On Monday, CBS News reported that President-elect Donald Trump was ready to seek high-level security clearances for his children. Its headline read: “Trump team seeks top-secret security clearances for Trump’s children.”
Several other outlets quickly followed suit:
- CNN: “Source: Trump is considering getting children permission for security clearance”
- Yahoo! News: “Trump Wants His Kids To Have Top Secret Security Clearances”
- The New York Post: “Trump wants his kids to have top security clearance”
Several journalists and pundits doubled down, including MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow:
Per @MitchellReports, NBC News confirms Trump has asked abt security clearances for his kids. After inaugural, he could clear them himself.
— Rachel Maddow MSNBC (@maddow) November 14, 2016
1. A bunch of media outlets were leaked the fact that Trump was asking for security clearances for his kids https://t.co/OvUW7DWppb
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 15, 2016
— The Hill (@thehill) November 14, 2016
But then the Trump transition team pushed back. While Kellyanne Conwayadmitted on NBC’s “The Today Show” that the question may have been posed informally, no official requests had been made. Another transition team official gave a more definitive response:
“That’s not something I’m expecting right now.”
None of Trump’s children have submitted the required forms (security questionnaire SF-86), and Ivanka even told Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes” that she had no intention of taking on any role at the White House other than “daughter.”
Suddenly, the headlines began to change:
- ABC News: “Trump Team Denies Security Clearances Sought for Kids”
- The Daily Mail: “Trump team DENIES he asked for top-secret clearances for his kids as key adviser says someone leaked ‘informal’ question ‘to embarrass or stir up trouble’”
- Yahoo News: “Trump Team Denies Security Clearances Sought for Kids”
- Politico: Official: “Trump’s children have not sought security clearances”
Then Senior Correspondent Tim Mak of The Daily Beast pointed out that nepotism laws prevent the president from hiring members of his immediate family:
— Tim Mak (@timkmak) November 15, 2016
But Elise Viebeck and Lisa Rein, both at The Washington Post, cleared up the situation nicely, beginning with the Trump transition team:
To put it simply, Trump has a lot of flexibility when it comes to staffing his transition. He has less flexibility when it comes to staffing his administration, though ethics experts said it will not be hard for him to bend rules.
To start, let’s look at Friday’s announcement that Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump, as well as Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, will serve on the transition’s executive committee.
This is perfectly legal, though experts said they could not recall a precedent in modern presidential history. (The closest example is Hillary Clinton’s heavy involvement in her husband’s presidential transition after the 1992 election, though according to press reports at the time, she did not hold a formal position as Trump’s children do.)
This is legal because transition teams are not federal agencies. Though they operate with some federal support — office space and millions of dollars from the General Services Administration — they are set up as nonprofit organizations and must abide by those rules.
When it comes to involving his children in his actual administration, Vieback and Rein note that there are still a few end-runs around the nepotism laws that Trump could try:
- Trump could arguably hire or nominate relatives if those relatives decline a salary.
- Trump could pressure the Office of Personnel Management to issue regulations allowing the employment of prohibited individuals due to “unforeseen events or circumstances.”
- Trump could hire people in his circle of relatives who are not defined as relatives under the statute. (Ex-wives, for example)
- Trump could use his influence to get prohibited individuals hired by other branches of government.
As members of the transition team, his children have no need for security clearances. If he attempts to utilize loopholes to place his children within his administration in any capacity, however, they would be subject to the same scrutiny as any other federal employee.