The Most Unethical Presidency: Year One
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President Trump should have divested from his businesses before he was inaugurated. Instead, Trump continues to own his vast global empire of hotels, golf courses, office buildings, and other businesses; he knows what the companies are, he monitors their activities, he profits when the companies do, and the trust he formed allows him to access those profits at any time. That makes Trump the most unethical president in history, and CREW has fought back by initiating 180 legal complaints and actions against Trump and his administration.
In the lead-up to President Trump’s inauguration, we at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and concerned people across the United States urged the president to take key steps to avoid corruption and conflicts of interest and demonstrate a commitment to ethical government. The most notable of these demands was that he follow the example of all presidents of both parties for decades and sell his businesses. By the time he placed his hand on the Bible at noon on January 20, 2017, it was evident that he had not done so, and an ethics crisis was brewing. That’s why we filed our first conflicts complaint concerning the president at 12:01 p.m. that day, and a groundbreaking conflicts lawsuit on constitutional grounds shortly thereafter. We hoped President Trump would correct his course, and we worried for the impact on our democracy if he did not.
A year later, we at CREW have initiated 180 other legal matters against the president and his administration. It has long since become clear that our initial concerns – and those of so many Americans – were well founded. Indeed, in retrospect they were understated. The Trump administration is confronted by an extraordinary scale and scope of legal and ethics scandals. It is unrivaled in the modern era, and perhaps in the history of the nation, for a first-year administration. The conduct of this administration, from the president on down, threatens our centuries-old tradition of a government that functions to serve the interests of the American people, rather than to serve the interests of those in power. A year in, it is clear that a failure to address this crisis, or a normalization of the corrupt conduct of this administration, risks lasting harm to the country.
The problems begin at the top. Indeed, the original sin of the Trump administration was the president’s decision to retain ownership of his businesses. While he has apparently transferred day-to-day management of his businesses to his sons, he continues to own his vast global empire of hotels, golf courses, office buildings, and other businesses; he knows what the companies are, he monitors their activities, he profits when the companies do, and the trust he formed allows him to access those profits at any time. That creates a massive web of conflicts of interest. For virtually every decision President Trump makes, from taxes to environmental regulations to foreign policy, the American people cannot be sure whether he made his decision in the public interest or to benefit his bottom line.
President Trump’s conduct in the past year has made clear that the conflicts of interest problem is not just theoretical; it is real. Countries from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia to China have provided business to the president in the form of hotel stays, special events, rental of office space, and the provision of valuable trademarks, among many other transactions that represent not only conflicts of interest but violations of the constitution’s prohibition on emoluments, meaning profit or gain, from foreign governments. The federal government, by allowing President Trump to hold an illegal lease for his Washington, D.C. hotel, and states like Maine, which paid for officials to stay in the president’s hotel, have also provided him with constitutionally prohibited benefits.
Meanwhile, President Trump has again and again used his office personally profit, most prominently by spending roughly a third of his days as president at his resorts, but also by constantly promoting his businesses, as he did when he wore hats sold by his campaign to hurricane relief photo opportunities. Those who pay to be members of his club or guests at his hotel obtain access to the president, and the possibility of influencing him, not available to regular Americans. No president in the history of our nation has held businesses creating the kinds of conflicts, constitutional violations, and self-dealing we see with this one.
But it does not stop there. A disregard for ethics at the highest levels often leads to mushrooming scandal and that is just what happened here. Beginning in January 2017 and continuing through the year, President Trump’s conduct toward the investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election has been increasingly troubling. Indeed, there is now significant evidence that President Trump may have obstructed justice. That began with his attempts to influence former FBI Director James Comey, demanding Comey’s loyalty and then asking him to back off of the investigation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and continued through his decision to fire Comey and his efforts to discredit the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, among other problematic actions. While special prosecutors have investigated past presidents, and specifically have investigated them for obstruction, no past president has faced a special prosecutor so early in his term.
