• Politics
  • The D.C. Brief

Trumps, Bidens, and Thomases: It’s Time to Stop Pretending All Political Families Are Off Limits

8 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

The soprano Margaret Truman had the seats packed at Constitutional Hall for a 1950 concert with the National Symphony Orchestra. The applause that evening, as was the norm for the well-heeled crowd of Washington insiders, was enthusiastic. After all, her father was the incumbent President living just down the block, and anything less than a full-throated brava would have been impolite.

The Washington Post’s music critic didn’t get the memo. Writing the next day, Paul Hume was blunt: “She is flat a good deal of the time—more last night than at any time we have heard her in past years. There are few moments during her recital when one can relax and feel confident that she will make her goal, which is the end of the song. … Miss Truman has not improved in the years we have heard her.”

On White House stationery, President Harry Truman sent Hume a reply:. “Some day[,] I hope to meet you,” Truman wrote. “When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” He signed the iconic screed simply “H.S.T.”

Such has been the posture of a good number of Presidents, politicians, and Washington players for decades: come for the official but leave the family alone—even if they’re in the public arena themselves. But, just maybe, it’s time to finally bury the Washington myth that political figures’ kin are off-limits and acknowledge that the lines aren’t quite as simple as those in power would have us believe. A trio of developing stories in Washington might require politicians and the press to rethink the claims that critical coverage of a public figure’s family is the third rail of polite conversation.

First, there’s—as ever—the Trump family. Just yesterday, Jared Kushner met virtually with the committee investigating the failed insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, served all four years of that Administration as a top adviser in the West Wing and has become the highest-ranking insider to testify before the committee. The conversation lasted six hours. Separately, the Jan. 6 committee is working to secure an interview with Ivanka Trump, whom White House staff urged to intervene with her father that day to calm the rioters.

The panel has also subpoenaed Kimberly Guilfoyle, an aide on Trump’s 2020 campaign who is engaged to marry Donald Trump Jr. And it’s entirely probable the committee will eventually invite—if not summon—Don Jr. to explain his texts to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 6: “We need an Oval office address. He has to lead now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand.”

Then there’s the unfolding family drama involving Hunter Biden, who between his father’s election to the White House and Inauguration Day acknowledged he was under federal investigation. The feds are looking at a number of potential criminal and civil issues related to his lobbying work, financial dealings, and even a strange incident involving a gun. A laptop believed to be the first son’s is in FBI hands, although Republicans through Washington seem to have endless copies of it available for reporters to review. It’s tough to get through any hour of Fox News’ programming without a reminder about the “laptop from hell.” And Republicans, as they did during the 2020 campaign, have been relentless in asserting—without evidence—that Joe Biden himself made millions from Hunter Biden’s consulting and business-development work that made other Bidens a hefty sum.

Finally, let’s consider the marriage of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to conservative activist Ginni Thomas. Justice Thomas already has voted to block the Jan. 6 panel from accessing Trump documents about the riot, documents that many have speculated may include correspondence from his wife. Mrs. Thomas’ text messages to Meadows have shown her urging White House officials to keep Biden out of power and to “stop the steal.”

Ginni Thomas is one of D.C.’s fixers, a power player who has long been known to hold fringe views. For every message of encouragement she sent to Meadows to have patience for the MAGA movement to show up on Jan. 6 (“It takes time for the army who is gathering for his back”), there is a corresponding QAnon-esque claim in the trove of texts the Jan. 6 panel has in hand. “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition,” she wrote.

Now, Justice Thomas is facing pressure to recuse himself from Jan. 6 cases that will inevitably get to the high court. Democrats have been escalating their pressure on Thomas to pledge not to involve himself in the cases or to step down entirely. While a few Democratic lawmakers are suggesting impeaching the Justice—the only real teeth Congress has at the moment—most are urging for an investigation and the resurrection of a stalled good-government bill that includes a judicial-ethics component. Ultimately, though, the Justices police themselves, and absent Congress yanking Thomas from the bench, they can’t do much but make noise.

These three examples—on their own and as a whole—represent how Washington often responds to uncomfortable questions about those in power and their families. Trump aides have adopted their former boss’ line that the Jan. 6 probe is a “witch hunt” meant to embarrass the ex-President and his orbit, including his kids. The Biden campaign dismissed the whiff of scandal around Hunt, as his dad calls him, as “Russian disinfo.” And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week suggested the release of Mrs. Thomas’ texts were meant to “bully” Justice Thomas against rulings that may help the insurrectionists, or maybe pressure him into retirement.

But the reality is this: families are unfortunately part of the political game. They don’t run for office themselves but are part of the package. Everyone sings from the same hymnal during campaign season: political families are off-limits. Until they’re not.

John Quincy Adams’ intervention wasn’t enough to block his son’s expulsion from Harvard. Segregationists loathed Eleanor Roosevelt and Jimmy Roosevelt openly sold patronage jobs. The feds—and a young Sen. Joe Biden—rightly dogged Billy Carter’s dodgy financial entanglements. Nine-year-old Amy Carter’s first day of school became a media mob. Jenna and Barbara Bush and Sasha and Malia Obama all had their unfortunate and youthful moments of unwanted national attention.

And don’t forget the scrutiny paid to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, whose media treatment left her so weary that she once remarked as she read her coverage, “I wouldn’t like this person either.” The press was so brutal that Bill Clinton secured a replica of Truman’s letter to the Post’s critic for his own private office and once threatened The New York Times columnist William Safire with his own sucker-punch.

Washington now has to figure out how it wants to process this new trio of complicated cases—a First Family with West Wing phone extensions, a President’s wayward son, and a Justice’s activist wife—each with its own nuances. In the abstract, each provides a compelling moment for Democrats or Republicans to spike the political football and shout about a system rigged for the insider elites. In reality, to do that would risk retribution from the other side. Republicans have acknowledged that, if they capture the House in this fall’s midterm elections, they will use their majorities for unrelenting payback for Democrats’ actions now in how they handle the Trumps and Ginni Thomas. Democrats are already steaming at Republicans’ chatter about Hunter. That doesn’t suggest easy choices in the real world where many decisions are meant to preserve and expand political power. Ultimately, despite real conflicts and questions raised by each of these cases, D.C. may come down hard to return to the status quo of leaving political spouses and kids alone. After all, every single politician has a family relation they don’t want standing in for them as a proxy.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com