The prominent role Donald Trump’s adult children played in his campaign and in the formation of his policies and governing team has raised many eyebrows and not a little ire. Recent actions suggest they’ll continue to act the same way, drawing the same criticism.
Shortly before Christmas, the president-elect’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, were tied to a day-after-the-inauguration fund-raising event that was announced by the Opening Day Foundation. The new charity promised presidential access for donors of $500,000 to $1 million dollars—a astronomical sum even for a Washington fund-raiser. President-elect Trump said he had no plans to participate, and his sons, who were listed as directors on Opening Day Foundation’s registration documents, quickly distanced themselves. Likewise, an on-line charitable auction for a 45-minute “coffee date” with Ivanka Trump was cancelled after ethics questions were raised. The high bidder had offered $72,888—money lost to the beneficiary – the Eric Trump Foundation. (Both Eric and his father subsequently announced plans to shutter their charitable foundations.)
Franklin Roosevelt would sympathize.
At the time he was elected president in November 1932, FDR’s oldest children, Anna, James and Elliott, were in their early 20s. Two younger sons, Franklin, Jr., and John, were still in school. James and Elliott had long served in supporting roles, quite literally, as their father’s assistants whenever he needed to appear to be able to walk. The polio-paralyzed Roosevelt would use a cane with his right hand and hold onto the arm of one of the boys with his left as he swung his braced legs from the shoulders down. It was a taxing ordeal for both FDR and his assistant.
Anna Roosevelt, who was, like Ivanka Trump, her father’s favorite child, had also traveled on the campaign trains that fall, falling in love with her future husband, John Boettiger. Unfortunately, they were both married to others. Anna’s divorce would add to the siblings’ unhappy domestic history: the five children eventually numbered nineteen marriages among them.
The first to divorce was Elliott, who abandoned his wife and infant son four days after the 1933 inauguration and headed to Texas, where he began a long career of using his name and connections to enrich himself, sometimes with FDR’s tacit assistance. Both Elliott and Anna and her eventual husband John worked for media mogul William Randolph Hearst at greatly inflated salaries. James, too, was paid handsomely for jobs for which he had no qualifications by employers hoping for political access. He groused, “Well, when you were FDR’s son and in business, you couldn’t totally avoid all political conflicts.”
Trump announced at a January 11 press conference that he is turning over operation of his business to his sons, who will not be involved in his administration. However, he has named Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, to a senior advisory role at the White House. This is tricky because of the 1967 Federal Anti-Nepotism Statute that was designed to prevent adding family members to federal payrolls. Even if Kushner is allowed to serve, Trump might want to look at the experience FDR had.
James was the only one of the Roosevelt children to take a paid position with the government, joining the four-member White House secretariat that ran the West Wing in 1937. He succeeded Louis Howe, his father’s long-time political strategist, who had died the year before. Working with press secretary Steve Early, appointments secretary Marvin McIntyre and private secretary Missy LeHand—who functioned as chief of staff—James served as a liaison between the president and the New Deal bureaucracy chiefs.
He proved a poor replacement for Howe as well as a lightning rod for charges—some justified—that he used his influence to line his pockets. William O. Douglas, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, offered his resignation to FDR over what he considered a clear case of influence peddling by his son. He recalled that the president “put his head on his arm and cried like a child for several minutes,” finally sighing, “Jimmy! What a problem he is. Thanks for telling me. Now get back to your desk. Of course you’re not resigning.”
James flatly denied there was any truth to the story—arguing he had never seen his father cry once in his life—but he couldn’t withstand the constant criticism. He developed severe stomach problems, checked into the Mayo Clinic in the summer of 1938, and resigned to take a cushy job with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. He also divorced his first wife and married a nurse he met at the clinic.
FDR used lawyer Tommy Corcoran, who was his White House lobbyist, as a “fixer” for his children’s legal troubles. A true believer in FDR and his New Deal, Corcoran justified his family scandal cover-ups by saying, “Empire must go on.” Corcoran eventually became so tainted by his shady dealings that he lost his effectiveness as a lobbyist in Congress. Instead, he went into private practice in Washington and became a multi-millionaire as the first lawyer-lobbyist in the capital.
The children redeemed themselves somewhat during World War II, all four sons serving with distinction—particularly Elliott—and Anna taking an unpaid position as White House assistant to her father. She filled some of the roles of Missy LeHand, who had retired following a devastating stroke in 1941. Among other things, she colluded with the staff in sneaking her father’s old love and mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, into the White House for visits when her mother was away.
Perhaps the apple didn’t fall from the tree.
FDR once said, “One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a president. It’s a terrible life they lead.” The Trump children—and their father—might like to open their history books and learn something from the mistakes of that earlier First Family.
Kathryn Smith is the author of The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR and the Untold Story of the Partnership that Defined a Presidency (Touchstone).