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Westeros on the Potomac

Our view: Well-established ethical norms have been all but ignored by Donald Trump; it’s time to set some tougher rules

In "Game of Thrones," the popular HBO series that returned for a seventh season this week, the kings and queens of mythical Westeros have a brazen disregard for anything that doesn't provide them with greater wealth or power. Indeed, the most prominent character of honor on the show, Ned Stark, was killed off in the first season. For the average viewer, watching the self-indulgent and duplicitous behavior of those seeking to sit on the Iron Throne is initially shocking but, after it happens over and over again, soon seems normal. The non-royals of the seven kingdoms — peasants, soldiers, tradesmen and the like — have little choice but to accept the machinations of those in power, some loyally, others ruefully.

And then there's the current occupant of the White House who may not swing a sword or command dragons but seems to have adopted an approach to ethics well suited for the fantasy world. It is nothing for such a person to spend his weekends at his private golf courses or resorts, promoting events there and enriching his business. Nor does it seem to strike anyone in the Trump administration as improper that foreign governments are booking events at his D.C. hotel in an obvious attempt to curry favor. It's become such an established pattern with President Donald Trump, who has spent 21 of his first 26 weekends in office at his properties, that it's easy to forget what a break from tradition such behavior represents.

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No previous commander in chief has brought with him such a sprawling business empire with so much complexity, opaqueness and opportunity for self-dealing.

Four decades ago, Jimmy Carter famously had to put his share of a family peanut farm and warehouse into a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest. Every president since then has put his assets into a blind trust — meaning they were put under control of a third party with whom the president would have no communication or influence, and would not even know in what form the assets were held. Mr. Trump hasn't done that. His adult children manage his properties, but he still profits from them. The voters who elected him president aren't even allowed to know exactly what Mr. Trump's finances look like as he has refused to voluntarily share his income tax returns in another break with longstanding tradition.

Most Americans probably wouldn't recognize Walter M. Shaub Jr. if he knocked on their door and offered them free HBO, but he resigned from his post at head of the Office of Government Ethics on Tuesday in protest of how the Trump administration has flouted ethics laws and traditions. On his way out the door, he's offering an important message: The U.S. needs to toughen the federal ethics system. President Trump's behavior is quickly making America something of an international joke — too much like one of the more craven characters from Westeros and too little like the leader of the real-life western world. The fix? Congress needs to mandate the disclosure of tax returns, give its ethics chief subpoena power over records and generally force presidents to do what Mr. Trump's predecessors did voluntarily to avoid conflicts of interest.

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FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2017 file photo, Walter Shaub Jr., director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics walks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Shaub, who prodded President Donald Trump’s administration over conflicts of interest is resigning to take a new job, at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit in Washington that mostly focuses on violations of campaign finance law. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2017 file photo, Walter Shaub Jr., director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics walks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Shaub, who prodded President Donald Trump’s administration over conflicts of interest is resigning to take a new job, at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit in Washington that mostly focuses on violations of campaign finance law. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Such a proposal will, of course, require bipartisan support but given precedent — Republicans Ronald Reagan and both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush generally complied with such ethics recommendations, as did Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — this should not be impossible. Even if these hyper-partisan times, it's not difficult to judge right from wrong. Baltimore's own Elijah Cummings, ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is planning to submit legislation to improve the ethics process soon and "instill confidence in the Office of Government Ethics." We would hope that such an approach would garner support from Chairman Trey Gowdy and other GOP members.

As entertaining as "Game of Thrones" may be, it's not an approach to governance that deserves to be put into practice. Congress needs to set an ethical standard that will be followed by administrations of all shapes and sizes, by Democrats and Republicans alike, by billionaire developers or community organizers. The nation's trust in the federal government is at or near a low point, polls show. Surely, the least lawmakers can do is provide some legal backbone so that current and future officeholders will adhere to ethical standards that can be admired — and copied — around the world because the current ones are failing.

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