No president has pushed ethical boundaries like Donald Trump. He has shown utter disregard for the norms of avoiding conflicts of interest as a check on government corruption.
However, there may be a small silver lining to the Trump administration’s excesses: We now know how to strengthen the system against future presidents who lack an ethical compass.
A report (PDF) issued by Public Citizen and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) outlines specific policy reforms, ranging from requiring that presidents divest assets that pose a risk of conflict of interest and disclose tax returns and other detailed financial information to implementing a broader nepotism law and banning preferential treatment in security clearances for a president’s family member.
Trump differs starkly from all of his modern day predecessors – and likely all presidents in U.S. history – due to the breadth of his assets, his refusal to divest himself of those assets and his disregard for avoiding conflicts of interest as a check on government corruption. Trump’s decision to retain his financial interests in the Trump Organization set the tone for the present ethics crisis. He has used the presidency to promote his business interests, and serious questions have been raised about whether his business interests have improperly influenced his decisions in office. That’s why all modern presidents before Trump have generally divested themselves of such interests.
The groups identified four areas of reform:
- Preventing Conflicts of Interest. Solutions include requiring the president and vice president to divest assets that pose a risk of conflict-of-interest within 30 days of the president’s inauguration and creating an inspector general’s office to investigate potential ethics violations across the executive branch, including within the White House.
- Improving Financial Disclosure of Candidates and Office Holders. Solutions include improving the specificity of financial disclosure forms and requiring presidential and vice presidential candidates and officeholders to disclose their tax returns prior to election.
- Enhancing Rules on Gifts to Candidates and Public Officials. Solutions include limiting contributions to inaugural committees, prohibiting sitting presidents from collecting money for their future libraries or other legacy buildings and enhancing disclosure requirements for legal defense funds established by executive branch officials.
- Strengthening the Integrity of Government. Solutions include clarifying that the current law banning presidents from hiring immediate family members supersedes other laws on White House employment; restricting the size of federal contracts that family members of a president may receive; prohibiting a president’s family member from receiving security clearances except in certain cases; requiring disclosure of all White House visitor logs; preventing the White House from unduly interfering in Justice Department affairs; ensuring that government employees don’t improperly engage in political activities; ensuring that people who influence policy are covered by ethics rules; applying ethics and transparency rules to presidential transition teams; and ending the practice of post-election transition teams relying on private donations to fund their work.