Ethical Alarm Bells Raised Over Trump's "Shadow Cabinet" of Advisers
Ethics experts say reports of son-in-law Jared Kushner officially joining White House team show lack of accountability for officials who do not need congressional approval
President-elect Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner will be named a senior adviser in the administration, according to reports, an announcement that brought new scrutiny to the potential conflicts of interest among Trump's so-called "shadow" officials—who, unlike his cabinet nominees, do not have to go through a congressional confirmation process.
Kushner and other official and unofficial "advisers" like Trump's daughter Ivanka, billionaire investor Carl Icahn, and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski make up part of a team that has the president's ear and is expected to be instrumental in shaping future policies—but will take their places without being held to account for any potential ethics violations, as the Washington Post explained Sunday.
"With confirmation hearings set to start for Trump's cabinet, ethics experts are voicing alarm about several other confidants of the president-elect—dubbed the 'shadow cabinet' by one—who might not be subject to such scrutiny and could face a tangle of potential conflicts between their personal interests and those of the public," wrote the Post's John Wagner and Ylan Q. Mui.
The news comes just days after the New York Times reported that while Kushner has been aiding the transition team, he has also been pursuing a real estate deal with a Chinese financial firm with close ties to the state.
His dealings with the Anbang Insurance Group highlight "the ethical thicket he would have to navigate while advising his father-in-law on policy that could affect his bottom line," the Times reported.
Former White House ethics lawyers Norman Eisen and Richard Painter told the Post that some of the advisory positions Trump is considering fall into "very murky territory," and that "it poses an enormous risk to have a shadow cabinet." Eisen and Painter, who also penned an op-ed for the Guardian calling for all of Trump's cabinet hearings to be delayed, now sit on the board of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington watchdog group.
Icahn, for example, will serve in a role created specifically for him—special adviser for regulatory reform—assisting Trump in rolling back rules governing the energy sector. Though his position is unpaid, Icahn has stakes in the industry, and stands to benefit significantly from slashing regulations.
As Painter explained on Democracy Now! on Monday, the Trump team may be utilizing Icahn as an unpaid adviser to circumvent ethics rules for government employees.
"You can't just get around a criminal statute by saying, 'Well, he's not a government employee, because he doesn't want to get paid.' He'd rather go in there and influence government policy with respect to his billions of dollars' worth of assets. That doesn't get around the criminal conflict of interest statute," Painter said.
Meanwhile, daughter Ivanka has hinted that she would be interested in a White House policy advisory role, and has already sat in on meetings and calls with heads of state and other influential figures, despite not holding elected office. And Lewandowski "remains in regular touch with the president-elect and is expected to continue to do so when Trump enters the Oval Office," Wagner and Mui wrote Sunday.
It's a familiar scenario. Many in Trump's administration—including the president-elect himself—face wide-ranging conflicts of interest, and the head of the Office of Government Ethics warned on Saturday that several of his picks to lead federal agencies have not completed the ethics review process.
But his shadow officials are not even required to do so.