The Most Unethical Presidency

Published: January 29, 2018

By Jim Lichtman
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Friday’s revelations that President Trump called for the firing of Special Counsel Robert Muller III last June, and would have, had it not been for the threatened resignation by White House counsel, Donald McGahn II, is yet another piece of a growing mosaic that may lead to the conclusion that the president obstructed justice.

Writing in The New York Times (Jan. 26), Norman Eisen, who served as ethics counselor to President Obama, and Richard Painter, who served in the same capacity for President George W. Bush acknowledge, “Whether Mr. Trump engaged in obstruction of justice is, of course, yet to be determined. But we already know the F.B.I. director James Comey said that Mr. Trump asked him to back off on the Russian election meddling inquiry, and in particular on investigating his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and that Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey when he refused to abide by these instructions. We have also seen reports that Mr. Trump directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, despite Mr. Sessions’s clear legal obligation to do so.”

This is yet another episode in the ongoing Trump administration tragic/comic opera that continues to grind away at America’s democratic soul week after week resulting in more division and less unity than Trump promised the night before his inauguration.

Recently Painter and Eisen, along with executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Noah Bookbinder, a former federal corruption prosecutor, released a critical report, “The Most Unethical Presidency: Year One

Who is CREW?

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is a “nonprofit organization [that] not only highlight the negative impact of money in politics but take direct action to ensure accountability for those who abuse the political system and to change that system for the better.”

In the introduction to the thirty-four-page, deeply footnoted report, Bookbinder, Eisen, Painter, and the CREW staff paint a picture of an administration — from the top down — rife with conflicts of interests, constitutional violations as well as personal infringements.

“The Trump administration,” CREW writes, “is confronted by an extraordinary scale and scope of legal and ethics scandals. It is unrivaled in the modern era, and perhaps in the history of the nation, for a first-year administration. The conduct of this administration, from the president on down, threatens our centuries-old tradition of a government that functions to serve the interests of the American people, rather than to serve the interests of those in power. A year in, it is clear that a failure to address this crisis, or a normalization of the corrupt conduct of this administration, risks lasting harm to the country.

“…the original sin of the Trump administration was the president’s decision to retain ownership of his businesses. While he has apparently transferred day-to-day management of his businesses to his sons, he continues to own his vast global empire of hotels, golf courses, office buildings, and other businesses; he knows what the companies are, he monitors their activities, he profits when the companies do, and the trust he formed allows him to access those profits at any time. That creates a massive web of conflicts of interest. …

“President Trump’s conduct in the past year has made clear that the conflicts of interest problem is not just theoretical; it is real. Countries from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia to China have provided business to the president in the form of hotel stays, special events, rental of office space, and the provision of valuable trademarks, among many other transactions that represent not only conflicts of interest but violations of the constitution’s prohibition on emoluments, meaning profit or gain, from foreign governments. …

“Meanwhile,” CREW writes, “President Trump has again and again used his office to personally profit, most prominently by spending roughly a third of his days as president at his resorts, but also by constantly promoting his businesses, as he did when he wore hats sold by his campaign to hurricane relief photo opportunities.

“No president in the history of our nation has held businesses creating the kinds of conflicts, constitutional violations, and self-dealing we see with this one. …

“…Beginning in January 2017 and continuing through the year, President Trump’s conduct toward the investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election has been increasingly troubling. Indeed, there is now significant evidence that President Trump may have obstructed justice. That began with his attempts to influence former FBI Director James Comey, demanding Comey’s loyalty and then asking him to back off of the investigation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and continued through his decision to fire Comey and his efforts to discredit the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, among other problematic actions. While special prosecutors have investigated past presidents, and specifically have investigated them for obstruction, no past president has faced a special prosecutor so early in his term.”

And it doesn’t end there.

“…The appointments of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, to senior White House positions violated at least the spirit and purpose of the federal anti-nepotism law, and each of them brought a raft of potential conflicts of interest of their own into their jobs. Both Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner have business interests that present continuing conflicts, most visibly when the two of them attended a dinner with the Chinese president on the same day that the Chinese government provisionally approved new trademarks for Ms. Trump’s brand. …

“Similarly, several of President Trump’s cabinet members have been plagued by conflicts of interest… Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has held on to massive interests in global shipping and natural gas companies, and he appears to have acted on matters that could affect these interests. He also appears to have failed to fully disclose his net worth and his ownership interest in problematic entities including the Bank of Cyprus.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has similarly continued to hold a significant interest in an education-related company that could present a significant conflict.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt attempted to get clearance to participate in cases and matters upon which he had worked, often in direct opposition to the EPA, while serving as Oklahoma Attorney General; ultimately, he partly but not fully backed down…

“…Two senior officials, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino Jr., were both found by the Office of Special Counsel to have violated federal law by using official Twitter accounts to post messages in favor of or against candidates for office, and two other officials are under investigation for similar political law violations.”

Draining the Swamp?

“While the president’s executive order on ethics purported to curtail the revolving door between the White House and lobbying in order to ‘drain the swamp,’ in fact it contained significant loopholes, and the administration’s approach in practice has been much worse still. The administration hired multiple lobbyists, waived ethics and conflicts requirements for 17 officials, initially secretly, and worse still, has filled its ranks with numerous senior officials pulled from the industries they are now tasked with regulating.

“Even as ethics violations and improper influence have become rampant throughout the executive branch, the administration and federal agencies have worked to keep their activities secret, blocking the transparency that allows Americans to uncover abuses and understand who is influencing decision-making.

“Agencies have been resisting obligations to disclose information under the Freedom of Information Act, and the White House has cut off access to visitor logs, which the Obama administration had made public. EPA Administrator Pruitt even instructed agency employees to avoid making records, in violation of the Federal Records Act, and the White House has appeared to violate the Presidential Records Act including by using messaging applications that do not preserve messages.

“…looking back on the first year of the Trump administration,” CREW concludes, “it is now clear that the president has operated with a clear disregard for ethics and the rule of law, and this attitude has infected his administration. … President Trump and his administration are sending a signal that they view the government as working for them, rather than for the American people.”

However, I’m more concerned about what we don’t know, and what will happen in the next three years that will only foster more distrust in governmental institutions and processes.


  1. Thanks Jim for summarizing these major ethical breaches!

    “No president in the history of our nation has held businesses creating the kinds of conflicts, constitutional violations, and self-dealing we see with this one.”

    No wonder our young and disenfranchised feel so cynical about your governmental institutions and processes.

  2. I am agast at the goings on in this White House since the election. There will not be enough room in the jails for Trump, his family, and all the people he has appointed to positions in our government. I am sure one day we’ll see the largest perp walk in the history of America coming out of the White House, the senate and the congress. They will all look great in those orange jump suits!
    What has happened to ethics in America???

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