Posted by: maboulette | March 20, 2017

Problems the Likes the U. S. Has Not Seen Since Watergate

Trump Hotel

The government watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) called upon the White House last week to explore whether one of its senior officials, Christopher Liddell, dishonoured ethics laws by acting in his official capacity to profit his personal investments. And it is not only this incident but it is only the latest component in an emerging pattern: President Trump and his administration are blatantly disrespectful ethics laws. Unless they correct course, the consequences will be catastrophic — for the president, his team and the country.


The problem starts with tone deafness at the top. Trump’s hotels, golf courses and other enterprises remain doing business with domestic and foreign bodies that have interests before the government he heads. This raises concerns  under the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, that forbids U.S. government officials from receiving foreign government payments or benefits “of any kind whatever.”


Recent grants of valuable trademarks by the Chinese government to the Trump Organization following his election are the latest emoluments problem. These and other alleged violations of the emoluments clause are the subject of civil litigation brought by our group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington


This situation is aggravated by the fact that we do not yet know the entire scope of Trump’s conflicts. That is because he has failed to disclose his tax returns, as we were just reminded when two pages of his 2005 returns turned up. This mistake has also re-emerged in the news in light of the ongoing investigation regarding Trump campaign conspiracy with Russian meddling in the U.S. general election. Democrats in Congress, joined in some cases by Republican colleagues, are calling for the president to turn over his tax returns to shed light on his ties to Russia, among other applicable information. Congress cannot exercise its constitutional authority — indeed, its responsibility — as a coequal branch of government without this information. Trump’s failure so far to comply is more evidence of his contempt for ethics considerations.


Trump’s assault on ethics has also flooded his Cabinet. Many of his nominees have ethics challenges of their own, including Betsy DeVos and Tom Price. The two eventually made it through the nomination process, but others did not, among them Labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder and several Pentagon service secretaries. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, is the latest to bring ethics baggage with him.


The White House staff has been similarly compromised. The complaint about Liddell is one of a series of staff-level concerns. The counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, openly flouted ethics rules by providing Ivanka Trump’s businesses with a “free commercial” on national television and got off scot-free. Even more troubling, in its defense of that outcome, the White House made the remarkable assertion, echoing the president, that many ethics rules do not necessarily apply to White House staff.


We couldn’t disagree more — and in the Bush and Obama White Houses, they worked to make sure those rules were followed. And it’s not just CREW who feel that way; these positions of the Trump White House were also publicly condemned by the non-partisan U.S. Office of Government Ethics.


Another White House ethics storm concerns Trump’s “special adviser” Carl Icahn. Icahn admitted that he has encouraged policy decisions that could be worth a great deal of money to him. Yet he and the White House claim he is not subject to ethics and other rules that control such situations. His title and responsibilities would seem to us to suggest otherwise. If he’s not a government employee, then his support could make him an unregistered lobbyist. Indeed, a number of lobbyists have joined the administration, raising questions about violations of Trump’s own “drain the swamp” pledge and Ethics Executive Order.


Oversight authorities — Congress, the FBI and Department of Justice, regulators such as the Office of Government Ethics — must similarly strengthen their efforts. There have been some encouraging signs of that, such as the bipartisan congressional call for the Office of Government Ethics to examine the “free commercial” controversy and the agency’s strong response.


It is time for the White House counsel to step up and, if appropriate, for the FBI and Justice Department to do their parts as well. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York was reportedly looking at whether Price’s stock trades as a congressman violated  laws. That office should ask similar questions about the legality of Icahn’s conduct.


CREW and others have asked the U.S. attorney’s office to investigate Trump’s constitutional violations as well, and Congress is now weighing his Russia ties, with many members demanding to examine his taxes for relevant information. How long will the Republican Party protect the president unless he cleans up his act?


Trump could still head off this ethics problems if he could come up with the facts by releasing his tax returns and by answering questions about other issues instead of avoiding them.   The president should also recommit to a strong ethics program by adding a respected, independent ethics counsel strictly to enforce the rules, including taking a fresh look at the emoluments issues. And he should pledge full cooperation with the congressional investigation of his campaign’s Russia ties.


Unless he takes these steps, or others like them, he and his administration are facing civil, criminal and congressional exposure of a magnitude our nation has not seen since Watergate.

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