The Department of Justice released a handful of memos that declared that presidents appointing relatives to positions in the administration was illegal. And while those rules have existed for about 50 years, they were overturned by a Justice Department official in January when President Trump entered the Oval Office.
The memos were made during the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations. They declared that under an anti-nepotism law passed in 1967, presidents could not appoint members of their family to positions in the White House. The law was originally approved as a response to President Kennedy making his brother Robert his Attorney General.
A 1977 memo from the assistant Attorney General told Jimmy Carter that his wife could not be appointed as the head of a commission on mental health because it would violate the rule. They also said that Carter's sons could not work for White House staff members due to the law as well. Later in 1983 President Reagan was told not to appoint a member of his family to an advisory panel on volunteer efforts in the private sector.
Then in 2009, President Obama was told he could not appoint two of his family members to White House commissions. He was told not to appoint his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, a commission on White House fellowships nor his brother-in-law Craig Robinson to a commission on physical fitness.
This January Justice Department attorney Daniel Koffsky wrote a memo overruling these previous memos stating that the president could appoint members of their family the positions in the White House. The Trump administration made the request before taking office, and Koffsky cited a 1978 law that gave the president broad authority to appoint people to positions as justification.
"We believe that the President's special hiring authority [in the 1978 law] permits him to make appointments to the White House Office that the anti-nepotism statute might otherwise forbid," Koffsky wrote.
Several ethics experts criticized Koffsky's decision and said it would inevitably cause conflicts-of-interest.
It should also be noted that most of the appointments previous presidents made for family members were for largely ceremonial positions with little to no actual authority or power. Meanwhile, President Trump has appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to a senior advisor position in the White House and is considered one of the most powerful figures in the administration. And his daughter Ivanka Trump is also acting in an advisory role to White House.
But the Trump administration flouting the law and ignoring long established rules should come as a surprise to no one.