Juan Williams: Ethics cloud hangs over Trump

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In his final interview as the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he is “proud of the fact with two weeks to go, we are probably the first administration in modern history that has not had a major scandal in the White House.”

How long will President Donald Trump be able make that boast? 

{mosads}To his critics, Trump’s failure to divest himself from his global business empire, including deals with foreign governments, is already a scandal.

 

But the minute the head of the Office of Government Ethics started asking questions about Trump’s failure to separate his business deals from his presidency, something odd happened: Republicans in Congress began attacking the watchdogs.

It is hard not to go wide-eyed at the political hypocrisy on display. How can Republicans on Capitol Hill — who spent eight years trying to tar President Obama with charges of corruption — close their eyes to the potential conflicts of interest percolating around the new president?

Even more glaring is the preemptive effort to undermine future charges of corruption against Trump. Right-wing critics argue that Obama is not so scandal-free after all — a charge which, if true, would make it harder to compare Trump unfavorably to him. They cite three cases, each with a catchy shorthand title: “IRS Tea Party Targeting;” “Fast and Furious;” and “Benghazi.”

Those cases are full of bad judgment, even stupidity. But the allegation that they demonstrate actual corruption reveals more about Obama’s critics than anything else.

Let’s review:

First, the IRS case: Under Obama, the IRS supposedly targeted his critics in Tea Party-affiliated groups for investigation after they claimed tax-exempt status. Numerous investigations by Congress and the press showed none of the groups in question was denied tax-exempt status. And some liberal groups were subject to the same extra scrutiny.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) provided the bottom line when he decided there was not enough evidence to hold a vote on an impeachment resolution against the IRS Commissioner. 

Second, the case nicknamed “Fast and Furious”:

In a botched attempt to expose illegal gun sales to Mexican drug dealers, federal agents allowed guns to be sold to people illegally supplying arms to the cartels. Their intent was to track the guns and then arrest the gunrunners and the drug dealers.

But the gun-walking program was started by the Bush administration and ended by Obama’s Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder. The case led to Holder becoming the first attorney general to be voted in contempt of Congress but no charges were ever brought against any administration official. 

Third, the charge of scandal over how Obama’s team handled a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton allegedly failed to help Americans during the attack. Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.

Once again, multiple Republican-led congressional committees spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to investigate the events. And once again, they came up empty. No charges were ever filed against administration officials.

Where are the Republican bloodhounds these days?

They are aiming fire at the Director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, who tried to rouse the GOP majority in Congress to bark about Trump’s refusal to divest from his businesses. Trump, as president-elect, argued that he needed to do nothing more than put his sons in charge of running those businesses.

Trump’s plan, Shaub said earlier this month, “doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the last four decades have met.”

“We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit,” he concluded.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), one of the Obama administration’s most persistent critics, immediately turned away from Trump’s failure to play by the rules of government ethics. He said Shaub was guilty of “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance” by talking publicly about Trump’s finances.  

In a Washington Post column last week, Richard Painter, the top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, and Norman Eisen, the chief ethics lawyer for President Obama, called on Congress to stop allowing Trump to hide his questionable ethics.

“For two weeks now, the majority leadership in the new Congress and the incoming Trump administration have been conducting a war on ethics,” they wrote. “This has ranged from the effort to cripple the Office of Congressional Ethics to the Senate’s rush to confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees before their financial conflicts disclosures were complete to Trump’s own inadequate plan to address his ethical problems.”

The nominees being referenced include Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.). He is facing tough questions from Senate Democrats over allegations that he used his position as a congressman to increase the value of pharmaceutical company stock he owned. Price denies the allegations. 

Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, had not completed her review with the Office of Government Ethics before she testified in her confirmation hearings, prompting Democratic senators to ask for additional rounds of questioning when they had all the information. 

A Pew poll taken last month found that among the general public, “65% say they are either very (45%) or somewhat (20%) concerned that Trump’s ties to groups conflict with his ability to serve the country’s best interests; 34% say they are not too (14%) or not at all (20%) concerned about this.”

As President Trump begins his first week on the job, he would do well to remember the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who once said “ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

Juan Williams is an author and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Eric Holder Hillary Clinton Jason Chaffetz Paul Ryan

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