The Trump administration’s corruption has revealed fundamental gaps and loopholes in America’s federal ethics laws. Longstanding norms and principles, to which prior administrations largely adhered, have proven ill-equipped to constrain a president and political appointees who are willing to brazenly flout them without repercussion.
Over the past two years, American Oversight has uncovered numerous instances of questionable and unethical behavior by members of the Trump administration, from obvious lies to blatant conflicts of interest and abuses of power. Each week, a new scandal fills our newspapers and TV screens, only to be replaced the next week with news of another transgression. Some officials — former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and former EPA Administration Scott Pruitt, for instance — faced repercussions for their actions and have left office. But the corruption runs deep. Public pressure on individual bad actors is not enough; reforms addressing the systemic weaknesses that have allowed this corruption to flourish are needed.
Last month, the House passed the For the People Act (also known as H.R. 1), which includes reforms to close the loopholes this administration has exploited. On Wednesday, a companion bill is being introduced in the Senate. In addition to reforming campaign-finance rules and expanding voting rights, the legislation would strengthen ethics requirements for government officials — including the president — to ensure that their work is conducted in the interest of the people and not for personal benefit.
The legislation would not only require the president, vice president, and future candidates to disclose at least ten years’ worth of tax returns — a practice that has been the norm over the last half-century — it would also subject the president and vice president to many of the same rules that apply to other federal officials.
Before taking office, Trump surprised many with his declaration that he “can’t have a conflict” of interest. While this is obviously incorrect on its face — Trump has plenty of conflicts of interest — from a legal standpoint, the laws prohibiting such conflicts don’t apply to the president. Under H.R. 1, the president would be required either to divest from financial interests that could conflict with official duties or to put those holdings in a qualified blind trust. The change to the law would apply to Trump’s personal financial stake in the Trump Organization, including the Trump International Hotel.
By keeping the hotel in his personal portfolio, the president bulldozed what had appeared to be formidable safeguards against conflicts of interest, making a clear case for why legislative reforms are needed. The hotel has served as a headquarters for the president’s undrained swamp, a place for foreign diplomats and lobbyists to use their wallets to ingratiate themselves with and influence the administration. Moreover, the hotel’s very location — housed in the government-owned Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C. — is problematic because the Trump Organization’s lease prohibits elected officials from leasing the building or financially benefiting from the arrangement. Nevertheless, the General Services Administration, which controls the lease, engaged in a strained legal analysis in 2017 to conclude that the arrangement could continue after Trump’s election. A year and a half later, the GSA inspector general determined that the agency had ignored the Constitution in its decision.
In addition to the obvious corruption of lawmakers, lobbyists, and diplomats funneling money to the president, the hotel created opportunities for other conflicts of interest. In 2017, for example, Trump apparently took a personal interest in longstanding plans to relocate the FBI headquarters from its current location a block away from the hotel and to build a private development (potentially including another private hotel) in its place. After the president got involved, the plan was shelved. American Oversight has filed lawsuits with multiple federal agencies to shed more light on whether Trump interfered to prevent competition with his business. And earlier this year, the Old Post Office Tower — attached to the hotel and operated by the National Park Service — was reopened in the middle of the 35-day government shutdown, while other national parks remained shuttered.
This administration’s corruption extends beyond the president, and the legislation pending before Congress would help end it. According to calendars obtained by American Oversight, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross met with industry groups that he had (or continued to have) financial stakes in, and on multiple occasions falsely stated that he had divested from. Similarly, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist whose confirmation hearing to be permanent head of the department will take place on Thursday, continued to provide advice to a former client after telling Congress he’d stopped lobbying. Bernhardt reportedly has so many conflicts of interest that he carries around a card listing them all.
The For the People Act would strengthen the Office of Government Ethics, which today is relatively toothless and essentially only able to make recommendations and raise concerns. The legislation would grant the office the authority to issue subpoenas during the course of investigations and to impose disciplinary actions on officials who violate ethics rules, and would limit the president’s ability to remove the OGE director except for cause.
The legislation also addresses the influence-peddling that happens once officials leave government. A ProPublica report found that more than 30 former Trump administration officials have used loopholes to sidestep the president’s porous ban on lobbying and are now lobbying the administration. Scott Pruitt, for example, after resigning under a cloud of ethics scandals, is now consulting for the coal industry. The new legislation would place tougher limits on those entering and exiting the government so that lobbyists who join the administration are not working on behalf of former clients and those who leave do not have special access to decision-makers.
Senators Tom Udall, Jeff Merkley and Chuck Schumer are unveiling the Senate’s bill on Wednesday, March 27. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s has vowed that he will not bring the bill up for a vote. But the conversation is critical. Moreover, the House, which passed H.R. 1 on a party-line vote on March 8, has not ended its efforts. Earlier this week, the Committee on Oversight and Reform passed two component bills that break out pieces of the original bill. One, the Executive Branch Comprehensive Enforcement Act, deals with strengthening the OGE; the other, the Transition Team Ethics Improvement Act, would impose ethics rules on presidential transition teams.
American Oversight’s mission is to hold government officials accountable for any violations of public trust. However, when office-holders are caught flouting rules or exploiting gaps in the law, it is important to consider reforms that will make it more difficult for future officials to engage in such violations. H.R. 1 and its accompanying Senate bill respond to many of the weaknesses in our existing ethics rules and norms. Although no new law can perfectly protect the public from officials determined to act in their own self-interest, these bills embody one of the core tenets of our constitutional system: the ability for our government to oversee itself.