Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner tests legal path to White House job

US President-elect Donald Trump embracing his son-in-law Jared Kushner (right), after his acceptance speech at the New York Hilton Midtown in the early morning hours of Nov 9, 2016.
US President-elect Donald Trump embracing his son-in-law Jared Kushner (right), after his acceptance speech at the New York Hilton Midtown in the early morning hours of Nov 9, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTimes) - Mr Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President-elect Donald Trump, has spoken to a lawyer about the possibility of joining the new administration, a move that could violate federal anti-nepotism law and risk legal challenges and political backlash.

Mr Kushner, 35, the husband of Mr Trump's eldest daughter Ivanka, and an influential adviser to his father-in-law during the presidential campaign, had been planning to return to his private businesses after Election Day. But on the morning after Mr Trump won, Mr Kushner began discussing taking a role in the White House, according to two people briefed on the conversations who requested anonymity to describe Mr Kushner's thinking.

Mr Trump is urging his son-in-law to join him in the White House, according to one of the people briefed. The president-elect's sentiment is shared by Mr Stephen Bannon, chief strategist for the White House, and Mr Reince Priebus, who was named chief of staff.

Mr Kushner accompanied Mr Trump to the White House on Thursday (Nov 10), when the president-elect held his first in-person meeting with President Barack Obama.

Mr Kushner may be as influential, if not as well known, in Manhattan as his father-in-law. He is a real estate mogul in his own right who, like Mr Trump, runs a company founded by his father. His influence extends to the news media: He owns The New York Observer. And his family's wealth rivals that of the Trump clan, which he joined in 2009 when he married Ivanka.

KEY FIGURE INVOLVED IN TRANSITION

Mr Kushner has already figured prominently in the tumultuous start to the transition. He was involved in the effort to oust Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who as a federal prosecutor jailed Mr Kushner's father, Charles B. Kushner, more than a decade ago.

Trump officials have systematically fired those Mr Christie had selected for the effort. Transition officials have rejected claims that Mr Kushner was involved in a payback effort and pointed to Mr Christie's troubles after two aides were convicted in the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal in New Jersey. They also suggested that the preliminary transition work had been subpar.

Mr Trump's desire to add Mr Kushner to his administration gives weight to speculation that he intends to run the White House the way he runs his businesses, relying heavily on his children and delegating essential duties to them.

And it adds another element of unpredictability to an unconventional handover of power, although there were signs that Trump's transition operation was edging toward normalcy after its chaotic first week. Mr Trump sat down with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, his first in-person session with a world leader since winning the White House.

A clearer picture also emerged of the figures who have Mr Trump's ear. Among them are Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a retired intelligence officer who a top transition team official said was Mr Trump's choice for national security adviser, and Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is under consideration to be attorney general or secretary of state.

On Capitol Hill, Vice President-elect Mike Pence told House Republicans to "buckle up" in anticipation of a packed legislative session.

Mr Trump's aides held their first scheduled daily conference call with reporters while transition officials whose work had been stalled by shake-ups in Trump Tower began work with their Obama administration counterparts on a handover.

The prospect that Mr Kushner might end up in the West Wing remained a concern to some people close to the president-elect, who said he would instantly become a target for media and legal attacks if he took the unorthodox step.

SOUGHT LEGAL ADVICE ON FEDERAL STATUTE

Mr Kushner has consulted with at least one lawyer and believes that by forgoing a salary and putting his investment fund, his real estate holdings and his newspaper, The New York Observer, into a blind trust, he would not be bound by federal nepotism rules, according to one of the people briefed.

Ethics lawyers in both parties said such an arrangement would violate a federal statute designed to prevent family ties from influencing the functioning of the US government. Under a 1967 law enacted after Mr John F. Kennedy installed his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, no public official can hire a family member - including one related by marriage - to an agency or office over which he has authority.

A separate statute also makes it a crime, punishable by a fine and up to two years of prison time, for government employees to accept voluntary services that are not authorised by law, except in emergency situations.

The anti-nepotism law "would seem to block out Kushner flatly," said Mr Norman L. Eisen, who served as Mr Obama's ethics counsel during his transition and at the White House.

If Mr Trump were to attempt to skirt it by having Kushner advise him in a volunteer capacity, he added, he "would be treading upon very serious statutory and constitutional grounds."

"When push comes to shove, on the very hardest calls that confront a president, you want the president's adviser to remember that their oath or affirmation to the Constitution comes first, before family ties," Mr Eisen said. "You need to be able to say no. You need to be able to hold the line. You need to be able to threaten to resign, and you need to be able to actually resign. You can't resign from being somebody's son-in-law."

Mr Richard W. Painter, an ethics counsel to Mr George W. Bush, said he remembered having to inform a senior official serving Mr Bush that he was legally barred from granting a White House internship to his son.

Mr Painter based his decision on a reading of the anti-nepotism law by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel during Mr Jimmy Carter's administration, which barred the president from doing so for his own child.

"I told him: 'Jimmy Carter couldn't do it. If the president of the United States couldn't do it, I can't do it for your kid,'" Mr Painter recalled.