How many times have conservatives (rightly) decried Barack Obama as a ‘lawless’ president? How often have they scorched Bill and Hillary Clinton for running the charitable permutation of an organized crime family — right again there, too? And how surprised should I be that Newt Gingrich, who himself has leveled both charges, suggested on Monday that Donald Trump should be able to sidestep anti-nepotism laws and appoint his son-in-law to a high-ranking government position?
They say the parties switch scripts depending on who controls the presidency. It’s just rare that it happens this quickly.
I can’t imagine how you defend this. President Lyndon B. Johnson, back in 1967, signed into law a nepotism statute that forbade anyone who held government office from appointing a “relative” “to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control” (and, yes, that includes the White House). It was most likely an attempt at revenge by the vindictive LBJ on his deceased predecessor JFK, whose equally tri-lettered attorney general appointment, RFK, was loathed by Johnson. You can almost hear LBJ snarling, “No more damned Kennedys!” Nevertheless, there the statute is, and it’s served us well through eight presidencies.
Gingrich thinks this is a bunch of legalistic clause-parsing. The anti-nepotism law, he told NPR’s Diane Rehm, “was a very narrowly focused bill really in reaction to a particular personality thing.” “You have to look at it in the context of what [its creators] were trying to accomplish,” he added. Translated: Because the color of LBJ’s motivations in passing the anti-nepotism law was less pure white than driven snow, Trump is permitted to ignore it. When liberals make similar arguments about the Second Amendment, Gingrich rightly swats them down, but when it comes to a legal encumbrance on Trump, suddenly textualism can no longer provide. The U.S. Code becomes “living.”
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Conservatives should put away their decoder rings and stop trying to dance around the meaning of the law (or claim that the White House is exempt on a technicality). The anti-nepotism statute, in letter and spirit, has served us better than LBJ ever could have intended. One feature of dictatorships has always been their empowerment of family members, usually filial. Saddam Hussein’s chief lieutenants were his sons, Uday and Qusay, despite the former’s incompetence and self-destructive sadism. Fidel Castro begat Raul. The British are not under subjugation, but even they only recently voted to abolish their rules of hereditary peerage, and a handful of unelected members from fortunate families still sit in the House of Lords.
Part of the process, at least in theory, of making America a “more perfect union” has been to inch us further away from the trappings of unaccountable government. We’ve done a lousy job of this over the past 80 years or so, but one thing we did get right was the abolition of nepotism. It’s a sound principle: a leader who appoints his daughter or brother is trying to enrich his family rather than selecting the best candidate in the public’s interest, and the appointment should be prevented. To toss that victory for classical liberalism overboard because we can’t imagine denying ourselves the roaring genius of Jared Kushner seems to me a consideration straight out of a banana republic.
Gingrich also breezily suggested in that same NPR interview that Trump advisors who run afoul of the law should be pardoned, suggesting his conservatism has flatlined entirely. In many ways, this is the first test of conservatives during (before even) the Trump presidency. Will they continue to fight for the law and their principles of restraint and freedom? Or will they surrender to The Donald’s cult of personality?