President Donald Trump has presided over one of the most unethical administrations in recent memory, and new laws are needed to stop it from happening again, ethics experts told Congress on Wednesday.
Trump set the tone for the ethical quagmire of his administration from the day he won the 2016 presidential election. His transition team ignored ethics officials and refused to abide by any ethics guidelines. He waved away anti-nepotism laws in elevating his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, to positions of power with no relevant experience. He attracted aides who could not pass security clearance background checks. And most important, he refused to divest from his multibillion-dollar real estate business, allowing foreign governments, lobbyists and corporations seeking government action to directly pay the president.
“They said they were going to drain the swamp,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said. “They moved into the swamp. They built a hotel on it, and they started renting out rooms to foreign princes and kings and governments.”
This situation upended decades of thinking about presidential ethics. It necessitates the enactment of stricter laws governing the executive branch, according to the ethics experts testifying at a Wednesday hearing on executive ethics provisions in H.R. 1, House Democrats’ top priority government reform bill.
“While every presidential administration in our history has had its ethical challenges, we’ve never seen so many corruption scandals and appalling lack of concern for the ethics rules that should govern our executive branch than with this administration,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, the president of the nonpartisan reform group Common Cause.
“When presidents and agency heads do not lead on ethics issues, they can result in serious ethical lapses,” said Rudy Merhbani, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice.
The trickle-down effects of Trump’s refusal to abide by ethics norms have been widespread, according to Walter Shaub, a former Office of Government Ethics head under Trump now with the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Six agency heads appointed by Trump stepped down or were fired amid ethics scandals. Nine aides were warned and six reprimanded for violating the Hatch Act when they used their official position to promote the president’s family businesses. Kushner has corrected his financial disclosures dozens of times. Then there’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea in the Russia investigation and the more than half a dozen staffers who resigned because they couldn’t pass background checks to obtain the necessary security clearances.
Most of the provisions in the bill covering executive branch ethics were included in response to the administration’s refusal to abide by previous norms. Those provisions include requirements that presidential transitions teams create ethics guidelines, vesting new investigative authority in the Office of Government Ethics, mandating disclosure of ethics waivers and other filings and codifying previous executive orders on ethics. The bill would also express the sense of Congress that presidents should divest from their businesses.
Republicans have expressed outright hostility to the bill, which also includes provisions on voting rights and campaign finance reform. Democrats are pushing these new executive branch ethics laws to “exact political retribution on the president,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), sought to tar Shaub, who quit his position at the Office of Government Ethics over administration’s refusal to abide by ethics precedents, as a partisan hypocrite. The back-and-forth, however, ended up only reinforcing the arguments that Shaub and Democrats have been making for the bill’s ethics provisions.
Shaub previously opposed Meadows’ effort to provide the Office of Government Ethics with investigative authority during a committee hearing in 2015, when Barack Obama was president, Meadows noted. But now Shaub has endorsed H.R. 1, which includes that very provision.
“I can’t find why all of a sudden you would have this newfound interest to have investigative authority if it were not directed at this President of the United States,” Meadows said.
Shaub admitted that Meadows was right then and explained that his position changed after “watching for two years somebody prove to me that the executive branch ethics program was much weaker than I ever thought it was.”
“Frankly, I was naive,” he said. “I never imagined a president could come in and refuse to eliminate his conflicts of interest, have his appointees who were completely disinterested in government ethics and have, with all respect, a Congress refuse to exercise oversight of them in that respect. And so, in the absence of any other avenue, I do believe that the Office of Government Ethics is going to have to fill the gap.”