Trump’s supporters balk at the idea that the president-elect would use his office to enrich his businesses.
President Donald Trump isn't draining the swamp in Washington. He's shrouding it in a veil of secrecy and pumping in more slime.
Among his first acts in office was to rescind President Barack Obama's executive order limiting the revolving door between government service and lobbying and issuing his own, somewhat weaker version. But it turns out the relative merits of the two are irrelevant because the Trump administration seems to be ignoring its rule altogether.
An analysis by the New York Times and Pro Publica found at least 40 lobbyists appointed to White House and other federal posts by the Trump administration, including several who are now in charge of agencies they recently lobbied on matters ranging from energy policy to rules for financial advisers to the equipment used to screen carry-on luggage at airports. Other news reports have identified lobbyists who worked for big business on environmental and communications issues who are now in charge of regulating the very same things.
But the truth is we have no idea how many such people may be salted away in the bureaucracy. Whenever the Obama administration violated its ban on lobbyists, it publicly identified the people in question and issued a written justification, following the standard that such employees could only be hired if no one else in government could do the job. It did so 66 times over eight years. Mr. Trump has not only abandoned that practice but his administration has sought to stonewall efforts to identify any waivers it has issued.
In April, Walter M. Shaub Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, sent a request to every federal agency asking for lists of any waivers that had been granted by June 1. Such a request is entirely in keeping with the office's authority under law and with precedent. But the White House budget director asked for a stay of the request until the administration could investigate "potential legal questions" it might raise. In a statement, the Office of Management and Budget decried the ethics watchdog's move as political and criticized its "expansive scope and breathless timetable."
Mr. Shaub responded with a 10-page letter outlining his office's statutory authority to request the documents, statements from congressional committees reiterating their intent that the office should have access to them, and dozens of examples of information requests like it that previous administrations had complied with, no questions asked. Notably, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley pressured the Office of Government Ethics to make precisely the same sort of inquiry when the Obama administration took office eight years ago.
But Mr. Shaub, who was appointed by President Obama to the job, which is designed to overlap administrations, has committed the sin of publicly speaking truths President Trump doesn't want to hear. After Mr. Trump's election, he insisted that the new president needed to divest himself of his business interests, and in January, he called the president-elect's plan to avoid possible conflicts of interest by handing the day-to-day management of his businesses over to his sons "wholly inadequate" and "meaningless." In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Mr. Shaub memorably observed, "I don't think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States of America."
If Mr. Trump had any intention of following the Office of Government Ethics' advice on how to avoid potential corruption or self-dealing in government — and there is little indication he did — he certainly wouldn't after that. This is, after all, a president who was willing to fire an FBI chief who put honesty above loyalty and whose administration was willing to hire Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser despite knowing he was under investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for a foreign government because Mr. Trump said he was a "good guy."
Congress needs to step in. The level of potential conflicts posed by Mr. Trump's business holdings and his utter lack of concern for the ethical standards presidents of both parties have honored are mind boggling. Eighteen House Democrats, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings and including Maryland's Jamie Raskin and John Sarbanes, sent a letter to Mr. Shaub last week supporting his effort and urging him to publicly post whatever documents he receives, but the Republicans who control Congress need to use their authority to ensure the administration complies with the requests. While they're at it, they could take steps to solidify the independence of Mr. Shaub's office, starting by making it clear in statute that he and his successors can only be fired for cause. After what happened to James Comey, we worry that he or anyone else who intends to do the job properly won't survive for long under President Trump.