There’s nothing funny about the Trump administration’s ethics being called “close to a laughingstock” by someone who knows.
Departing federal ethics chief Walter M. Shaub Jr., who tangled nonstop for months with our nation’s ethics-challenged president, delivered that assessment this week on his way out the door. It was a warning well worth heeding.
Better yet, Shaub made several specific suggestions — all good though none necessarily doable — to force the White House to clean up its act.
The White House is expected to set a standard for etthical behavior for the nation, as well as for governments around the world. And while conflict-of-interest laws generally do not apply to a president, past chief executives have been careful to abide by their spirit. They have divested assets and put their investments into blind trusts. They have released their tax returns. They have in myriad ways tried to create a wall between what’s good for their bankbook and what’s good for the nation.
They have done everything, that is to say, that Donald Trump shows no interest in doing.
The result, for this White House, has been a carnival of transgressions. The Trump family cheerfully collects valuable trademark protections from foreign governments, and Trump promotes his properties through constant visits. Foreign governments pay to use Trump properties. A Cabinet official encourages the public to see a movie he produced. A White House adviser publicly hawks merchandise sold by the president’s daughter.
Asking Trump to abide by recognized ethical norms has proved to be a waste of time. Shaming doesn’t work on the shameless. Shaub believes the only recourse is to impose actually legal limits on this president and future presidents. Among his proposals, he says the ethics office should be able to require presidential candidates release tax returns; have limited power to subpoena records; be able to negotiate prohibitions on conflicts of interest involving the president, and strengthen financial disclosure rules.
Getting such laws through a Republican Congress won’t be easy. Actually, it will be impossible. This is a crowd that can’t even get worked up about the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. At minimum, though, Congress should demand that Trump appoint another bulldog on ethics, not a lapdog, to replace Shaub.
The job requires somebody who is unafraid to tell the president to behave, which we know must be tiring.
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