How the Trump Team Opened the Door to Questions about Financial Conflicts

The Trump administration’s refusal of advice from the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics leaves Americans wondering about improper connections between financial interests and government action.

May 10, 2018

In October, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a startling report that generated barely a whisper. Other than a handful of news accounts (see: ABCNews.com), there was little response to the report, which detailed how the Trump transition team broke with precedent by refusing advice from experts at the non-partisan Office of Government Ethics.

Lost in the noise of dozens of other controversies was the first non-partisan account of the early steps of the Trump administration. While Fire and Fury is dishier, the GAO report raises serious questions about the ethical foundation of the president’s team. Given the role of ethics to rein in the purchase of power, this report is a troubling reminder of the sometimes hidden relationship between money and politics.

Even after Congress passed new rules in early 2016, the transition remains shrouded in secrecy and can be an avenue of influence by donors and lobbyists eager to enjoy the spoils of victory. Insiders who surround a newly elected president have relished the limited transparency of the transition period, when hundreds of staffing and policy decisions are made.

Presidents Bush and Obama required that staffers sign ethical pledges, and the Trump transition did the same. Yet, as with so many other issues, the Trump team went out on their own, seeking almost no guidance from the Office of Government Ethics, and didn’t dedicate someone to provide ethical oversight. Officials at OGE told GAO that Trump repeatedly rejected offers of help.

This was a mistake. The OGE is a critical institution for any administration hoping to promote good governance, especially at its start, when what is and is not permitted is most unclear to the incoming team.

For an illustrative example of the new administration’s lack of interest in advice from OGE, take this passage from the GAO report (emphasis added):

OGE officials told us that they were not involved in developing the President-elect’s plan but offered to provide feedback, including recommendations for how he could resolve his potential conflicts of interest. According to OGE officials, they have not been asked to provide assistance to the President with how to resolve his potential conflicts of interest.

The indifference continued:

This disregard for OGE’s aid is dumbfounding and led to the July resignation of Director Walter Shaub. For a newly elected president with no background in government, the OGE could have provided needed institutional history and legal guidance.

Instead, OGE was ignored.

This would all be less worrisome if the administration’s actions hadn’t already raised concerns about potential purchases of power. Leaving aside questions about Michael Flynn’s foreign lobbying contracts or about what Jared Kushner did not disclose about his personal finances, what we do know is sufficiently concerning.

First, it’s well known that major contributors were appointed to cabinet positions, including: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Linda McMahon, the head of the Small Business Administration.

Second, lobbyists also fared well, though they -- but not their corporate clients -- were barred from donating to the inauguration. Lobbyists helped the Trump transition team raise $6.5 million from private sources, approximately $2.5 million more than the Obama team raised in 2008. Further, as of this past summer, the Trump administration had hired upwards of 100 lobbyists. Most haven’t been given an official ethics waiver by White House lawyers, the preferred practice in the past. Instead, selective recusal has been the favored approach of this administration, engendering little confidence in skeptics.

Third, with Trump’s presidency more than one year old, there are few signs that the suspect ethics established during the transition have been corrected. The ongoing investigations of Trump insiders will likely soon reveal many new details. But what’s not yet known is what is so distressing. Will former lobbyists take the ethical steps to limit worries about conflicts of interest? Will they sever not just financial relationships with former clients, but also relationships that favor access for certain interests over others?

It seems unlikely that this will occur when the President has failed to address his own financial conflicts. An effective OGE, listened to by the President, may be wishful thinking, but is the best chance to correct these errors and limit the purchasing power of special interests.

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Heath Brown is an associate professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition (Routledge, 2012).

 


Purchasing Power: The Conversation

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed commentary, fresh questions, and new answers about the facts of money in politics. Dive in to 'Purchasing Power: The Conversation' here. 

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