You cannot expect members of an administration to be less corrupt than the president — or his daughter and son-in-law. The president ignores the emoluments clause, refuses to liquidate businesses that pose a glaring conflict of interest and appoints his unqualified daughter and equally unqualified son-in-law (who both have conflicts of their own) to nebulously defined positions. Jared Kushner retains 90 percent of his real estate empire and omits from his security clearance application multiple contacts that he had with Russians — which may or may not relate to his own personal finances (he and the Russians need to sync up their defenses). As Jordan Libowitz of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that called out the administration for the problem of ethics waivers in April, told me, “President Trump doesn’t have a problem putting his financial interests above the interests of the American people and it appears he doesn’t have a problem with his staff doing so either.”
We cannot be all that surprised when we learn:
The Trump administration may have skirted federal ethics rules by retroactively granting a blanket exemption that allows Stephen K. Bannon, the senior White House strategist, to communicate with editors at Breitbart News, where he was recently an executive.
The exemption, made public late Wednesday along with more than a dozen other ethics waivers issued by the White House, allows all White House aides to communicate with news organizations, even if they involve a “former employer or former client.”
The waiver, which was undated, did not mention Mr. Bannon specifically, but appeared to benefit him by potentially dislodging him from a pending ethics complaint over his past discussions with Breitbart editors. It would also free him from restrictions on his future communication with the conservative media company.
The waiver, and the fact that it remains unclear when it was originally issued, seemed unusual to Walter M. Shaub Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics [OGE], who questioned its validity.
The number of waivers (at least 16) and the deliberately vague way in which they were drafted are disturbing. “Much about them is troubling. The volume far outpaces that of [President Barack] Obama, putting the lie to the pledge to drain the swamp,” said Obama administration ethics guru Norman Eisen. “Some are undated and unsigned — how can we assess them without that information?” To put this in perspective, in four months the Trump administration has doled out as many waivers as were given out in Obama’s eight years in office.
“The ethics waivers betray just how little the Trump administration cares about ethics. An ethics pledge was put in place and then blanket waivers were given to gut it,” Libowitz said. “Worse, they appear to apply to Steve Bannon retroactively to cover his previous violations, something OGE has long been on record that they cannot do.” He continued, “There is no such thing as a retroactive ethics waiver, it’s an admission of guilt more than absolution of sin. Released under the cover of night, some aren’t even dated, as if the administration threw them together at the last minute, which would track with how seriously they seem to take ethics.”
There is a “L’état, c’est moi” quality about the waivers that conveys the president’s perception that he can do whatever he pleases, letting the lawyers scribble whatever after-the-fact justification they please. If a presidential edict can cover everyone for anything backward and forward in time, there are no rules.
“The sweeping nature of the waivers is problematic, applying to broad groups of current employees or former clients,” Eisen pointed out. “That’s the opposite of the careful, narrow, particularized approach we took in the Obama administration. Finally, there is the apparent ‘retroactivity.’ But there is no such thing as a retroactive waiver.” He continued: “The general wording of the media waiver appears to be a barely disguised effort to cover Bannon’s ethics pledge issues CREW filed a complaint about. This is a major red flag, and raises the question of whether his conduct also constituted other regulatory or statutory ethics violations.” He urges Bannon “to publicly detail his contacts with Breitbart to address those concerns; unfortunately, we cannot look to the White House visitor records for information about those contacts because the Trump administration has ended the Obama practice of posting them online.”
Here the Republicans in Congress are equally to blame. They have made clear that they will exercise no oversight over the Trump family’s financial chicanery. They show no interest in determining whether the Constitution’s emoluments clause has been violated or exploring Kushner’s legion of conflicts. In doing nothing to restrain the unbridled greed and dishonesty of the Trump team, the GOP has become a party of enablers. The remedy for that is clear: the 2018 elections.