If Friday afternoons are the best time to shove off embattled advisers, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt might want to start clearing out his desk today. A new complication has arisen in his corner of Trumpland’s ethical swamp. The Post reports:
Kevin Minoli, EPA’s designated agency ethics official and principal deputy general counsel, had written in a March 30 memo that Pruitt’s lease of a room in a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by health-care lobbyist Vicki Hart — for $50 a night, charged only when he stayed there — did not constitute a gift because that rate for 30 consecutive days would have equated to a monthly rent of $1,500. Minoli described that as “a reasonable market value.”
But in a new memo, which was obtained by the Campaign Legal Center and first reported by CNN, Minoli emphasized that he only evaluated the terms of the lease and not activities the document did not cover.
The lease, for example, provided for the use of a single room. “All other space is controlled by the landlord,” it stated. But several EPA officials have confirmed that Pruitt’s adult daughter stayed in the condo apartment’s second bedroom for a period when she was working at the White House last year.
Whether Minoli is the most incompetent ethics examiner on the planet (to have rendered a decision without all the facts) or is walking back from an embarrassing attempt to whitewash a growing scandal remains unclear. However, once again, those who jumped to defend the indefensible in this administration have been hung out to dry. The clock is ticking down on Pruitt’s tenure.
Meanwhile, a new appointee is ensnared in his own troubling ethical issues. CNBC reports:
John Bolton, who is days away from becoming President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, has been meeting with White House attorneys about possible conflicts of interest, CNBC has learned.
The exact sticking points for Bolton are unclear, but ethics experts say the appearance of a possible future role for Bolton with an entity such as a political action committee could be a cause for concern for White House officials. Bolton’s PAC and super PAC, which are no longer receiving or spending capital, have been financial players in the early going of the midterm election cycle. . . . When the White House suggested his PACs cease all political activity, including his super PAC, Bolton agreed.
It is not clear why Bolton does not shut them down altogether. But there is another complication. CNBC explains that “watchdogs such as Common Cause have brought the PAC’s past spending efforts to light with a number of legal complaints filed to the [Federal Election Commission]. All of the complaints relate to the Bolton groups’ work with political data firm Cambridge Analytica, a company under scrutiny for gaining access to 50 million Facebook accounts and allegedly distributing user data to the Trump campaign in 2016.”
Cambridge Analytica is front and center in the Russia investigation and at the heart of the Facebook fiasco in which Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest Facebook users’ information. Bolton was a lucrative client for Cambridge Analytica. (“Bolton’s super PAC in 2014 spent $340,000 on what it described as research and then more than $800,000 the following year. While it’s unclear what was obtained through Cambridge Analytica’s research, The New York Times reported in March that Bolton was purchasing services for ‘behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging.’ “)
What are the potential problems here?
“There are multiple conflicts. For example, in my former capacity as the President’s chief Hatch Act lawyer, I would have objected to someone taking the [national security adviser] job with a functioning Super PAC named for him, holding millions of dollars and the many potential conflicts that come with each,” says Norm Eisen, President Barack Obama’s former ethics counsel. “He’s apparently not shutting his Super PAC down and that’s just not acceptable for an NSA (even though he’s putting it into dormant mode). If he can’t make a complete break with that and his other organizations for legal or any other reasons, then he shouldn’t take the NSA job.”
There is more, however. Eisen argues that “the most serious actual or apparent conflict is that Bolton is both advising the President and the cabinet on national security risks — and himself implicated in them. We at CREW [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] have with Democracy21 filed a criminal complaint because of the Bolton Super PAC’s ties to Cambridge Analytica, whose apparently illegal acts tainted their involvement in US elections.”
Eisen asks: “How can Bolton give unconflicted advice on that or related matters? And many of the most important national security questions today are related matters. We will always wonder if he is shaping advice to steer scandal away from his (still open) campaign entities; his donors, such as the Mercer family (also deeply involved in Cambridge Analytica); and the candidates Bolton supported.” He argues that “the miasma of apparent conflict under [federal regulations] will always hang over him. That is disqualifying for this critical job.”
Constitutional lawyer Laurence Tribe points to a series of campaigns in which Bolton’s PACs played a significant role. “Bolton’s superPAC appears to have spent a very substantial sum of money retaining the services of Cambridge Analytica to help Republicans get elected in some 2014 campaigns like that of Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, paying that data firm over $1 million for various kinds of ‘research.'” He adds, “The Bolton superPAC also spent something like $2.5 million in the 2016 cycle supporting a number of Republican candidates for the Senate. Robert Mercer, who is the major backer of Cambridge Analytica and is also Trump’s main patron, evidently contributed $5 million to Bolton’s superPAC. And in the current election season, Bolton has said his superPAC will spend $1 million helping Republican challenger Kevin Nicholson in his Wisconsin race against incumbent Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin.”
Bolton’s ties to Cambridge Analytica and to the mega-donor Mercers, Tribe argues, “like those of Jared Kushner and others in Trump’s circle, prominently including Steve Bannon until his ouster, create a raft of potential conflicts with the role he would occupy as H.R. McMaster’s successor to the post of national security adviser.” He contends, “In any universe outside Trumplandia, this nest of suspicious financial and political connections between the president as an acknowledged subject of Mueller’s criminal investigation of irregularities en route to the presidency, including data manipulation activities connected with Russia that may well have compromised American democracy and security, would rule Bolton out as a member of the president’s White House team, much less a member with the extraordinary responsibilities of national security advisor.”
Trump sprung Bolton’s appointment on his staff, so it’s likely no vetting was done before the announcement. Some of this can be mitigated by closing down the PACs. However, the degree to which Bolton is connected to and benefited from an association with Cambridge Analytica at the heart of “collusion” allegations currently under investigation by the special counsel is not remediable. It happened; it cannot be erased. And since the topic of Russia and Russian interference is central to the role of the national security adviser, it’s hard to see how Bolton could cordon off this portion of his job. He cannot very well recuse himself from matters concerning Russian interference with our election.
Bolton, whatever one may think of his political views and temperament, is a respected lawyer whose financial/professional ethics have been above reproach. He would have been better served raising these issues before agreeing to take the job, thereby giving everyone the opportunity to sort this out. Now, whether he comes on or bows out, the administration will once again wind up with egg on its face and ethical questions hanging over its head.
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