"The election of Donald Trump as president exposed numerous shortcomings and outright chasms in the ethics laws that govern the executive branch of the U.S. government," declares a new report from a pair of watchdog groups that argue much can be done to close loopholes the president has exploited since taking office.
"If Congress does not address these problems and fix this inherently broken system, then Trump won't be the exception—he'll likely be the start of a new trend."
—Noah Bookbinder, CREW
The good news, as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) executive director Noah Bookbinder put it, is that "this administration's catastrophic ethical failings have provided a clear road map of the gaps in our system of presidential ethics which must be filled."
Published Tuesday by CREW and Public Citizen, Trump-Proofing the Presidency (pdf) calls for a "deep scrub" of existing executive branch ethics policies to fix "both longstanding, nettlesome problems" and "flaws that Trump has revealed."
This President has been kind enough to show us many of the gaps in the ethics rules and laws governing the presidency. @CREWcrew & @Public_Citizen highlight these huge problems & the reforms that are needed to prevent the current crisis from repeating. https://t.co/D66NrKecHC
— Noah Bookbinder (@NoahBookbinder) October 2, 2018
Both groups have chronicled and challenged Trump's conflicts and violations throughout his presidency. Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen, noted that "no president has pushed the ethical boundaries like Trump."
"Many of the unprecedented ethical problems we see with this administration," Bookbinder explained, "stem from President Trump's failure to divest from his businesses."
The report's forward-looking proposals, which largely rely on congressional action, have four overarching goals:
- Preventing conflicts of interest;
- Improving financial disclosure of candidates and office holders;
- Enhancing rules on gifts to candidates and public officials; and
- Strengthening the integrity of government.
Specific suggestions include requiring top officials to sell assets that pose a corruption risk, eliminating loopholes for financial disclosures, mandating candidates and office holders release their tax returns, safeguarding key posts from nepotism, and making White House visitor logs public.
The report also recommends revisions to policies that apply to special government employees such as billionaire Carl Icahn—who served as a "special adviser to the president on overhauling federal regulations"—and those governing White House contact with the Justice Department, which Trump has repeatedly sought to stymie and strongarm to suit his needs.
"Trump has shown utter disregard for the norms of avoiding conflicts of interest as a check on government corruption. The only silver lining is that because of Trump, we now know how to strengthen the system."
—Lisa Gilbert, Public Citizen
"One overarching lesson from President Trump's assault on the ethics system is that many parts of that system have worked in the past because presidents wanted to avoid corruption risks; the system was designed to help them do that," the report says. Trump's presidency, it charges, has shown "it is risky to design a system that relies too heavily on this impulse from an executive."
Previous analyses published by Public Citizen this year have outlined how Trump's campaign has spent millions enriching the president's business empire—from which he's refused to divest, despite public outcry—and how dozens of political candidates, foreign governments, and interest groups have frequented Trump properties since his inauguration in hopes of influencing the president.
"Trump has shown utter disregard for the norms of avoiding conflicts of interest as a check on government corruption," Gilbert concluded. "The only silver lining is that because of Trump, we now know how to strengthen the system against future presidents who lack an ethical compass."
However, Bookbinder warned, "if Congress does not address these problems and fix this inherently broken system, then Trump won't be the exception—he'll likely be the start of a new trend."