency (as well as a substantial lump sum) in exchange for dropping a threatened lawsuit. Mahoney acknowledged the affair and that the staffer had received a settlement, but denied that it included any public money. Mahoney was also accused, nearly simultaneously, of conducting an affair with a Martin County official while simultaneously attempting to procure a $3.2 million hurricane-cleanup reimbursement from FEMA for her locality. The entire mess was especially ironic considering that Mahoney’s predecessor was Rep. Mark Foley, whose own inappropriate conduct made headlines only a few years earlier.
More recently, holier-than-thou Rep. Vance McAllister of Louisiana was caught making out with his scheduler in his district office. They were married, but not to each other. The aide was a longtime employee, so there is not necessarily reason to think that she got the job because of a relationship with McAllister. After all, no one claims Monica Lewinsky did not secure her job as a White House intern on her own merits.
In fact, the list of political sex scandals involving – almost invariably – powerful men and the women (and a few men) who work for them is so long that you almost have to write it off as just ordinary workplace romances or dalliances. The ones worth noting, at least in this context, are the ones where the employee being paid out of the public purse does not really seem to have much of value – at least, of value to taxpayers – to contribute.
That definition doesn’t apply to Kushner. In America, at least, we expect public employees to work for their pay. Over in France, some of the scandalized politicians actually think it is a scandal that people believe they are misbehaving when they pad the public payroll with their relatives. I guess it throws shade on their joie de vivre. Or maybe Penelope Fillon happened to be an excellent parliamentary aide.
Then again, my favorite American sex scandal doesn’t involve the public payroll at all. Back in 1974, powerful congressman Wilbur Mills was stopped at 2 a.m. while driving with his lover, an Argentine-born stripper named Fanne Foxe. Both had been drinking. Foxe jumped into the Tidal Basin to try to get away. Mills’ career was effectively over – and hers, as the most famous stripper in America, was just getting started.
They don’t make scandals like that anymore.