- Donald Trump.
- Getty Images
- A top Democratic congressman says it’s very tricky for the public to keep up with President Donald Trump’s possible conflicts of interest and ethical entanglements.
- The congressman, Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, says Democrats will move forward on codifying ethical norms into law if they can retake Congress.
- “People weren’t paying a lot of attention (to Watergate) until this idea that something was being hidden took hold of them,” he said.
Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes knows there isn’t much Democrats are able to do regarding President Donald Trump’s and his administration’s conflicts and ethical snafus.
It’s why Sarbanes, as chair of the Democracy Reform Task Force, a group of House Democrats seeking to “confront the Trump Administration’s conflicts of interest and ethical lapses,” has published a list of 100 such conflicts or lapses from the administration every 100 days of its existence.
On Monday, Sarbanes published the fourth edition of his report, which highlighted such possible conflicts as Donald Trump Jr.’s recent trip to India to promote a Trump hotel, the Trump Organization moving forward on a Dominican project, and foreign governments doing favors for Trump businesses.
But that report is peanuts compared to what Democrats would do if they could retake Congress. Sarbanes said Democratic lawmakers would seek to codify ethical norms into law if they are able to regain control of Congress.
Trump passed control of his business to his two adult sons prior to taking office last year. But the president’s level of personal involvement and influence is still murky when it comes to his namesake company. The Washington Post reported that Trump still owns the businesses and is able to withdraw cash from them at any time. Additionally, Trump still has refused to release his tax returns, which could shed light on the full extent of any possible conflicts.
No occupant of the Oval Office who preceded Trump entered the office with the number of conflicts that were possible for the current president, whose business portfolio far exceeded any prior president. While other presidents had severed themselves from smaller portfolios, Trump’s plan to clear up conflicts when he entered office did not involve a full separation from his business, merely passing control to his family.
Not only had the plan not cleared up conflicts as ethics experts had hoped for, specifically by Trump either severing himself from his business or instituting a truly blind trust, but the White House and the Trump Organization have, at times, been less than transparent about the effort.
Sarbanes said that lack of transparency around what he described as a “blizzard” of questionable ethical moves and conflicts of interest, however, allows for Congress, the press, and the public to circle back to the same question: “What is he trying to hide?”
The Maryland Democrat pointed to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns as the central item that plays into this frame. He said any of the “number of grievances that people ought to have” can be boiled down to that question.
“That is a very fair question for the public to ask,” he said. “And how the administration handles it will determine its fate.”
Democrats want to push forward on codifying ethical norms into law if they can reclaim Congress
- John Sarbanes.
- Alex Wong/Getty Images
An issue at the core of the battle between ethicists and Trump is that many of the ethical standards governing the presidency are understood norms, not concrete laws. Sarbanes said the Trump presidency has shown lawmakers that they “can’t make assumptions” about a president and his administration.
“Before Trump, every president in recent memory understood there were these boundaries, respected them, when they crossed them and were called on it they did what they could to remedy the situation,” he said. “But in Trump’s case, he’s ethically blind, he doesn’t see the boundaries, or he has complete disregard for them. So things you never thought had to be put into statute or legislation because they were implied by the nature of the office and this sober responsibility a president is supposed to have when they get into that office” now need to be.
The congressman said Congress needs to codify some of the ethical understands that are merely that today, provide “more teeth” to the Office of Government Ethics, and create more enforcement opportunities for Congress. And if Democrats take back control of Congress, Sarbanes said you can expect to see such proposals being passed.
“What happened because of Trump is that he spawned a sort of cottage industry of proposals here on the Hill around ethics and accountability that it wouldn’t have even occurred to people under a prior president that you would need to put those into statutes,” he said. “So, if that’s one of the consequences of his presidency, that we put more rigor and force and authority behind these rules to prepare for the next person or, frankly, to be able to hem in the current president and his team to places where they ought to be, then we ought to move forward with it.”
‘… these ideas of a cover-up kind of captures people’s imagination’
Just this week, there were a pair of major news stories regarding the Trump Organization with implications, or possible implications, for the president. On Monday, the company said in a statement that, as Trump previously pledged, it donated profits from foreign government officials patronizing its hotels to the Treasury Department.
Receiving such profits from foreign government officials has long alarmed ethics experts. They have warned that such payments could violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits a president from accepting gifts or cash from foreign governments.
But the president’s namesake business made a glaring omission from its declaration: It did not say how much money was donated.
Meanwhile, Trump’s business was tied up in an ugly dispute with a Panamanian hotel owner that could lead to a possible foreign probe into the Trump Organization. If that investigation is opened by Panamanian prosecutors, it would mark the first time a foreign government opened such a probe into the president’s business since he’s been in office.
Speaking to the Trump Organization’s announcement on the donations, Sarbanes said the company essentially gave a “head fake.”
“They want the first part of your statement to be the lead and give people some idea that they’re doing good things,” he said. “But then when you just pick a little bit below the surface and try to chase down whether it’s real or not real, it’s like catching smoke.”
And as long as such issues continue to be pressed on, Sarbanes is confident that the public’s interest in the subject will perk back up.
“People weren’t paying a lot of attention (to Watergate) until this idea that something was being hidden took hold of them,” Sarbanes said. “And these ideas of a cover-up kind of captures people’s imagination.”