Update on the Ethics Front

Terry H. Schwadron

How are the Ethics War at the White House doing? It’s been a while, so it is time for an update on Team Trump that had entered the administration with more problems than most because of private business entanglements.

· Lobbyists. The White House has picked another fight with the Office of Government Ethics over whether OGE can ask all federal agencies to identify new employees for whom the White House has sought a waiver from rules meant to block hiring of lobbyists in jobs that would oversee the industries they once represented. The New York Times which has reported that Team Trump hired ex-lobbyists at a higher rate than predecessors, used the Freedom of Information Act to find a pushback letter about the waivers from the Office of Management and Budget, which had refused to comply with the law. The White House argues that OGE, led by appointee Walter Schaub, is being partisan. Given that Mr. Trump made much of his announced policy for new employees to promise voluntarily not to return for five years to lobbying jobs after government service, this one strikes me as total hypocrisy.

· The Kushner questions. Jared, the presidential son-in-law, was identified by NBC and The Washington Post as someone the FBI wants to talk with about his meetings in December with Russian bankers and ambassador (The Post added that it appears to be over setting up secret paths for communication with Moscow), though was not being described as a “target” of the investigation. His lawyer said Jared would cooperate voluntarily with inquiries. Meanwhile, his own ethics problems continued to bubble: Jared had to break from his family business, but his family continued to name drop Jared’s position in talks with potential Chinese investors until public awareness broke. The family has agreed to stop trying to use Jared’s position for business advantage, and actually dropped their pitch to attract Chinese investors. Recent articles also have explored Kushner family investments and aggressive slumlord practices in substandard housing around Baltimore. The White House has noted each time that Jared has distanced himself from his family’s businesses.

· Public complaints. In a radio interview, Shaub said public inquiries and complaints involving Trump administration conflicts of interest and ethics have been inundating his tiny agency, which has only advisory power. “We’ve even had a couple days where the volume was so huge it filled up the voicemail box, and we couldn’t clear the calls as fast as they were coming in,” Shaub said. His office is scrambling to keep pace with the workload. But Schaub said the same kind of energy is not coming from the House Oversight Committee, which has the power to investigate ethics questions. Hmmm. Protecting their own?

· Trump Organization. A item in the Business sections reflected that Mr. Trump sought and now has received another trademark authority to do business in China — while he is president! That leaves him with 116 Chinese trademark. Did I miss something in Make America Great and America First that leaves Trump Inc. manufacturing in China? Meanwhile, the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue has been fully greenlighted as kosher by the Government Services Administration which had been asked to look at whether a Trump business could operate on government property. Guess it is good to know someone in high places.

· 100-day review. A report by CREWS, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group led by former ethics lawyers for the past administrations concludes, “Donald Trump spoke often during the presidential campaign of his intention to “drain the swamp” — that is, to clean up the corruption, influence, and cronyism that is too prevalent in Washington. Unfortunately, the first 100 days of the Trump administration has had precisely the opposite effect, bringing in conflicts of interest and ethical and legal problems on a massive scale not seen since at least President Nixon and perhaps ever.” They cite the failure of the President to divest in the Trump businesses and entanglements around the world, and they have sued the President over violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. They also cited business conflicts among Cabinet members, Ivanka and Jared Kushner, and failures to provide basic transparency filings, including income tax returns.

· Ivanka Trump. According to news reports, Ivanka Trump, now a federal employee, is soliciting donations for a new fund from foreigners to benefit women entrepreneurs. countries and companies will contribute to create a pool of capital to economically empower women. Reportedly, Canadians, Germans and a few Middle Eastern countries have already made quiet commitments, as have several corporations. The question, of course, is whether this represents a back-door bribe of the administration. This comes on top of instances in which she sat with Japanese and Chinese at a time that her business was doing deals in their countries.

· White House Visitors. Trump ended an Obama-era policy of making public. White House visitor logs, though some news organizations have used calendars and other observations to track the apparently constant flow of corporate executives and lobbyists who visit the White House. There seems no particular campaign to reverse this decision.

· Industry regulations. The Washington Post reported that Trump has invited industry representatives to rewrite regulations they oppose, particularly in environment and worker safety. The White House thinks this is a good idea. Obviiously, I don’t.

· Buying Trump. The Trump family is already profiting from his 2020 reelection effort, as his campaign continues to spend money at Trump-owned businesses, per the Wall Street Journal. In the first quarter of 2017, Trump hotels, golf courses, and restaurants were paid nearly half a million dollars, campaign finance disclosures revealed. However, NBC reported that the White House is not routinely recording usage of Trump properties, as promised, to track the profits to Trump properties by either foreign visits or administration figures. This is information that obviously could fuel speculation about payments to the Trump family business by foreigners seeking to influence policy. Of course, ethicists noted, that would be much less than investments by foreigners into Trump businesses, which is not tracked at all.

It’s a healthy list. In fact, it would appear that we already have become so used to seeing the words Trump and ethics in the same sentence that each new incident produces fewer ripples in the pond. This must be what people mean by “normalizing” the effects of the Trump presidency.

For good or evil, the more negative effects of the Trump administration are elsewhere — in domestic and foreign policy, in budget priorities and executive orders that isolate and target the most vulnerable in our society.

Still, this record for the President — and for us — is an unhappy one.