Too many conflicts, too little time. You take a couple of weeks off and the ethics violations just grow and grow. Lacking any attempts by this administration to reassure the public about potential violations and regain their trust, that trust has quickly eroded since January. The pace at which the Trump Administration racks up ethics complaints is exponentially faster than any administration is recent history. Here are the US government’s numbers on ethics complaints they’ve received so far.
These public contacts occur for a variety of reasons and here are some of the more notable ethics events in the last couple of weeks, some of which could qualify as grounds for impeachment.
State Department or TrumpTravel Agency?
Not content to merely charge the Secret Service $35,000 in golf cart rental fees, arms of the Trump administration published pieces on their website that seem very similar to travel advertisements. Articles that describe Mar-a-lago appeared on several State Department run websites during the last several weeks. The State Department post was filled with such gems as:
Trump is not the first president to have access to Mar-a-Lago as a Florida retreat, but he is the first one to use it. By visiting this “winter White House,” Trump is belatedly fulfilling the dream of Mar-a-Lago’s original owner and designer.
Due to public outcry at the apparent advertising for Trump owned properties on US government websites, the posts were quickly removed. ShareAmerica, the State Department’s version of Upworthy, shares positive stories and anecdotes designed to communicate the American people’s values, stories, and culture with the wider world. Given this mission statement it makes sense that the State Department would seek to provide information to foreign citizens on a place the President of the United States frequently visits. The problem is that President Trump owns and profits from Mar-a-lago. Whatever the intent of the State Department may have been, the fact the President owns the property in question means the US government just needs to keep away.
Ivanka Is Now a Chinese ‘Divinity’
Ivanka Trump won a significant victory for her company that she no longer runs, but still profits from, on April 6th, 2017. In an ironic, or suspicious, twist, three new Chinese trademarks her company had pending were approved as she sat next to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Mar-a-lago. These trademarks are a big deal for Ivanka, as they help her secure a market in China where her popularity is rapidly growing.
In China, Ivanka has become a celebrated figure for her beauty, her positive attitude and hard work, her devotion to her family, and her devotion to promoting China-U.S. friendship and cooperation.
Most people in China love Ivanka because of her friendly gestures towards the Chinese people.
To top off Ivanka’s newfound popularity in China, she now has a fan club and following on Weibo. The club is dedicated to “Goddess Ivanka” and has almost thirteen thousand members. Developing better relations with China is a worthy goal and using soft power in the form of Ivanka’s cultural influence is a masterful stroke that delivers untold benefit for very little cost to the US. Ivanka, however, made significant gains for the company that bears her name at the same time she was smoothing our relations with China. This time her interests and the interests of the country aligned, but when they do not it will depend on how much you trust Ivanka Trump to put our interests ahead of her own. This is especially important now that Ivanka is an official adviser to the president. Personally my opinion is skewed by this tweet of hers from 2014 that speaks to a pattern of behavior.
Trump White House Now Less Transparent Than Sludge
Lobbyists always seem to end up working in government, and then return to lucrative private sector firms after doing their civic duty. Ethics guidelines are in place to help minimize the corruption that occurs in this transition and maintain citizens’ faith in the institutions of government that serve them. The Trump administration apparently is not concerned with maintaining citizens’ faith in institutions. I can only offer speculation as to why the administration has taken this stance, but each and every day they show up to work and fail to set as a priority maintaining the full faith and trust of the American people.
For example, the White House visitor logs are no longer public. The President does have some right to privacy, the White House is not the set of a reality TV show after all. Still, releasing the White House visitor logs allows the public to keep an eye on whom this administration is talking to and taking advice on policy from. As of April 14th, the White House has announced that it will now keep its visitor logs secret, away from the eyes of the public.
Visitor logs are not the only issue to arise for the White House in the last couple of weeks, ethics waivers have also begun to be a issue. An ethics waiver is exactly what it sounds like, it allows people who do have conflicts of interest in a given area to still participate in policy discussion on that topic. Issuing ethics waivers is not a new practice, some were issued to President George W. Bush’s staff during planning for the Iraq war and the Obama administration issued several as well. The big difference with the current administration is that there is no system or outside oversight for issuing waivers (shocking I know) and none of the issued waivers have been made public. Previously, granted ethics waivers had been posted on the Office of Government Ethics website, but no longer says director Walter Shaub:
“There’s no transparency, and I have no idea how many waivers have been issued.” The granting of such waivers has become “a political decision, which means career government ethics officials should not get involved.”
