Walter Shaub, until last month director of the federal Office of Government Ethics, says he is very concerned by violations of ethical norms by the Trump administration. At a news conference on July 28 he said, “We are truly in an ethics crisis, and something needs to be done about it,” according to a report from National Public Radio.
Shaub’s public expressions of concern go back to November in response to Donald Trump’s announcements that he would not adhere to the longstanding practice of presidents to put their investments into blind trusts in order to avoid conflicts of interest, instead using a trust nominally run by his sons and a business associate. In addition, the administration has, according to NPR, hired “unprecedented numbers of former lobbyists, lawyers and industry consultants” and given many of them waivers to exempt them from the usual ethics rules. Such waivers are supposed to be public documents, but the administration for a long while refused to release them.
Previous administrations of both parties have paid serious attention to ethics rules, according to Shaub and others, such as Danielle Brian, executive director of the independent Project on Government Oversight (POGO.org), who says that in contrast with past presidencies, “we have an administration now that honestly doesn’t care.”
For just one example examined in another NPR report, Trump’s hotel in Washington leases the old Post Office building from the government, and the terms of the lease are that the lease cannot be held by or benefit a federal elected official. To get around that, Trump’s lawyers created a revocable Trust on Trump’s sole behalf, one that even uses Trump’s own personal Social Security number as its tax ID, to own the lease, and puts Donald J Trump Jr in charge of the trust. George Washington University law professor Stephen Schooner, who teaches this area of law, says the lease still benefits Trump, and furthermore under terms of the lease the rent must be renegotiated annually by the General Services Administration, which ultimately answers to the president.
The same report quotes Kathleen Clark, who teaches government ethics at Washington University in St Louis, as saying, “Donald Trump is managing his affairs in a way that enables, and frankly invites, people and companies and countries to send money his way, through his businesses, in an attempt to influence him and thereby influence U.S. government policy.” Richard Painter, White House ethics counsel under President George W. Bush, said that corporate lobbyists and foreign governments may make use of Trump’s DC hotel and other businesses in order to score points with the president, and that a revocable trust isn’t enough to avoid conflicts of interest, “And some of those conflicts are illegal.”
So Shaub is urging Congress to strengthen ethics laws and has received bipartisan support for that effort in both houses, including from Iowas Senator Chuck Grassley and South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy, both Republicans.