A president sets the tone for an administration, and when President Trump made clear that he was not concerned with ethics rules, corruption laws, or democratic norms, the message spread like a cancer throughout the executive branch. The result is a vast array of ethics problems and improper influence among White House staff, cabinet officials, and senior agency officials.
The problem is bigger than Trump himself
The broader problems began in the administration’s first days. The appointments of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, to senior White House positions violated at least the spirit and purpose of the federal anti-nepotism law, and each of them brought a raft of potential conflicts of interest of their own into their jobs. Both Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner have business interests that present continuing conflicts, most visibly when the two of them attended a dinner with the Chinese president on the same day that the Chinese government provisionally approved new trademarks for Ms. Trump’s brand. Mr. Kushner’s dozens of amendments to his financial disclosure forms as more and more errors have been discovered, and his omission of significant information on his national security questionnaire, raise additional questions about his forthrightness and about whether he has sought to hide potential conflicts. CREW was among the first to call attention to these issues.
Similarly, several of President Trump’s cabinet members have been plagued by conflicts of interest stemming from massive financial holdings or prior positions that conflict with their job responsibilities. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has held on to massive interests in global shipping and natural gas companies, and he appears to have acted on matters that could affect these interests. He also appears to have failed to fully disclose his net worth and his ownership interest in problematic entities including the Bank of Cyprus. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has similarly continued to hold a significant interest in an education-related company that could present a significant conflict. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt attempted to get clearance to participate in cases and matters upon which he had worked, often in direct opposition to the EPA, while serving as Oklahoma Attorney General; ultimately, he partly but not fully backed down. CREW was active in uncovering the problems and demanding real remedies.
Ethics rules violations
Ethics rules violations have also been rampant in the administration’s first year. Two senior officials, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino Jr., were both found by the Office of Special Counsel to have violated federal law by using official Twitter accounts to post messages in favor of or against candidates for office, and two other officials are under investigation for similar political law violations. Perhaps even more troubling, multiple cabinet officials are under investigation for potential misuse of government resources for travel, with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigning after incurring more than $1 million in travel costs. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway misused her office to promote Ivanka Trump’s clothing brand, and EPA Administrator Pruitt has spent taxpayer money extravagantly, including on a $25,000 telephone booth.
While the president’s executive order on ethics purported to curtail the revolving door between the White House and lobbying in order to “drain the swamp,” in fact it contained significant loopholes, and the administration’s approach in practice has been much worse still. The administration hired multiple lobbyists, waived ethics and conflicts requirements for 17 officials, initially secretly, and worse still, has filled its ranks with numerous senior officials pulled from the industries they are now tasked with regulating.
Even as ethics violations and improper influence have become rampant throughout the executive branch, the administration and federal agencies have worked to keep their activities secret, blocking the transparency that allows Americans to uncover abuses and understand who is influencing decision-making. Agencies have been resisting obligations to disclose information under the Freedom of Information Act, and the White House has cut off access to visitor logs, which the Obama administration had made public. EPA Administrator Pruitt even instructed agency employees to avoid making records, in violation of the Federal Records Act, and the White House has appeared to violate the Presidential Records Act including by using messaging applications that do not preserve messages.
This report lays out all of these violations of law, ethics rules, and norms and many more, setting out an issue-by-issue accounting of a year characterized by contempt for ethical and legal obligations. Still, it only provides an overview of the administration’s ethics problems – so much is still unknown that we are only beginning to understand the scope of the problem. Nonetheless, looking back on the first year of the Trump administration, it is now clear that the president has operated with a clear disregard for ethics and the rule of law, and this attitude has infected his administration. From the smallest incidents of using official positions to promote hats or clothing to the most damning examples of business conflicts that could influence American foreign policy and systematic obstruction of justice, President Trump and his administration are sending a signal that they view the government as working for them, rather than for the American people. If we want government of the people, by the people, and for the people to continue, it is time for Congress, enforcement agencies, and most importantly the American people to demand an end to the violations and a return to an ethical and lawful government.