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Draining the Ethics Swamp in the White House

It’s been seven months since Donald Trump began his presidency and its seems just about every ethics rule has been broken, or at least so bent out of shape that what’s right is masked by relationships with others that raise legitimate questions about whether the White House cares about ethics or finds it an inconvenient barrier to making decisions that foster one’s self-interests.

The resignation of Walter Shaub on July 6 as the Director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics best illustrates Trump’s disdain for ethics rules. For Shaub to have resigned you can bet he reached his limit of standing silently by as actions were taken by the White House to grant ethics waivers, conflicts of interest for top government officials, and where some in government were using their positions to capitalize on new found fame.

One of Shaub’s concerns was the Trump’s failure to fully divest from his business interests before taking office and placing his assets into a blind trust, a move Trump subsequently did not make. He instead opted to put his businesses under the control of his two sons, Eric and Donald Jr., and a senior Trump Organization executive. Shaub criticized the plan, saying it “doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met.” In other words, these moves fail the ethics ‘smell’ test.

Conflicts of interest are not new in government. What is new is Trump’s failure to recognize why such conflicts pose a threat to the legitimacy of his government. Most presidents have erred on the side of caution by avoiding even the appearance that they might be exploiting their office for personal gain.

Trump’s situation is new. We’ve never had a President so influenced by his business ties that ethics concerns rise to the top of issues that question the legitimacy of the relationship between his interests before becoming President and responsibilities as President. There needs to be a clear line drawn in the sand and separation between the two, yet Trump seems oblivious to the appearance of any conflicts of interest in making such decisions.

Here are just a few examples of conflicts that give me cause for concern.

  • Trump has doubled the membership fees to join his club at Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach to $200,000.

  • Diplomats like to stay at the Trump International Hotel near the White House where parties are routinely thrown. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit that the President is violating a clause in the U.S. Constitution barring him from accepting payments from foreign governments without Congresses’ consent.

  • Since his election, Trump has been granted preliminary approval for 38 trademarks in China for hotels and golf clubs and other businesses.

  • Ivanka Trump has received preliminary approval for five trademarks in China. The trademarks grant her monopoly rights to use her name for jewelry, bags and spa services.

  • While top adviser, Jared Kushner, sold his interest in Trump’s flagship skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City, he still holds a financial interest in hundreds of entities. It is unclear who the lenders and parties in many of these entities are and who might benefit from policies that Kushner could affect now. CREW filed a complaint declaring that Kushner had conflicts of interest between his stake in the Trump real estate company and his role at the White House.

Another cause for concern is the growing number of exemptions from ethics requirements for government officials. Last week the White House was asked to explain who qualifies for an exemption from the ethics pledge Trump required of all his appointees. Trump’s order prohibits his appointees, upon leaving government, from working for any foreign government or political party that would require registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Additionally, appointees entering government must pledge to refrain from participating in any matters substantially related to their former employer or clients, “including regulations and contracts,” for two years from the date of their appointment. These are basic measures to protect against any conflict of interests for top officials that might make it seem their judgment is clouded by these ties.

Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, and special counsel Michael Cantanzaro are two officials who received waivers. While not all the officials who have been granted waivers from the ethics rules are at the top of the food chain, the practice of granting waivers for any reason flies in the face of the transparency needed to have ethics rules that are applied equally and without exception. The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for such waivers since April and considers Trump’s overall ethics pledge “paper thin.”

We’ve seen enough the past seven months to know that the ethics quagmire that is the White House is only likely to deepen as more officials find themselves under the spot light of an ethics investigation. How can a President and his closest advisors be trusted to serve the public interest when so many personal and business interests are at stake, crowding out good ethical judgment?

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