America on the honor system

Ethics, protocol and transparency are no match for a sociopath’s amorality.

He’s got your government ethics right here.

So the Impeachable-Offense-in-Chief refuses to release his tax returns. Though protected by the Secret Service, he continues to roll deep with members of his own private goon squad, the same thugs who roughed up protesters at rallies. He threatens to keep turning up in New York like a stray cat, costing the city millions in security logistics and lost business with each visit — despite the fact that taxpayers have already provided him an official residence, even an allotment to significantly widen the toilet seat in the Oval Office bathroom if necessary.

On top of that, he has put forth a plan to distance himself from the daily operations of his business that amounts to, in the words of one observer, a “pinky swear” to look away while his children mind the shop. Conflict of interest be damned, his empire has been growing apace since the inauguration, with a new hotel in Vancouver, plans for enlarging a golf course in Aberdeen, and on and on.

If any of this sounds shady, inconsiderate or downright illegal, it’s because it should be. But incredibly, much of what should be binding law, enshrined in the Code of Federal Regulations, comes down to personal integrity.

Since the 1970s, almost every President has publicly released his tax returns for transparency’s sake — but this is tradition, not law. Experts have opined that personal and public safety could be compromised by the presence of a parallel security unit — but depending on the unit’s activities, there may be nothing to legally prevent its members from “staffing” the executive. The Office of Government Ethics, which advises the executive and cabinet on avoiding conflicts of interest, has no actual enforcement power. Even the vaunted Emoluments Clause that is supposed to keep him from, say, settling personal debts with a sweetheart deal for “Jyna” is broad enough for debate.

To an alarming degree, it seems, America has been ruled by the honor system. It has relied on a President’s essential decency and respect for the institution (read: fear of public embarrassment and ejection from office) to hew to the paltry ethical standards of Washington.

But what if the holder of that office happens to be a sociopath? What if that sociopath has no sense of accountability to the public? What if, far from being shamed into complying with procedure, that sociopath is combative enough to pick — and relish — a protracted, pointless fight over it?

Ethics, protocol and transparency mean nothing to a sociopath. They are no match for his megalomania, his capacity for self-delusion, his contempt for the vulnerable, or his obsession with winning all the things all the time.

For legislators accustomed to leaning on the honor system, then, the task is urgent. Members of Congress of all persuasions must realize that appeals to decency, ethics, morality or tradition are non-starters, whether as sticks for the executive or as carrots for the voting public.

The executive needs to understand that ethical guidelines are not to be flouted. And the voting public needs more from its elected representatives than tough talk and menacing tweets. We need aggressive pushback on all breaches of conduct, protocol, procedure, and law.

We need rules with teeth.

Thankfully, it seems that lesson is hitting home. In an unprecedented legal move, a watchdog group is suing Trump under the Emoluments Clause. At the same time, Democrats have introduced legislation that would not only require — require, not merely request — presidential candidates to release their tax returns, but also make it compulsory for presidents, vice presidents and their immediate families to divest from potential financial conflicts of interest.

Keeping him out of New York City may be tougher to pull off. But even Mayor Bill de Blasio is getting in on the enforcement action, demanding reimbursement for ongoing protection and security arrangements leading up to the inauguration.

If we’re going to be stuck with this guy for any time at all, we — legislators, courts and the public — are going to have to teach him some manners.