Donald Trump is reportedly looking for top-secret clearances for his children, a sign that rather than entering the Oval Office with an eye for avoiding conflicts of interest he’s preparing to rush headlong into a minefield of them.
The president-elect has begun asking how he could secure high level clearances for Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr., his three adult children with first wife Ivana, as well as for Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner, according to CNN and CBS. All four family members are members of his transition team, though Trump has said his children won’t serve formal roles in his administration but instead will run the family business while he runs the country.
“This is why we created the nepotism law in the first place. Huge conflicts of interest. You can’t have your kids being advisers. It has to be properly qualified officials who are experts in the fields,” Bradley Moss, a lawyer specializing in security-clearance law, told The Daily Beast. “It’s an issue of comfort for the President-elect because he’s relied on his children so much. But I don’t foresee a viable legal or ethical loophole or exception.”
It’s unclear exactly whether Trump’s request could even be fulfilled—at least legally. A 1967 law prohibits the president from hiring their immediate family members in the federal government, and to have a security clearance an individual must work the government in some capacity: as a civilian, as a military official or a contractor.
“Even if they came in as unpaid advisers, there’s no such thing as an informal government position that allows you to be sponsored for access” to classified information, Moss said. “There’s no exception. There’s no loopholes.”
And it would difficult to see how Trump could argue that his children have a “need to know” without a formal government role.
“This is not the family business, this is the presidency. The days of family nepotism is over, not just due to policy and practice but by law. Security clearances are not candies to be doled out like at Halloween. You must have a ‘need-to-know’ that is supposed to be taken seriously in advancing the business of the government rather than an individual,” said Mark Zaid, another national security lawyer.
But a former Obama administration official said Trump could simply be asking for them to be cleared so they can have unescorted access to parts of the West Wing. Even First Ladies have to be cleared to access that part of the White House, but that doesn’t mean they have access to top-secret areas like the Situation Room, the official said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the clearance process publicly. The level of clearance for people with unescorted access to visit the President in the West Wing is known as “Yankee White,” which could be what Trump is seeking.
CBS, however, reports that Trump wants his kids to be able to see top secret information, defined as information that could cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security” if released.
If the Trump children ran the Trump Organization while also serving as high-level, informal advisers, their suggested dual roles would invite an unprecedented conflict of interest.
“If President-elect Trump seeks a security clearance for his children, it will show he either has no understanding of the potential conflict of interest problems he faces or doesn’t care,” said Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. “If he seeks a security clearance for his children who are running the businesses, it will undermine the credibility of any claim that his children will not be involved in advising him on government policies. It raises the real danger that his children will be able to influence government decisions to benefit Trump businesses and run those businesses with inside knowledge of actions and policies the government take.”
During an interview with Trump and his family on 60 Minutes taped last week, Eric Trump said that the children would remain in New York to run their father’s business. “So we’ll— we’ll— we’ll be in New York and we’ll take care of the business,” the younger Trump said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fun doing it. And we’re going to make him very proud.”
Ivanka Trump also said that she would not be interested in a formal role in the upcoming administration. “I’m going to be a daughter,” she said when asked about a possible role. “But I’ve— I’ve said throughout the campaign that I am very passionate about certain issues. And that I want to fight for them.”
Interestingly enough, while the law prohibits nepotism, it doesn’t require the president to give up his or her business holdings while serving in the Oval Office.
Eric, Ivanka, and Donald Trump Jr. did not immediately respond to requests to comment for this story.
—Kimberly Dozier contributed reporting