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A common thread among many Trump press staffers: They’re related to other Trump staffers

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2020-06-23 Paul Farhi
a group of people looking at a laptop: Kayleigh McEnany, center, speaks at a press briefing last month as her new staffer — and cousin-in-law — Chad Gilmartin, right, listened. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Kayleigh McEnany, center, speaks at a press briefing last month as her new staffer — and cousin-in-law — Chad Gilmartin, right, listened.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany hired a familiar face last month to join her communications staff. Before she chose him to serve as her principal assistant press secretary, Chad Gilmartin had worked with McEnany on President Trump’s re-election campaign.

But the connections go even deeper: Gilmartin happens to be a cousin of Sean Gilmartin, who happens to be McEnany’s husband.

Landing a White House job is a highly competitive sport, and who manages to get those jobs has always been a subject of fascination. And in the Trump White House, being the relative of someone with a big administration job seems to be one crucial advantage. Family connections, through marriage or direct blood ties, turn up in several places among the people who are in charge of communicating the Trump administration’s agenda or who are involved in his re-election effort.

For example, Giovanna Coia, who was a member of the White House press staff until last month, is a cousin of White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway. Coia, who was promoted to deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison, recently married John Pence, vice president Mike Pence’s nephew. The younger Pence is a senior advisor to the Trump-Pence re-election campaign.

The public liaison office, which the White House describes as “the primary line of communication between the White House and the public,” also employs Andrew Giuliani, the son of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. The younger Giuliani earns $95,000 a year as a deputy director, according to White House personnel documents; his job is to coordinate visits to the White House by championship sports teams.

Laura Schlapp, a newly hired public affairs specialist at the Pentagon, is the niece of Mercedes Schlapp, the former White House director of strategic communications, and Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. Mercedes Schlapp left her White House position last June to become a senior advisor to Trump’s re-election campaign.

The White House press operation also includes a married couple that bridges the president’s inner sanctum and the vice president’s press office. Katie Miller, Pence’s press secretary, is married to Stephen Miller, a senior White House official and Trump’s top immigration adviser. The couple met while working for the administration; they were married at the Trump Hotel in Washington in February.

Trump’s most well-known family tie in the White House, of course, is to his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both of whom are part of his inner circle. Ivanka Trump’s official advisory portfolio includes women, families and economic development. Jared Kushner has had multiple roles, including serving as the head of a coronavirus response group, the chief architect of Trump’s stalled Middle East peace plan and as the construction manager of his southern border wall.

And of course Trump’s second press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is the daughter of one of his high-profile allies, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — though Sanders joined the 2016 Trump campaign shortly before her father endorsed him.

Hiring relatives to senior roles was a relatively common for presidents in the 19th century. Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower both appointed their sons to senior positions. John F. Kennedy named his brother, Robert, as attorney general, and his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to head the Peace Corps. In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed his wife, Hillary Clinton, to chair a task force on healthcare reform, drawing criticism from Republicans.

However, the practice generally declined thereafter, circumscribed by federal laws and judicial decisions. But in a legal opinion written in early 2017, the Justice Department concluded that the president has “special hiring authority” and a decades-old anti-nepotism statute didn’t apply to the White House itself. This interpretation gave Trump a greenlight to hire family members. A judge hasn’t ruled on the Justice Department opinion.

The White House press office declined to comment on its hiring practices.

As a legal matter, “there’s not enough evidence that any of these hirings violated federal anti-nepotism rules, [but] they do raise a larger question about merit,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government-watchdog group.

“If these people were hired based on their familial relations and not on their ability to do the jobs, that is going to leave the taxpayer represented by a government not qualified to best carry out its work,” he said. “There’s no better example of this than Jared Kushner, who seems to be doing half of the jobs in the White House and none of them well.”

Some conservatives raised an eyebrow during the Obama Administration over numerous instances in which journalists were married to, or close relatives of, prominent government figures. The overlapping relationships suggested at least the appearance of a conflict — the suspicion that journalists might pull their punches because of their personal relationships with officials they were covering.

“There are over 300 million Americans,” wrote the National Review in 2013, “but you’d never know it” from “the inbreeding among Obama’s court and the press corps.”

In this case, people close to the White House suggests there’s little downside to hiring from within, and there may even be some advantages to it.

“She [McEnany] wouldn’t have hired [Gilmartin] if she didn’t already know he could do the job,” said one official, who spoke anonymously because wasn’t she wasn’t authorized to comment. “She knew he could do it. And he can.”

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