WHEN asked to bend an anti-nepotism law so that President Donald Trump could put his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka in the White House, the Department of Justice produced a sinuous argument. Trouncing decades of legal precedent, it ruled that the law did not apply to White House staff. It also reasoned that, as Mr Trump would consult his relatives in any case, it made sense to make them official advisers because then they would come under conflict-of-interest laws.

Despite some huffing from ethics wonks, this drew little criticism. Nepotism was not the biggest worry about Mr Trump’s looming presidency. Indeed Mr Kushner and his wife were considered a virtuous influence on him. Mr Trump’s campaign had mostly been run by oddballs and third-raters—like Sam Nunberg, who went on a cable-television news rampage this week after he was subpoenaed by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trump World. “Javanka”, by contrast, were handsome celebrities with metropolitan views and, in Mr Kushner’s case, an eerie sense of self-possession that hinted at brilliance, or moral purpose, or both. Traditional Republicans and foreign diplomats vied for his mobile-phone number, even as they smirked at his hubris in taking on huge responsibilities: relations with China and Mexico, overhauling government IT and more. Some even speculated that Mr Kushner, an orthodox Jew and family friend of Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, might bring peace to the Middle East. He had got Mr Trump elected, after all.

A year on, the talk in Washington is of a new gilded age, with Mr Kushner as a kind of Jay Gould with better suits. Ever since he and his wife entered the White House they have treated the government rulebook as something for the little people to worry about. Like Mr Trump, they retained large business interests, which they have allegedly used their political careers to advance. Ms Trump parades her jewellery and fashion lines at official functions, a ploy that was rewarded when China granted her company three trademarks on the day its leader dined with her at Mar-a-Lago. Shortly before and after Mr Trump’s election, Mr Kushner allegedly pressed foreign investors, from Qatar and elsewhere, to bail out a heavily mortgaged skyscraper in his family’s property portfolio at 666 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan.

He was unsuccessful, and he did take steps before entering the White House to dissociate himself from Kushner Companies. But he has prompted further suspicion by being so unforthcoming about his financial assets that he has had to make 39 revisions to his disclosures. He has also amended his responses to a national-security questionnaire, adding the names of over 100 foreign contacts, including a Russian banker who claimed to have discussed business opportunities with him (the administration said they discussed diplomatic relations). Because of these omissions, Mr Kushner, the administration’s occasional secretary of state, has been denied access to sensitive intelligence and in any recent administration would have been fired. Yet all this looks trifling compared with the indiscretions he now stands accused of.

According to the New York Times Mr Kushner held meetings in the White House with the bosses of a bank and a private-equity firm, Citigroup and Apollo Global Management, around the same time as they were providing his family business with over half a billion dollars in loans. Both firms were also lobbying the government on policy matters. Citigroup wanted an easing of financial regulation. Apollo stood to benefit from an emerging tax bill and infrastructure plan. Mr Kushner allegedly discussed giving one of Apollo’s bosses, Joshua Harris, a White House post. Mr Kushner says he has not advanced his business interests in office, which would be a crime. Yet his behaviour has created an appearance of conflict, which was hitherto a sackable offence, and has not escaped the notice of foreign spies. According to the Washington Post, American spooks are aware of officials in at least four countries, the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, airing schemes to take advantage of Mr Kushner’s complicated financial affairs. Mr Mueller is also interested in the issue. According to press reports, he is looking at whether the business interests of the president’s son-in-law, in particular his efforts to keep 666 Fifth Avenue afloat, influenced American policy.

Mueller’s mulling it

Mr Kushner is in trouble enough without having the special counsel to worry about. The erstwhile Trump-whisperer is reviled by the media, increasingly ignored by Republican power-brokers and, it is said, mocked by the president, who feeds on weakness. Even before the latest allegations, Mr Kushner had little to show for a year with the federal government at his beck. He does not seem to have moderated Mr Trump much. Partly as a result, he has made little headway with his pet projects. His Middle East peace bid never did stand much chance in the face of Israeli and Palestinian obduracy. Nor has Mr Kushner thrived personally. He has displayed a businessman’s exaggerated disdain for government, meddled naively in court politics and expressed few firm or original views. His self-possession now seems anchored more in a feeling of entitlement than steadfastness.

His appointment was not worth bending the law for. Indeed, it has shown how fragile are the guardrails that separate America from the sorts of nepotistic, corrupt regimes Mr Kushner formerly tried to do business with. There is a complacent view on that, too. Some insist that America’s institutions are robust enough to protect it. But that ignores the fact that the prerequisite of any democratic institution is public trust, which was in dwindling reserve before Mr Trump’s election, and has suffered further damage in the chaos of his administration. Almost half of Americans believe “corruption is pervasive in the White House”. That, not Middle East peace or modernised government, is shaping up to be Mr Kushner’s legacy.