Ethics standards do still exist for the White House employees, but significantly reduced from what they were under the Obama administration. As we have seen with previous ethics violations, the Trump administration does not address ethics violations. Trump’s administration actually enables committing ethics violations. The single ethics rule President Trump put into place that seemed effective, the five year ban on lobbying after leaving government, has already been waived. Marcus Peacock, a budget policy expert in this administration, will leave government to go work for a lobbying group focused on business issues and the budget. The administration apparently granted him a waiver to accept this job.
Without a House Ethics and Oversight committee willing to investigate, the Trump administration will not have to pay the ethics bill it is racking up. Sentiment changes, however, and when Republican confidence in this president begins to fail it will be these ethics violations, or perhaps the Russian ones, that finally come due.
Distrust, Lawsuits, And Violations Of The Constitution
President Donald J. Trump has not divested from his companies, nor done much of anything to address the potential conflicts of interest his corporate empire represents. The problem is not just that President Trump will push an agenda that directly benefits him, which he has, but that he will prioritize issues that affect him and his peers over average Americans. A miasma of mistrust hangs over all President Trump’s actions while he still directly profits from his corporation and can access those profits at any time. Class warfare is alive and well in the US, and with Trump as president the rich are winning.
Case and point are how the President’s finances are affecting his tax plan. One proposal of the President’s would save him $31 million on his taxes in a single year. In addition he proposed lowering the tax rate on pass through LLCs, the main way he structures his corporations, saving him even more money. The state and structure of President Trump’s Trust continues to erode and undermine all of his policy decisions.
There are several lawsuits pending against President Trump on a variety of issues and angles, but the Citizen’s for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) lawsuit against his DC hotel received a boost recently. CREW is claiming that Trump’s owning of the DC hotel violates both the hotel’s lease and the foreign emoluments clause in the Constitution that forbids Presidents from taking bribes in the form of foreign money (an impeachable offense). The lawsuit is still not on completely firm footing and has it’s weaknesses, but the addition of two new plaintiffs with concrete and demonstrable injuries from unfair competition with the President’s hotel has solidified the weakest part of the case, and the first legal bar of standing needing to be addressed. Even if CREW’s lawsuit loses, the discovery section of the trial has the potential to force President Trump to cough up copies of his tax returns a positive outcome in it’s own right.
CREW is not the only group actively pursuing, or exploring an emoluments violation lawsuit against the President. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has been exploring the idea of Democrats in the US Senate suing the President since the House and Senate Government Oversight committees have made no move to address any of the emoluments and ethics issues that drew 39,000 complaints so far this year. Blumenthal’s spokesperson had this to say about the lawsuit discussion
There are ongoing conversations between members of the Senate and constitutional and ethics experts” about what course of action senators could take “if the administration continues to fail to provide transparency and comply with the nation’s laws.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is also pursuing potential avenues of legal action against the Trump administration. According to her Democrats are working to,
“put a program together which would involve non-payment of certain expenses, divestment … and then we’re taking a good look at conflicts of interest and trademarks.”
Under discussion for example, denying Congressional approval for certain White House expenditures including security for business trips for Trump’s sons.
Ethics have never been a flashy nor fast section of American politics, and the election of President Trump, while bringing ethics issues onto the national stage, has not changed the pace at which they move. While Trump’s ethics issues have not yet produced an corrective results, in the meantime the conflicts have skewed and affected all his policies. Here is Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s former ethics lawyer, on the role Trump’s conflicts have played when interacting with his policies and political objectives.
Trump’s conflicts of interest and other ethics troubles contributed to each of his major stumbles, and will continue to hobble his administration unless he takes corrective measures. He needs to disclose his tax returns, sell off his own business interests that create conflicts of interest, and insist that the people working for him do the same. If Trump does not reverse course, the Russia investigation inevitably will be followed by more scandal. And his last 100 days could be coming sooner than he thinks.