Trump's Unprecedented War on Ethics
The president and his Cabinet are heading for a train wreck of a magnitude unseen since Watergate.
The government watchdog organization we help lead called upon the White House last week to investigate whether one of its senior officials, Christopher Liddell, violated ethics laws through acting in his official capacity to benefit his personal investments. We wish this were an isolated incident. But on the contrary, it is only the latest element in an emerging pattern: President Trump and his administration are flagrantly violating ethics laws. Unless they correct course, the consequences will be disastrous — for the president, his team and the country.
The problem starts with tone deafness at the top. Trump’s hotels, golf courses and other enterprises continue to do business with foreign and domestic entities that have interests before the government he heads. This raises serious conflicts and legal concerns, including under the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits U.S. government officials from receiving foreign government payments or benefits “of any kind whatever.”
Recent grants of valuable trademarks by the Chinese government to the Trump Organization after his election are the latest emoluments controversy. These and other alleged violations of the emoluments clause are the subject of civil litigation brought by our group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
This unprecedented situation is exacerbated by the fact that we do not yet know the full extent of Trump’s conflicts. That is because he has failed to disclose his tax returns, as we were just reminded when two pages of his 2005 returns turned up. This omission has also resurfaced in the news in light of the ongoing investigation regarding possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian interference in the U.S. general election. Democrats in Congress, joined in some cases by Republican colleagues, are calling for the president to turn over his tax returns to shed light on his ties to Russia, among other relevant information. Congress cannot exercise its constitutional authority — indeed, its responsibility — as a coequal branch of government without this information. Trump’s failure so far to comply is more evidence of his disdain for ethics considerations.
Trump’s assault on ethics has also permeated his Cabinet. Many of his nominees have confronted ethics challenges of their own, including Betsy DeVos and Tom Price. The two ultimately made it through the nomination process, but others did not, among them Labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder and two Pentagon service secretaries. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, is the latest to bring ethics baggage with him.
And the confirmation process is the beginning, not the end, of ethics issues the Cabinet will confront. For example, will Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt be allowed to play both sides in the lawsuits he brought against the EPA in his previous post as Oklahoma attorney general?
The White House staff has been similarly compromised. Our complaint about Liddell is one of a series of staff-level concerns. The counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, openly flouted ethics rules by providing Ivanka Trump’s businesses with a “free commercial” on national television and got off scot-free. Even more troubling, in its defense of that outcome, the White House made the remarkable assertion, echoing the president, that many ethics rules do not necessarily apply to White House staff.
We couldn’t disagree more — and in the Bush and Obama White Houses, we worked to make sure those rules were followed. And it's not just we who feel that way; these positions of the Trump White House were also publicly condemned by the non-partisan U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
Another White House ethics controversy concerns Trump’s "special adviser" Carl Icahn. Icahn admitted that he has advocated for policy decisions that could be worth a great deal of money to him. Yet he and the White House claim he is not subject to ethics and other rules that regulate such situations. His title and responsibilities would seem to us to suggest otherwise. If he’s not a government employee, then his advocacy could make him an unregistered lobbyist. Indeed, a number of lobbyists have joined the administration, raising questions about violations of Trump's own "drain the swamp" pledge and Ethics Executive Order.
Ethics issues such as these have pervaded the Trump regime, and they show no signs of abating. As the case of Liddell suggests, they seem to be intensifying. That means that oversight authorities — Congress, the FBI and Department of Justice, regulators such as the Office of Government Ethics — must similarly intensify their efforts. There have been some encouraging signs of that, such as the bipartisan congressional call for the Office of Government Ethics to examine the “free commercial” controversy and the agency’s strong response.
Now with the allegations against Liddell, it is time for the White House counsel to step up and, if appropriate, for the FBI and Justice Department to do their parts as well. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York was reportedly looking at whether Price's stock trades as a congressman violated applicable laws. That office should ask similar questions about the legality of Icahn’s conduct.
CREW and others have asked the U.S. attorney's office to investigate Trump’s constitutional violations as well, and Congress is now weighing his Russia ties, with many members demanding to examine his taxes for relevant information. How long will the Republican Party protect the president unless he cleans up his act?
Trump could still head off this ethics train wreck. He could make a clean breast of the facts by releasing his tax returns and by answering questions about other issues instead of stonewalling, as the the White House has done on our Liddell inquiries. The president should also recommit to a strong ethics program by adding a respected, independent ethics counsel strictly to enforce the rules, including taking a fresh look at the emoluments issues. And he should pledge full cooperation with the congressional investigation of his campaign’s Russia ties.
Unless he takes these steps, or others like them, he and his administration are facing civil, criminal and congressional exposure of a magnitude our nation has not seen since Watergate.
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