A new dawn of White House ethics

A new dawn of White House ethics
© Getty Images

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE took office promising to clean up the carnage that he said beset the American landscape. The next president is more likely to open up with pledge to restore government ethics customs ravaged by the Trump presidency.

But a mere call for a “return to normalcy,” no matter how heartfelt, will not be enough. To insulate against the ascendance of another president who couples a billion-dollar net worth with a blatant lack of regard for conflicts of interest, Congress and the next administration must take action to fill gaps in executive branch ethics laws and rules.

This month, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Public Citizen issued a 13-point plan to “Trump Proof” the government against a sequel. Many of the items have garnered a great deal of attention for the duration of this administration. Others are more beneath the surface or have yet to manifest themselves. But all represent opportunities for abuse by administrations intent on exploiting porous ethics laws.

We recommend that presidents be required to divest themselves of all assets that could pose a conflict-of-interest risk within 30 days of taking office and that Congress deem disclosure of recent tax returns a condition of appearing on the presidential ballot.

In addition, gaps in financial disclosure requirements for federal candidates and officeholders must be closed. Most important here is instituting ranges on financial disclosure forms for debts above $50 million in place of the current regime, which simply requires filers to whom that category applies to check a “greater than $50 million” box. A similar shortcoming should be closed for disclosure of income, for which the current catch-all category starts at $5 million.

The Office of Government Ethics, which is in charge of monitoring compliance with disclosure and conflict of interest laws in the executive branch, should be strengthened. This could be accomplished by giving the office enforcement authority in addition to its current advisory role. Alternatively, an overarching inspector general’s office could be created to investigate potential ethics issues, if referred by OGE, throughout the executive branch, including the White House.

Numerous laws should be tweaked to prevent government officials from using the machinery of government to serve their own purposes. Among these, the anti-nepotism law should be clarified to stipulate beyond any doubt that presidents are prohibited from appointing their relatives to any position in the executive branch, and the size of federal contracts that a president’s family member may receive should be limited.

Further, the definitions of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their offices to influence elections, should be tightened, and authority should be given to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Special Counsel to investigate potential violations of it. Bright lines should be drawn to prevent the White House from unduly interfering in Justice Department affairs.

Additionally, rules should be updated to ensure that ethics laws apply to all outside advisers, to protect the integrity of government decision-making at all levels. Reasonable ethics and transparency rules should be applied to presidential transition teams, which, in turn should be funded by the public rather than private contributions. All White House visitor logs should be disclosed to the public.

Further, gifts to public officials and entities controlled by public officials should be regulated much more closely. This means that contributions to inaugural committees should be restricted to the size of campaign contributions and be permitted from U.S. citizens only. Gifts to sitting presidents for their libraries or other legacy-building endeavors also should be governed by the same rules that apply to campaign contributions, if they are permitted at all. Rules and transparency requirements for legal defense funds established by executive branch officials should be enhanced.

Some of the gaps in ethics laws noted above have been exploited by Trump’s predecessors. Meanwhile, neither Trump nor members of his administration have (yet) taken advantage of all of them. But Trump’s disregard for his predecessors’ custom of avoiding both the appearance and reality of conflicts of interest is in a league of its own. If he is to enjoy a favorable mention in the eyes of history, it might be for prompting the passage of a new dawn of ethics standards and inspiring a movement that truly seeks to “drain the swamp.”

Lisa Gilbert is a vice president of Public Citizen. Jennifer Ahearn is the policy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.