“The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” – President-Elect Trump, New York Times interview, November, 2016
During the 2016 campaign, Trump spoke dozens of times on Twitter and at rallies that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, should be prosecuted for having used a private e-mail server as secretary of state.
“…nothing Hillary has said about her secret server has been true. #CrookedHillary.” – Oct. 9, 2016
Now comes word that Trump’s son-in-law, and special advisor to the president, Jared Kushner, used a private e-mail account to conduct government business.
As former ethics advisor to President Obama, Norm Eisen, points out in a Washington Post editorial (Sept. 27), “At issue is the Presidential Records Act, a post-Watergate statute Congress enacted to establish public ownership of presidential (and vice-presidential) records. It obligates the White House and those who work there to preserve all records relating to their official duties. Despite these legal requirements, the first eight months of President Trump’s administration have been marked by stories of deleted presidential tweets, by the use within the White House of messaging applications that destroy the contents of messages as soon as they are read, and now by White House staff using personal email accounts to conduct government business.”
NBC news reported (Sept. 24), that Kushner’s lawyer, “…Abbe Lowell, said Kushner used the account in fewer than 100 emails during Trump’s first eight months in office.”
Trump’s signature chant at rallies, “Lock her up!” became a regular feature that candidate Trump gleefully applauded, adding in a Tweet:
“If I win-I am going to instruct my AG to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation bc [because] there’s never been anything like your lies.” – Oct. 9, 2016
One day following the NBC story, The New York Times reported that “Mr. Kushner was not alone. Stephen K. Bannon, the former chief White House strategist… Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff… Ivanka Trump [acting as an unpaid advisor]… [as well as advisors] Gary D. Cohn and Stephen Miller, sent or received at least a few emails on personal accounts, officials said.”
While there are differences between Trump’s staff using private e-mail and Mrs. Clinton using a private server that stored thousands of e-mails, the fact that Trump made Clinton’s use of a private server an issue repeatedly during the campaign, only to discover that his own key advisors used private e-mail accounts, is hypocritical.
The discovery of private e-mails used by key staff – previously unknown by members of Congress when Kushner testified – also begs the question: What else has been withheld by Trump officials?
Two days before the initial report about Kushner came to light, a panel discussion was held in Austin, Texas for the Texas Tribune Festival.
As reported by The Center for Public Integrity (Sept. 23), the panelists included Walter Shaub, senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center and former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics; Matthew Miller, former director of the Office of Public Affairs for the Department of Justice; Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush’s Administration and vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; and Ken Starr, former U.S. solicitor general and former independent counsel prosecuting President Clinton.
The topic: “Trump, Ethics and the Law.”
“ ‘There have been untidy administrations in the past, but usually it takes a while to see these things develop,’ said Ken Starr, a lawyer and judge who served as solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush and is best known for heading the investigation that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
“Ethics laws are based on the idea that norms will be followed, said Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE). …
“…Shaub said that before he resigned from OGE in July, he had to fight to get his hands on financial disclosures for President Trump’s appointees.
“ ‘We didn’t have the chance to resolve conflicts of interest and the White House ethics officials not only didn’t want to fulfill their responsibilities in support of ethics, they didn’t know how,’ Shaub said. …
“Matthew Miller, a former Director of the Office of Public Affairs for the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, said Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, reportedly after the director refused to pledge loyalty to him, also was outside the norm. …
“ ‘This is, in some ways, the most important investigation the Department of Justice has ever conducted. It goes to the question of whether the president of the United States himself has been compromised by a foreign power,’ Miller said.
“If Mueller gets too close to a member of Trump’s family or the president himself, Miller said he expects Trump might try to rescind the rules governing the appointment of the special prosecutor so that he can fire Mueller. Trump could potentially also pardon those involved in the case. …
“…Richard Painter, the vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) who was the chief ethics lawyer for the administration of President George W. Bush, said that the Mueller investigation is worrying, but it’s far from the only concern. …
“In late January, CREW filed a lawsuit against Trump, claiming that his refusal to sell his businesses generates conflicts of interest and violates the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause.”
During the campaign, candidate Trump repeatedly promised to release his tax statements, an ethical standard that has been faithfully followed by presidential candidates for decades.
However, Trump rescinded that promise following his election.
“The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns,” counselor Kellyanne Conway said in an interview on the ABC program This Week.
The New York Times reported (Jan. 22), “While Ms. Conway said that Mr. Trump had complied ‘with all the ethical rules’ and ‘done everything’ he needs to do to step away from his businesses, many ethics experts have taken the opposite view. They argue that Mr. Trump has not done enough to separate himself from his business empire and guarantee that he will not be subject to conflicts of interest while in office.”
In a Pew Research Poll released in January, 60 percent of those polled say that Trump has a responsibility to release his tax records. “57 percent of the public says they are either very (33%) or somewhat (24%) concerned that his relationships with organizations, businesses or foreign governments conflict with his ability to serve the country’s best interests.”
Once again, Trump continues to view ethical principles as standards that don’t apply to him.