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.