With every new US president arriving in Washington, DC, come a handful of counselors and aides whose personal ties, built over years and forged in election campaigns, give them pride of place in the administration. From the “Irish Brotherhood” that brought John F. Kennedy to office to the “Berlin Wall” that guarded Richard Nixon’s door, close friends and confidantes have often outdone the administration’s biggest names. But no American president has ever brought to the White House an inner circle dominated by his family — until Donald Trump.
Judging by Trump’s business history and presidential campaign – which featured few, if any, intimates outside his family — his adult children will have a major hand in his administration’s decisions, despite their lack of experience in international and domestic affairs. After hiring and firing personnel and shaping strategy during the election campaign, Trump’s children have remained front and center in his transition team. His daughter, Ivanka, joined the president-elect’s tête-à-tête with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His son, Donald, Jr., played a role in picking Congressman Ryan Zinke to be Secretary of the Interior in the new administration.
Now, Trump is taking his dynasty to the White House. Ivanka is set to take over the First Lady’s office there. Her husband, the real-estate investor Jared Kushner, just might be suited, if only in the eyes of his father-in-law, to serve as a special envoy to broker peace in the Middle East. Yes, Donald, Jr. and his brother, Eric, will remain in New York to run the Trump Organization, which oversees their father’s diverse businesses; but Trump’s claim that his sons will remain at arm’s length strains credulity.
All of this has spurred questions about the Trump children’s capacity to leverage their father’s presidency to benefit the family business, with many fixating on whether Trump is violating conflict-of-interest or anti-nepotism rules. But Trump regards such questions as essentially moot.
That is not surprising. Trump’s management model has long been underpinned by a hereditary inner circle. His adult children have spent their lives being groomed and promoted, and have operated at the pinnacle of the Trump Organization for years. They now occupy three of the company’s board seats, with Trump occupying a fourth. Given their standing in the company, and their relationship with their father, their influence in his administration should not be in doubt.
The remaining top-level positions are filled by longtime family retainers who, on average, have 17 years on the job. Several have spent three decades at Trump’s elbow. Compared to public companies of comparable size, the Trump Organization’s dynastic C-Suite and the longevity of its consiglieri are striking. The lesson for any administration appointee should be clear: only loyalty comes close to heredity in winning and holding an executive role.
The record of the modern US presidency sheds little light on whether Trump’s family-driven leadership style will work. Yet Trump is unlikely to weigh the pros and cons of stacking his inner circle with family members, not least because of his own experience: ever since his father brought him into the family business, he has never worked anywhere else.
Moreover, Trump is far from the only corporate boss who prefers to keep leadership “all in the family.” A 2016 study by the Boston Consulting Group found that one-third of American companies with annual revenue of $1 billion or more are family-owned. Of those, 40 percent are family-run.
There is also plenty of precedent for family-based leadership in government, though not in developed democracies. From Kazakhstan to Congo, blood binds together ruling elites who share the spoils, guard against usurpers, and ensure that their children succeed them in power.
While it may seem far-fetched to compare the Trumps to, say, the Kims of North Korea — the world’s longest-running family dictatorship — plenty of similarities are likely to emerge. Some already have.
The first rule of family dictatorships is that loyalty matters above all else. Like the histrionic pledges of support required from North Korean commissars and generals for their leader Kim Jong-un, the Trump White House is likely to demand unswerving fealty to the clan.
That message has already been received loud and clear by incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Both have repeatedly affirmed their admiration for Kushner and vowed that he will be deeply involved in decisions, despite his utter lack of experience.
Second, tasks beat titles. Like Kim, who has ignored the pecking order of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea to give his sister and brother high-ranking positions, Trump is likely to entrust his offspring with key assignments. While nepotism laws will probably rule out official presidential appointments for Trump’s children and their spouses, that won’t matter much in practice; their de facto clout, as well as Trump’s own priorities, will quickly become apparent. Indeed, their influence in advancing Trump’s major goals could easily overwhelm that of cabinet-level appointees, who would be wise to accommodate them.
Third, there will be unexpected promotions and abrupt purges. In North Korea, all of this dictated from the top. In his reality television persona, Trump’s enthusiastic firings and occasional Cinderella-like promotions of low-level employees provide an obvious parallel. Under Trump, as under Kim, sputtering or failed policies are likely to have personnel consequences, though only those outside the family will face them.
Two weeks before the election, one of the Trump campaign’s top employees, Brad Parscale, suggested how a Trump White House would function. “My loyalty is to the family,” Parscale said. No one in Kim’s family could put it more succinctly.
• Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia, and the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs. ©Project Syndicate