FORMER US ETHICS CHIEF: Trump's web of conflicts poses dangers to democracy

  • Trump’s conflicts of interest are costing taxpayers millions of dollars, says Walter Shaub, a former head of the US Office of Government Ethics.
  • The president’s casual approach to ethics sets a terrible precedent that must become “an aberration rather than the new rule,” he told Columbia Law School.

President Donald Trump made a bold claim after the US election: As president, he could not have any conflicts of interest.

“I could actually run my business,” Trump stated shortly before his inauguration. “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.”

Is that really true?

Not according to Walter Shaub, the former director of the US Office of Government Ethics, who resigned in July after publicly objecting to what he described as the Trump administration’s sloppy, dismissive approach to government ethics and avoiding conflicts of interest.

“That’s just baloney,” Shaub said of Trump’s no-conflict claim during a recent talk at Columbia University Law School.

Common sense dictates that you can have a conflict of interest — it’s anytime you have two interests and they conflict. The difference is that the law does not assign criminal penalties “to the actions of a sitting president.”

Shaub suggested the law stopped short of this because it did not envision a president doing such a thing. Trump has in fact not completely separated himself from his businesses, which are being run by his sons.

“Really what he’s saying is ‘I could do stuff that everybody who works for me would go to jail for doing,'” said Shaub. “That’s a pretty low standard to aspire to. Trump’s ‘half blind trust’ is totally bogus.”

The president’s ethical transgressions and blurring of lines are so extensive they are hard to fully document. Trump and his daughter Ivanka were granted key trademarks for their businesses in China just as the administration decided to take much softer tone on the country than it had suggested during the campaign.

He has spent much of his time in office at his own properties, giving them the sort of choice promotional advertising that’s hard to put a price tag on.

“One New Jersey club touted that if you booked a wedding Trump might pop in,” said Shaub, now a senior director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. “Every one of these trips is an advertisement for his properties. I don’t think people really appreciate the extravagant costs of his trips.”

Shaub said Trump’s disregard for ethics trickles down through his cabinet and staff, adding he’s not surprised by the string of scandals over private chartered flights and other luxuries normally reserved for corporate CEOs. “The tone was set at the top,” he said.

What’s the worst that could happen?

But here’s what really keeps Shaub up at night: precedent.

He’s worried that Trump is breaking so many ethical barriers and entrenching so many conflicts that future presidents and other politicians might be emboldened, sending the country down a corrupt path.

“I truly believe that government ethics is a nonpartisan issue,” he said. “I have great things to say about the two administrations I worked for before this, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both White Houses whatever you think of their policies were very supportive of ethics. Of course that ended abruptly this year.

“It’s important that this become an aberration rather than the new rule. And because I don’t think ethics belongs to either party, I think either party could be guilty of violating ethics, and my big fear is that somebody on the other side could say, ‘well that guy got away with it so now I can and you can’t question me.’ I think candidates from both parties need to hold themselves to an even higher standard for a period of time to make this is an aberration.”

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