Reporters Should Focus on Ethical Norms, not just Legal Violations

Lightbulb overlaid on definition of "ethics"

On Friday, CLC Senior Director of Ethics Walt Shaub delivered a speech at the National Press Club which was carried live on C-SPAN about government ethics, imploring reporters to focus on ethical norms and the erosion of ethics practices that have been commonplace over decades, regardless of the party of the administration in power. Walt stressed the importance of keeping those norms in check, calling our current situation ‘an ethics crisis.’

Walt said that the American people have a right to know the financial motivations of their leaders.

Departure from these norms is a very serious loss for the country and have been a “shock to the system.” Ethics norms are critical for upholding the integrity of government, because President Donald Trump’s intertwined business and political interests, while not always violating specific laws, mark such a break from norms like divestiture from business holdings and the release of tax returns, that we have an unprecedented challenge on our hands.

Walt made it clear that he was speaking out of his passion for the ethics program and not against any individuals. His recommendation that President Trump sell his assets and divest from his business was made to make him stronger, not weaker. The President’s decision to retain ownership of his business has weakened his position and left him open to conflicts of interest that invite genuine, nonpartisan questions about the motivations of his decisions in foreign policy. As Walt noted in an interview with The Guardian:

“We can’t know whether his decisions are motivated by his policy aims or his financial interests. And that uncertainty alone creates the problem because, whatever his intent, people having to ask undermines the faith in governmental decision-making and puts a cloud over everything the government does.”

The president has said that presidents can’t have conflicts of interest. This is not true. It is only true that his conflicts of interest are not criminal offenses. A similar situation applies to the status of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. If he is fired, the President would be dealing a blow that is incredibly destructive to our institutional checks and balances.

The steps President Trump has taken so far have been meaningless because of his frequent visits to properties he owns, such as Mar-a-Lago, his Washington D.C. hotel, and his golf course in Northern Virginia. The American people are being paid for the most powerful free advertising campaign ever run.

Trump’s actions have created the unfortunate appearance that he is profiting from the Presidency.

First, it is wildly inappropriate for Trump to be leasing a hotel from the federal government. The General Services Administration (GSA) should not allow this to continue because the president of the United States should not be doing business with the government; it is an improper arrangement.

Next, every administration from now on from both sides of the aisle have been supportive of the the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). OGE is an agency whose oversight capacity is built on compliance on the part of the White House. The Trump Administration broke with all modern traditions by deciding that he was not going to divest from his vast global holdings. There is serious uncertainty about whether the administration is making decisions based on what is good for his financial portfolio casts instead of what is good for the country. This casts a cloud over government.

Foreign diplomats are booking events at Trump properties and funnel money to the president’s coffers – presumably with the hope that it will influence official U.S. decision-making. We cannot know for sure that it does not – which undermines faith in government. Also, Trump criticized the European Union because he felt that it was difficult when he was in private business to make deals in European countries. This is not the way an American president should approach policy and is a significant departure from ethical norms This is an area where perception is reality. Diplomacy is an art and it is important for an American president to uphold certain standards of integrity.

Walt will continue to get his message out by encouraging reporters to take a deeper look at the societal norms that govern conflicts of interest and ensure they are preserved so we can fight to restore them. This is important because they are the glue that holds society together. Reporters should not be tempted to report only on violations. Norms – while sometimes harder to define –are very important too.

Watch the speech.

Corey handles media relations for the CLC voting rights and redistricting teams and creates online content. Follow @cgfromdc on Twitter