Steve Mnuchin jet request only the start of White House ethics issues

Steve Mnuchin’s career in the financial world was often cited as among his qualifications for secretary of Treasury. Possibly less well known is his experience as an executive producer of big Hollywood movies.  But what is his most randomly ironic experience is his one acting credit in a small role in last year’s major film, “Rules Don’t Apply.”

While about Howard Hughes, the tile would also be the perfect title for a film about the Trump administration’s approach to ethics, and Mnuchin would have a larger role.

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Among the Trump administration “ethics issues of the week” was the recent revelation that Mnuchin had requested the use of a government plane to take him and his wife, Louise Linton, on their European honeymoon. While Treasury claimed the highly unusual request was to ensure there was a secure line of communications, it was ultimately decided there were far less expensive ways to protect communications.

But this was not an isolated incident for Mnuchin. Treasury’s inspector general is reportedly looking into Mnuchin’s use of a government aircraft for a trip he and his wife took in August to Fort Knox, Ky, which turned out to be a great place for them to view the full eclipse of the sun.

To make matters worse, Louise Linton posted a picture of herself on Instagram getting off the plane with hashtags for the clothing brands she was wearing. When someone criticized her, she responded, “Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololo.”

What made her response so AO&D (absurdly obnoxious & dishonest) was that her husband had already tried and failed to get the government to provide a plane for their honeymoon travel, which seems to fit the definition of a personal trip. It seems Mnuchin and Linton do not quite get the concept that government resources are not for their personal use.

If these were isolated instances involving one cabinet official, it would be worthy of our concern.  But, unfortunately, these were not isolated events. They are part of a seemingly endless torrent of ethics issues coming out of the Trump administration.

President Trump set the ethics tone for his administration, starting with his refusal to release his tax returns or divest himself of his business interests. Prior to taking office, he held a press conference, complete with stacks of files as props, to announce he would put his business interests in a trust run by his children. But it is a relatively meaningless trust which does little to separate himself from his businesses.

Then, rather than showing sensitivity for concerns about his conflicts of interest, he has made every effort to use the presidency to promote Trump properties, including regularly visiting the Trump International Hotel, where representatives of foreign governments pay to stay, and spending weekends at Mar-a-Lago, the southern White House, meeting with foreign officials and interacting with paying members of the resort.

Not only will he profit from any increased business, some of the business is coming from the Secret Service, who use our taxpayers to pay for the space they need to protect him.

With these and many other actions, he is creating an ethical culture in which there are no conflicts of interest. Rather, self-interest is the only interest. It is this culture that allows people like Secretary Mnuchin to act as if they are not concerned with whether their actions conform to ethical norms, but only with what they can get away with. And, Mnuchin is far from alone.  

For example, according to reports, Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight 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 Energy: Watchdog probes Pruitt speech to mining group | EPA chief promises to let climate scientists present their work | Volkswagen manager gets 7 years for emissions cheating Scott Pruitt's year of environmental destruction MORE, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, billed the government for numerous questionable trips to Oklahoma, while other government officials promote private businesses and nepotism norms are ignored.

The lack of concern for ethics norms not only enriches government officials, but can result in policies that serve special interests and not the American people. Despite promises to drain the swamp, an analysis by the New York Times and ProPublica, found that administration positions are being filled “with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who in many cases are helping to craft new policies for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck.”

Ethics rules and norms are part of the foundation of democracy. When the public believes leaders are motivated by self-interest and not public interest, faith in government decisions is eroded, no matter how well founded those decisions may be. That damage to the belief in the integrity of the government can become so extensive that the democracy itself is undermined. We have not yet reached that point (I hope), but we are on that path.

President Trump needs to understand that, unlike any other job he has held, the presidency is not about what is best for him. It is a job where the only interest is the public interest. Unfortunately, this seems like a hard concept for him to grasp. But that is why we have to continue to fight the current ethics culture becoming the norm by calling out attempts, like those of Steve Mnuchin, to use government resources for personal benefit. In the end, we have to show Rules Do Apply, even to the Trump administration.

Larry Noble is a senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. He was general counsel of the Federal Election Commission from 1987 to 2000.