The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans do Trump no favors on ethics

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At a superficial level, you can understand why Republican lawmakers do not want to confront President-elect Donald Trump on his ethics problems or those of his nominees. Telling Trump that he must sell his businesses is not an easy task, and it is far from clear that he will do so under any circumstances regardless of the risk of later scandal and of immediate, blatant violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. Nevertheless, Republicans disregard the issue and pave the way for an ethics disaster that could ensnare the entire party. At some level, their complacency defies explanation.

The Post reported: “A top ethics official has warned that plans to confirm Donald Trump’s top Cabinet choices before background examinations are complete are unprecedented and have overwhelmed government investigators responsible for the reviews.” Democrats demanded a delay to complete the ethics checks, but Republicans are insisting on racing toward confirmation hearings, a blatant effort to jam through as many nominees as possible before any of them draws scrutiny. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted: “So all of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration at having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate. I understand that. But we need to, sort of, grow up here and get past that.” That’s a rare instance of incivility and lack of respect for the Senate’s institutions on McConnell’s part.

Frankly, McConnell is flying in the face of common sense and precedent:

Ethics experts from both political parties expressed dismay at the possibility that confirmation hearings would proceed before the [Office of Government Ethics] reviews are completed.
“This is unprecedented,” said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who has served as counsel to several Republican presidential candidates and Cabinet nominees in the past. “This suggests that there has been a real breakdown between the transition and the Office of Government Ethics.”

Moreover, that attitude makes little sense beyond the immediate rush to jam the nominees through. What if, after a confirmation hearing is completed, the Office of Government Ethics cannot sign off on the nominee? What if, in the rush to confirm, certain conflicts are not eliminated, the official takes action and then his action is called into question because of an unrevealed conflict? The administration and Congress would both be embarrassed. They would need to start from scratch in some instances, getting themselves that much further behind schedule in staffing up the government.

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Add to that the appearance of unofficial advisers who won’t have to comply with any disclosure/ethics requirements (e.g. Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Carl Icahn), and you have a web of shady interests and the perception that rather than “draining the swamp,” the Trumps and their entourage are jumping in with both feet. The presence of so many billionaire advisers and Cabinet officials does not help — especially as they pursue an agenda that favors the financial sector (eliminating Dodd-Frank), retail and fast food (opposing minimum-wage hikes), oil and gas (rolling back Environmental Protection Agency regulations) and just about every other quadrant of Big Business (e.g. tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals). “It all flows downhill from the President-elect’s failure so far to address his own conflicts,” observes ethics expert Norman Eisen. “We have seen lobbyists who had to be kicked out, proposed auctions and sales of access to Trump and the family that had to be cancelled, and now the mess of the nominees’ conflicts and incomplete disclosures. It’s an ethics train wreck.”

Republicans complain that a great number of President Obama’s nominees were approved the same day. No can can blame anyone but the president-elect for the disparity between Obama and Trump nominees, however. If you revel in nominating billionaires (because your sole assessment of others’ value is how wealthy they are) and those with zero public experience (who therefore have never had to reveal their finances) and in relying on family members who have ongoing ownership and roles in the family business empire, one cannot blame others for wanting to slow down the process.

None of this, however, should take the focus away from the biggest ethical outrage: the president-elect’s unwillingness, so far, to sever his ties with his businesses and to remove the potential that foreign governments will be enriching the president. With any president, outrage would be the appropriate reaction. When the president at issue ran against the shady ethics of his opponent and vowed to clean up Washington because voters are furious at self-enriching politicians, one hardly knows whether to laugh or cry. The voters who supposedly are so angry with Washington that they would overlook Trump’s racism, misogyny, ignorance, cruelty and inexperience should recognize that they’ve been had. The country will pay the price.

“The Trump administration is facing unprecedented ethics issues, with numerous conflicts of interest yet to be dealt with from the President-elect on down. Congress should be demanding that Trump disclose all his financial interests and sell his businesses before he takes office in order to avoid conflicts of interest and constitutional violations,” urged Jordan Libowitz from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “They should refuse to give hearings to nominees until after they submit financial disclosures and ethics agreements.” He warned: “If this administration remains uninterested in meeting the standards of ethical conduct set by past administrations, Congress is in the best position to force them to. If Congress does not demand the ethical baseline we are used to, they’ll be giving way to a pattern of lawlessness and rampant conflicts before the President even takes the oath.”

And when scandal, corruption and self-dealing permeate virtually every aspect of the administration, Republicans may wish they had been a little less passive. Letting Trump do whatever Trump wants may be the worst thing they can do for their party and for the incoming administration.