Democratic presidential contenders understandably want to talk about their big, substantive policy ideas on health care, energy and taxes. More power to them — if we could have serious debates, for example, about the pros and cons of expanding Medicare, or how to use the tax code to boost middle class families and subsidize work, or the Middle East. Before the next president gets to any policy initiative, however, he or she needs to repair the presidency itself, which Donald Trump has blemished.
Here are just a few steps that a president could undertake on his or her own — no congressional action needed (and no power grab permitted) — to help restore trust in government and the stature of the presidency:
- The president and vice president will voluntarily comply with existing ethics laws that cover all executive branch employees — including the requirement to divest themselves of assets that pose a conflict of interest. They will disclose 10 years of tax returns and, specifically, any foreign holdings or obligations.
- The administration will adopt a single rule: Any significant violation of the Hatch Act (e.g., conducting politics on government time) or misuse of taxpayer money (e.g., extravagant travel) will result in termination. Period.
- Any White House staffer or Cabinet member credibly accused of sexual assault, harassment or spousal abuse will be immediately placed on administrative leave until the matter can be investigated.
- No White House staffer will contact any member of the Justice Department to inquire as to the status of any investigation or enforcement action (or lack thereof). Any discussion of individual enforcement matters should be conducted only between the attorney general and White House counsel, and should be logged with the date and general subject matter specified.
- The president will not impugn the integrity of any judge. The president (like any citizen) is free to criticize the outcome or reasoning of decisions but not the motives or authority of the judge. In conjunction with Congress, the president will urge the Supreme Court to commit to developing a written code of ethics for the high court (which it lacks, unlike lower courts).
- The president will not permit any shutdown of the government, and will sign legislation providing for an automatic continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels in the event of a lapse in budget authority.
- The president, each day, will receive in person and read the President’s Daily Brief (PDB).
- Insofar as tweets are deemed to be official documents, any tweet from the president addressing a policy matter will be vetted for form and accuracy as would a presidential speech or written declaration.
- The media is not the “enemy of the people,” but a necessary institution given constitutional protection. Accordingly, the president will support a federal shield law, support legislation adopting New York Times Co. v. Sullivan as a matter of statutory law and undertake an initiative to protect the safety of the media — both domestically and abroad.
- No family members will be employed in either the Cabinet or the West Wing.
- Senior national security personnel who have lobbied for or been engaged as a consultant by a foreign government will not be hired.
There certainly are more actions that would help restore the presidency’s stature and dignity, but that’s a good start. Are any of the candidates game?
Unfortunately, as we have learned under Trump, democratic norms depend on voluntary compliance and respect for our constitutional system. To the extent the president has undermined norms and institutions, it regrettably now may be necessary to put in place concrete protocols such as the ones listed above.
However, there is no replacement for a president of good character, mental acuity and mature temperament. For that, we need voters to do better than they did in 2016.