Washington, we have a problem

Trump’s ethical squalor is worse than you thought

 April 19

This post was updated at 2:02 p.m. 

President Trump’s ethical sloth and financial conflicts of interest are unique in American history. (The Harding and Grant administrations were rife with corruption, but the presidents did not personally profit. Richard Nixon abused power but did not use his office to fatten his coffers or receive help from a hostile foreign power to get elected.) But it keeps getting worse.

Ryan Lizza’s stunning report reveals ample evidence that Trump misused the intelligence community and manipulated Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to concoct a plot meant to distract from the investigation into his Russian ties:

It is now clear that the scandal was not [former national security adviser Susan] Rice’s normal review of the intelligence reports but the coordinated effort between the Trump Administration and Nunes to sift through classified information and computer logs that recorded Rice’s unmasking requests, and then leak a highly misleading characterization of those documents, all in an apparent effort to turn Rice, a longtime target of Republicans, into the face of alleged spying against Trump. It was a series of lies to manufacture a fake scandal. Last week, CNN was the first to report that both Democrats and Republicans who reviewed the Nunes material at the N.S.A. said that the documents provided “no evidence that Obama Administration officials did anything unusual or illegal.”

I spoke to two intelligence sources, one who read the entire binder of intercepts and one who was briefed on their contents. “There’s absolutely nothing there,” one source said. The Trump names remain masked in the documents, and Rice would not have been able to know in all cases that she was asking the N.S.A. to unmask the names of Trump officials.

If true, this would be a clear abuse of authority — the very type of politicization of intelligence that the Trump team claims the Obama administration was guilty of. Had President Barack Obama done anything remotely similar, Republicans would have drafted articles of impeachment. Moreover, Trump’s antics have done serious damage to our national security toolkit:

The fallout from Trump’s [March 4] tweet could have grave consequences for national security. The law governing the N.S.A.’s collection of the content of communications of foreign targets is up for renewal this summer. Known as Section 702, part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, it is perhaps the most important intelligence tool that America’s spy agencies have to gather information about potential terrorist attacks and about the intentions of regimes around the world. There are legitimate privacy concerns about allowing the N.S.A. to vacuum up such an enormous amount of communications. … Some American intelligence officials are now concerned that Trump and Nunes’s wild claims about intercepts and Rice have made Section 702 look like a rogue program that can be easily abused for political purposes.

Trump, the individuals who assisted in this gambit and Nunes have abused the public trust. They utterly failed to uphold their responsibility for national security, for maintaining public confidence in our intelligence community and for protecting legitimate privacy interests. (Rice has a darned good case for defamation, which of course she won’t pursue.) Former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael V. Hayden tells me he is concerned that the intelligence was “used by the White House for political purposes.” He explains: “To the degree people believe that, the whole legitimacy of American intelligence is undercut. Talk about collateral damage rather than simply telling the emperor in this case that he has no clothes. By that, I mean of course, trying to make true a tweet that was obviously very untrue.”

On the financial side of the Trump sewer, matters are going from bad to worse. Trump never divested himself of his business holdings or released his tax returns. The extent of his conflicts of interest are therefore unknown. He has now amended the trust (showing how flimsy it is if it can be altered on a whim) to allow him to withdraw funds and to receive periodic briefings from his son Eric (who “can do that as chair of the trust’s advisory board, and told Forbes magazine last month that he plans to give his father big-picture financial briefings every quarter or so”). All this should underscore how ludicrous it is to claim separation between Trump and his business operations.

Now, the sludge has engulfed Ivanka Trump. The Associated Press reports:

On April 6, Ivanka Trump’s company won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks, giving it monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services in the world’s second-largest economy. That night, the first daughter and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to the president of China and his wife for a steak and Dover sole dinner at Mar-a-Lago, her father’s Florida resort.

The scenario underscores how difficult it is for Trump, who has tried to distance herself from the brand that bears her name, to separate business from politics in her new position at the White House.

That’s putting it mildly. As a federal employee, Ivanka Trump has an obligation under a criminal statute (18 U.S.C. § 208) to avoid “participating personally and substantially, in an official capacity, in any ‘particular matter’ that would have a direct and predictable effect on the employee’s own financial interests or on the financial interests.” As the government ethics guidelines specify:

Moreover, disqualification is often the appropriate way to prevent a conflict of interest in the long term, unless an “exemption” applies or the circumstances warrant use of other means of resolving conflicts of interest. …

An executive branch-wide regulation recognizes that a reasonable person may believe that an employee’s impartiality can be influenced by interests other than the employee’s own or those that are imputed to the employee by the conflict of interest laws. Under 5 C.F.R. § 2635.502, employees are required to consider whether their impartiality would be questioned whenever their involvement in a “particular matter involving specific parties” might affect certain personal or business relationships.

This is hardly an isolated event for Ivanka Trump. Recall that as she was working on a clothing deal with a Japanese apparel giant — whose parent company’s largest shareholder is wholly owned by the Japanese government — she was sitting in a transition meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even aside from this, Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, observes: “This raises serious questions that we should not have to be asking. The White House is not a side gig.” He argues, “The Trump family should not be engaged in business dealings with foreign countries while making important policy decisions. Luckily, there is a clean and obvious way to clear all this up: from the president on down, they should divest themselves of their business interests and invest the proceeds in a true blind trust.”

What is striking is the degree to which the Trump clan publicly flaunts its ethical laxity and disinterest in complying with norms that every other president and his family have managed to follow.

Whether it is abuse of the instruments of government power or disregard for financial propriety, Trump is setting a new low. Republicans who ignore all this — or worse, defend Trump — are making the case for why one or both houses of Congress should be controlled by the opposing party, which would be likely to carry out its constitutional responsibilities.

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