There's a lot we still don't know about last June's secret meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian lawyers and lobbyists. Indeed, the news seems to have raised more questions than it answered. What did Donald Trump know about the meeting involving his son, his son-in-law and his campaign manager? Were there follow-up discussions? Did the meeting trigger the release of hacked emails a week later? Does all this amount to collusion, conspiracy or even treason?
We may have to wait a long time for answers to these and other questions. But there is one thing that seems clearer now than before: if the Trump administration comes to an abrupt end, it will almost certainly be because he has turned his political career into a family affair.
If the Trump administration comes to an abrupt end, it will almost certainly be because he has turned his political career into a family affair
Blending politics and family is in no way unprecedented in the White House. Edith Wilson served as a presidential proxy after her husband Woodrow was incapacitated by a stroke in 1919. Robert Kennedy served as his brother's attorney-general (a controversial choice at the time). And of course, Hillary Clinton oversaw health care reform in the first year of her husband's presidency.
Trump's use of family is different, though. Rather than having a single talented family member in a clearly defined role, Trump has placed his family at the centre of his campaign and now his administration. In official and unofficial roles, his sons Don and Eric, daughter Ivanka, and son-in-law Jared Kushner have become his closest advisers. And in a political career as compromised as Trump's has been, that spells real danger.
The Russia meeting made that clear. It wasn't just that Trump's top campaign people met with a Russian lawyer to try to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Two of the three campaign representatives were family members. And those dual positions create real problems for Trump as President.
It's one thing to believe that Trump might not have known what campaign manager Paul Manafort was up to. It's quite another to believe that his son and son-in-law kept the meeting from him.
First, it makes plausible deniability less, well, plausible. It's one thing to believe that Trump might not have known what campaign manager Paul Manafort was up to. It's quite another to believe that his son and son-in-law kept the meeting from him.
Second, it makes the problem far more difficult to solve. As news broke about the Russia meeting, Don jnr lied repeatedly. He first said he had never set up a meeting with Russians, certainly none as a representative of the campaign. Then he admitted that he had met with a Russian lawyer, but the meeting was about international adoption. And then he admitted that, okay, the meeting was actually about Hillary Clinton, but that he had no idea who he was meeting with. Then he released the emails which disproved that as well.
Any president with an ounce of sense would put as much distance between himself and the lying campaign operative as humanly possible. But Trump can't do that, because the person in question is his son.
At this point, any president with an ounce of sense would put as much distance between himself and the lying campaign operative as humanly possible. But Trump can't do that, because the person in question is his son.
This is a problem that is only going to get worse over time. Don jnr and Jared Kushner will face questions from Robert Mueller, the laser-focused special counsel looking into all aspects of the campaign's connections with Russia. Trump has already floated the idea of firing Mueller (something he would have to force the attorney-general to do, as authority to appoint or remove special counsel rests in the Justice Department). Doing so would almost certainly spark new investigations or even impeachment hearings.
Nor is the Russia investigation the only area where Trump's family puts him at a disadvantage. Trump has put his vast corporate holdings into the hands of his two sons. Ostensibly he did this to avoid illegal conflicts of interest – presidents cannot profit from their position while in office. But by putting the corporation in the hands of his sons rather than a blind trust, Trump has ensured that when his businesses do inevitably profit from the presidency, his sons will be right smack in the middle of any investigations that result.
If the choice is between what's best for his family and what's best for his country, Trump will choose his family every time.
And investigations almost certainly will result, because the Trump family lacks both the knowledge and integrity necessary to avoid violating laws related to political activity. With neither experience nor a strong internal sense of right and wrong, they have made – and will continue to make – decisions that put the administration in legal and political jeopardy.
Add to that sheer incompetence: Trump has given Kushner a broad portfolio, ranging from the opioid epidemic to diplomacy with China to reforming the government to negotiating peace in the Middle East. Kushner, a newspaper publisher and real estate investor with no political experience, has no shot at succeeding at any of these projects. But what's Trump going to do, fire him? That would make for an awkward Thanksgiving.
For Donald Trump, this is a genuine crisis for his presidency. Because if the choice is between what's best for his family and what's best for his country, he'll choose his family every time. We don't yet know whether his priorities will result in crimes and cover-ups or just ineffective government. But it's now clear that they won't result in a successful presidency.