Trump transition at times broke precedent on ethics: GAO

Trump transition at times broke precedent on ethics: GAO
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The Trump-Pence transition team at times broke with past precedent during its transfer into the White House, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The 48-page report primarily outlines how presidential transitions are run, but also compares how ethical recommendations were followed in various transitions.

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A group of Democrats in Congress are using the report as fuel to introduce legislation “to address the omissions in Presidential transition laws,” according to a press release.

“Overall, the GAO findings show a lack of attention to ethics and that precedents from previous Administrations were frequently broken - with little recourse from Congress,” reads a statement from Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Tech: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court fight | Warren backs bid to block AT&T, Time Warner merger | NC county refuses to pay ransom to hackers Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (D-Mass.) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Overnight Cybersecurity: Mueller probe cost .7M in early months | Senate confirms Homeland Security nominee | Consumer agency limits data collection | Arrest in Andromeda botnet investigation Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank MORE (D-Del.), and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the lead Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

While GAO worked extensively with the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to help complete its research, the independent office said it received no response from the Office of White House Counsel, the vice president’s office — which it contacted because Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence allies worried he'll be called to answer questions from Mueller: report Trump thought it was ‘low class’ for Pence to bring pets to VP residence: report Pence told RNC he could replace Trump on ticket after 'Access Hollywood' tape came out: report MORE helmed the transition — or the transition’s other top officials when they reached out for an interview.

"It is outrageous that President Trump's transition team and Vice President Pence's office in the White House refused to even speak to the nonpartisan auditors at GAO about [how] they spent taxpayer funds during the transition," said Cummings in a statement. “Their refusal to cooperate with GAO fits the unfortunate pattern we have seen from this White House of secrecy and a lack of accountability.”

The White House and office of the vice president said they are still reviewing the report.

The primary issues in the report highlighted by Democrats include the lack of communication from President-elect Trump with OGE to work out some of his potential conflicts of interest, and the lack of oversight the transition had over its own ethics pledge.

Although the Trump-Pence transition came up with a code of ethics — one that prompted several lobbyists to leave the transition, rather than get shed clients — there was never an ethics official hired to ensure the rules were being followed.

“Under these codes, members committed to disqualifying themselves from involvement in matters which may directly pose a financial conflict of interest or from matters in which they engaged in regulated lobbying activities,” the GAO report says. “Transition Team members also committed to refraining from accepting gifts under certain circumstances, keeping confidential any nonpublic information provided in the course of the transition, and refraining from using (or permitting use) of such information for private gain, among other things.”

During the Obama-Biden transition following the 2008 election, a general counsel was designated as an ethics expert. Meanwhile the Trump-Pence team “did not identify any officials or entities to provide oversight,” GAO says.

“This report highlights some glaring inefficiencies in our country's presidential transition process, especially when it comes to ethics,” Carper said. “It's clear now that every incoming administration should partake in ethics training to ensure it operates smoothly from the start, recognizes and prevents conflicts of interest, and protects the interests of the American people above all else.” 

In a January news conference, prior to the inauguration, a lawyer for Trump outlined how his expansive assets would be handled once he took office. 

The ultimate decision was not to divest any assets that may cause conflicts, or put his vast financial holdings into a blind trust, both of which are common recommendations. 

OGE said the transition team did not seek advice for how best to handle any conflicts. The president is not subject to federal conflict of interest laws, but it has been a tradition for other presidents to follow them. Obama divested himself of any potential conflicting assets, the report says.

The trio of Democrats is also taking aim at Trump’s decision not to hire a government ethics expert, Deputy White House Counsel Stefan Passantino, until after the inauguration. That went against advice from OGE, but the report says that the Obama-Biden transition also waited until Obama took office to make the same hire.

Aside from the analysis on ethics, the report also contains some noteworthy figures.

The Pence-Trump transition raised $6.5 million from more than 3,000 private donations ranging in value from $1 to $5,000 from June 23, 2016, to Feb. 14, 2017.

Travel and relocation cost the most, with $1.8 million in the private funds being used for that purpose. The transition spent about $1 million of those private funds on payroll.

The transition was also provided $7 million in federal funds, according to the report, which cites the General Services Administration.  

By Jan. 31, 2017, the transition had spent $3.13 million for expenses to be used by the president-elect and vice-president elect, with 60 percent of that amount going toward paying for the 110 members of the transition team.

About $1.2 million was spent on domestic travel for Vice President-elect Pence and transition personnel, primarily for charter flights. Using charter aircraft is approved by GSA, which “reviews the invoices for reasonableness by comparing the vendor’s rates to GSA rate schedules for similar services." President-elect Trump did not use any of the federal funds available, according to the GSA.

By July 31, 2017, it reported using $4.39 million. 

The GAO says that the same figures are not readily available for the Obama-Biden transition or the Bush-Cheney transition.

Per the request from Congress, GAO also looked into contact with foreign leaders prior to Trump entering the White House.

The office reviewed call logs kept by the State Department and found that it connected 16 calls between foreign leaders and Pence from Dec. 1 through Dec. 8. The State Department says the calls were congratulatory, but it did not participate in them. It did not connect Trump with any foreign leaders during this time.

From Election Day to the Inauguration, the Trump transition website says 60 calls came from foreign leaders, to both Trump and Pence, with many occurring before the incoming administration had installed any landing team members at the State Department on Nov. 18.

GAO also looked at the State Department call logs during the Obama-Biden transition, from the 2008 election until Obama entered the Oval Office. It had connected about 70 calls to both Obama and Biden. 

This story has been updated.