As a candidate, Trump's claim to legitimacy and mass support was built on a rejection of insider politics and pledges to "drain the swamp" in Washington. However, in the lead up to his inauguration, he and congressional Republicans have shown multiple signs that they intend to do just the opposite, one of which is their unprecedented barrage of attacks on ethical protections.
The most discussed ethical issue is of course Trump's unwillingness to tackle his own personal conflicts of interest and interconnected assets. But beyond that problem, there have been three other obvious affronts. First was the considered lack of focus from Trump's Cabinet appointees on completely disclosing and dealing with their own conflicts as required by law. Second was an ignoring (and disdaining of) the Office of Governmental Ethics (OGE) as it tries to administer both Trump and his appointee's transition process, and third was an unexpected attack on the Office of Congressional Ethics--the independent House ethics watchdog.
At his press conference last week, Trump announced a new arrangement for his business holdings, which will do little to curb his conflicts of interest. Trump declined to divest himself of his holdings, instead only transferring control of them to his two sons. Without full divestment, Trump will still have a financial interest in his global company when he takes office later this week. Scarily, that means that Trump soon will be making regulatory decisions impacting businesses (such as banks, insurance companies, and more) that are entangled with his own. He also will be deciding American foreign policy in countries where he still has holdings and where his businesses could directly profit.
Office of Governmental Ethics Director Walter Shaub has correctly described President-elect Trump's announced plan as "wholly inadequate." Since stating his opinion on the Trump plan, Shaub has faced several attacks. First, from U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, when he made threats in a letter to investigate and potentially eliminate the OGE. The second came from Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, when he said that Shaub should "be careful" about criticizing Trump's handling of his business conflicts. This kind of veiled threat as Shaub tries to critique Trump's inadequate ethics plan is thuggish and unwarranted.
On the second battle ground, OGE also has made important comments about the slow pace of Trump's nominees to submit their ethics forms, which typically are cleared before their nominations are even announced. With so many extraordinarily rich appointees (the Cabinet will include three billionaires and is set to become the wealthiest in U.S. history), the problem of their interconnected finances is even more acute. To figure out their plans for recusal from ethical conflicts, nominees must do more than just fill out a form.
The OGE should be free to comment--both with critique and praise, as the Cabinet nominees and others move through the appointment paperwork process.
On the third ethics front, two weeks ago, as Congress started up, House Republicans tried to quietly change House rules and undermine the independent ethics watchdog, the Office of Congressional Ethics. The immediate public outrage led to congressional chaos and forced the Republicans to withdraw their plan.
The blatant attacks on the institutions charged with upholding ethical standards - the OCE and the OGE - coupled with the obvious disregard from incoming President Trump and some of his Cabinet members for resolving their own conflicts, leaves us deeply concerned about the state of ethics in the new administration.
There is no way to reject insider politics without keeping an ethically clean house, but the incoming Trump White House seems to need a new cleaning service.