Ethics experts say Trump administration far from normal

Panelists say Trump’s willingness to violate norms shows vulnerabilities in system

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Participants in the “Trump, Ethics and the Law” panel discussed how the Trump administration is reshaping presidential ethical norms at the Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 23, 2017. Panelists from left to right are: moderator Dave Levinthal, senior political reporter at the Center for Public Integrity; Walter Shaub, senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center and former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics; Matthew Miller, former director of the Office of Public Affairs for the Department of Justice; Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush's Administration and vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; and Ken Starr, former solicitor general of the U.S.

Rachael Seeley Flores for the Center for Public Integrity

AUSTIN, Texas — President Donald Trump’s young administration has already sharply diverged from the ethical norms that typically govern the executive branch, exposing vulnerabilities in the system, a small group of ethics experts and former government officials agreed Saturday.

The consensus emerged at a panel titled “Trump, Ethics and the Law” at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Texas. The panel was moderated by Dave Levinthal, a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. (Watch it here.)

“There have been untidy administrations in the past, but usually it takes a while to see these things develop,” said Ken Starr, a lawyer and judge who served as solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush and is best known for heading the investigation that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Ethics laws are based on the idea that norms will be followed, said Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE).

“When they’re not followed, we suddenly discover how completely vulnerable our system is,” Shaub said.

For example, Shaub said that before he resigned from OGE in July, he had to fight to get his hands on financial disclosures for President Trump’s appointees.

“We didn’t have the chance to resolve conflicts of interest and the White House ethics officials not only didn’t want to fulfil their responsibilities in support of ethics, they didn’t know how,” Shaub said.

Shuab said he didn’t feel able to confidently sign off on some financial disclosure reports. Since resigning, he has become senior director of ethics for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan legal advocacy group, and has been a frequent critic of the Trump administration.

Matthew Miller, a former Director of the Office of Public Affairs for the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, said Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, reportedly after the director refused to pledge loyalty to him, also was outside the norm.

Miller, now a partner at strategic advisory firm Vianovo, said an ongoing investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia has the potential to lead to more firings. Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation, has a broad mandate to investigate and he is moving aggressively, Miller said.

“This is, in some ways, the most important investigation the Department of Justice has ever conducted. It goes to the question of whether the president of the United States himself has been compromised by a foreign power,” Miller said.

If Mueller gets too close to a member of Trump’s family or the president himself, Miller said he expects Trump might try to rescind the rules governing the appointment of the special prosecutor so that he can fire Mueller. Trump could potentially also pardon those  involved in the case.

“How we respond to that, whether Republicans in Congress see that as a red line, is going to answer the question of whether the president is above the law or not,” Miller said.

Another panelist, Richard Painter, the vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) who was the chief ethics lawyer for the administration of President George W. Bush, said that the Mueller investigation is worrying, but it’s far from the only concern.

“There are many other issues that fall outside of the scope of his investigation that I am very worried about and that Americans ought to be worried about and that Congress ought to be worried about,” he said.

In late January, CREW filed a lawsuit against Trump, claiming that his refusal to sell his businesses generates conflicts of interest and violates the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause.

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