- The White House senior adviser Jared Kushner is under fire for a pair of loans his family business received last year.
- Kushner Companies received the loans after Kushner met with the creditors at the White House.
- Ethics experts say Kushner could now find himself in hot water.
- Richard Painter, the top ethics official in President George W. Bush’s administration, told Business Insider that the episode showed “very, very bad judgment” of Kushner.
The White House senior adviser Jared Kushner is under fire again, this time for a pair of loans his family business received shortly after Kushner met the creditors in the White House – and ethics experts say he could be in legal jeopardy as a result.
Experts also ridiculed the idea that the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, would be able to effectively investigate whether the loans were improper, and they suggested the ordeal could even come under the microscope of Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation.
“The notion that the counsel to the president has his staff investigating the son-in-law of the president is implausible to the point of being silly,” Walter Shaub, the head of the Office of Government Ethics under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, told Business Insider. “There’s no way OGE’s acting director is naive enough to believe they’re seriously looking into the matter.”
Shaub, who resigned last summer, mentioned past instances involving McGahn and several administration figures, including Sally Yates, the former deputy attorney general; Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser; Jeff Sessions, the attorney general; and Kellyanne Conway, a White House counselor.
“This is the same counsel to the president who asked Sally Yates why she cared if Michael Flynn lied, who tried unsuccessfully to get Jeff Sessions to commit a crime by participating in the Russia investigation, and whose team rejected findings by two federal agencies that Kellyanne Conway violated ethics requirements,” he said.
A pair of loans come under question
The loan controversy gained new traction after that acting head of the OGE, David Apol, told Democratic lawmakers on Monday that the White House counsel was investigating whether the loans, which totaled more than $US500 million to Kushner Companies, ran afoul of ethics laws or regulations.
“I have discussed this matter with the White House Counsel’s Office in order to ensure that they have begun the process of ascertaining the facts necessary to determine whether any law or regulation has been violated,” Apol said in a letter, adding that the White House informed him it had already begun that process.
News of the loans broke in February when The New York Times reported that Citigroup lent Kushner Companies and a partner $US325 million early last year, shortly after the bank’s CEO, Michael Corbat, met Kushner in the White House.
And Joshua Harris, the founder of Apollo Global Management, a group advising the administration on infrastructure policy, held several meetings with Kushner before the company lent $US184 million to Kushner’s family business last year.
Kushner, who is married to the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, resigned from his family business last year and sold his stake in a family trust in an effort to clear up any conflicts of interest before joining the White House.
But during Tuesday’s press briefing, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, pushed back on what Apol told Democrats, saying McGahn was not investigating the loans.
“The White House indicated to OGE that we are aware of news reports and would proceed as appropriate,” she said.
Regardless of whether the internal investigation took place, ethics experts said the White House’s record on ethics meant it was likely that nothing would come of one anyway.
“The White House’s track record in enforcing ethics laws has been terrible,” Larry Noble, the senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, told Business Insider. “And regardless of what they conclude, at the very least there is an appearance that the loans may have an effect on White House decisions.”
How Kushner could find himself in hot water
Kushner could be in legal jeopardy in two ways, experts said.
He could be found to have violated bribery statutes, though that would be difficult to prove, as a clear quid pro quo arrangement is needed in such a case – for example, if Kushner were to help eliminate a regulation Citigroup wanted killed in exchange for the loan.
The other relevant statute involves financial conflicts of interest. Kushner would have had to use his official position to do something that directly affected him or his business, said Richard Painter, the top ethics official in President George W. Bush’s administration.
“But you would have to pinpoint a particular official action that had an effect one way or another on a business that he owned,” Painter, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, told Business Insider.
He added that regardless of whether legal statutes were violated, Kushner shouldn’t have met with the banks.
“Obviously, if he meets with these big banks and they’re giving his family money, it’s very, very bad judgment, because it certainly creates the appearance there may be a quid pro quo,” he said.
“Certainly, it looks terrible. I never would have allowed it if I were the ethics lawyer in the White House.”
Would Mueller take a look?
Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Business Insider that it would be best for the Department of Justice – not the White House counsel – to look into the loans.
Mueller is said to have looked into some of Trump’s and his associates’ business dealings as a part of the Russia investigation – something Libowitz cited as evidence that the loans could be of interest to Mueller and his investigators.
“We know that he’s looked into a number of business transactions involving the president and his family’s businesses,” he said. “We have no idea whether he’s looked at this or not, but it’s certainly a possibility.”
Complicating matters is Kushner’s place in Trump’s family, Libowitz said. If wrongdoing were found, how would the president react?
“This is the risk with giving someone that close to the president positions in the White House,” Libowitz said. “You have to wonder what kinds of ties are most valued to the president.”