The first casualty of the new government taking over Washington may be information about the government itself, ethics watchdogs say.
The new Republican-led Congress is moving toward confirming several of President-elect Donald Trump’s choices to run executive-branch departments even though they have not had their financial disclosures vetted and cleared by ethics officials. The first act by the House was a vote — later rescinded after criticism— to dilute the power of an independent ethics office, notably its authority to share information about members with the public.
At the same time, Trump continues to refuse to release his tax returns. He’s asked for an investigation to find out how NBC News got intelligence information. And he has not yet said how or whether he’ll divorce himself from his business interests.
“There seems to be a new kind of culture coming in, different from what we’ve seen the past,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Republicans downplay the controversies as partisan whining. “Little procedural complaints,” was how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, described the complaints about the lack of information from Cabinet designees.
To ethics watchdogs, the trend is clear and troublesome. Trump made “drain the swamp” in Washington a major theme of his campaign, yet the public is probably more confused and skeptical than ever, independent groups maintained.
“It’s hard for the public to keep track of all that’s going on,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan public interest group.
Wednesday, for example, as overwhelming to constituents trying to make sense of the controversies. Trump plans his first news conference since his election, while at roughly the same time, five of his choices are due for Senate confirmation hearings.
The rejection of transparency began Jan. 2, the night before the new Congress was sworn in.
“Maybe they thought it was a federal holiday and no one was paying attention,” Flynn said.
Nearly half the House’s Republicans voted in a private meeting to curb the influence of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. They wanted it under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee, which would give House members more control over its proceedings.
Watchdog groups and social media were outraged. “The American people will see this latest push to undermine congressional ethics enforcement as shady and corrupt,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative research group. Trump, in Twitter posts, questioned the timing of the vote, and the idea was dropped.
But other veils of secrecy remained.
The government’s ethics watchdog expressed “great concern” that a lack of information has left designees for jobs in the Trump administration with “potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues” before their confirmation hearings.
Friday, Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, wrote to Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that nominees must have their financial disclosure data certified by the office before hearings. Not all of Trump’s choices have “completed the ethics review process,” he said. He did not name them.
The Senate is to begin confirmation hearings Tuesday, and it hopes to approve several confirmations shortly after Trump takes office Jan. 20.
Schub’s office has released material on some designees, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the proposed attorney general; Rex Tillerson, secretary of state; Gen. James Mattis, defense secretary; and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., CIA director.
To ethics experts and Democrats, Shaub’s warning was another chapter in an ongoing, disturbing saga.
“I really am worried about where this administration is headed,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Trump is setting a tone. He has never held a government office, and doesn’t feel “the norms of public service apply to him,” said Libowitz, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics spokesman. Since Trump won the election, Libowitz said, many Republicans think the public is fine with skirting ethics norms.
Republican interests maintain that the controversy is manufactured by Democrats seeking a partisan advantage.
“Walter Shaub is an Obama appointee with a partisan agenda. His eruptions since Election Day show that beyond a shadow of a doubt,” said a statement by America Rising, a Republican research organization. Obama appointed Shaub director in 2013. Shaub had worked for the agency during the George W. Bush administration.
“They want to put a bunch of political peeping Toms into the tax records of people,” Kellyanne Conway, a Trump senior adviser, said on Fox News Monday.
Judicial Watch’s Fitton was not overly concerned about the ethics delay. Confirmation hearings, he said, are often quick and hardly go into much depth, and candidates are often not heavily scrutinized.
“Both parties do that,” he said.
Trump’s refusal to release his full tax returns was an issue throughout the presidential campaign. Presidential nominees for the past 40 years have routinely released their tax returns or summaries.
Trump said he wouldn’t release his until an Internal Revenue Service audit was completed, but nothing in IRS rules prevents him from doing so.
He also has not said how he will handle his business interests once he takes office, though he’s expected to discuss those matters Wednesday at a news conference. He is not barred by federal law from retaining those interests, though presidents historically have put their assets into blind trusts or turned over their businesses to others.
It all worries the ethics watchers.
“This is highly unusual,” Holman said of the secrecy. “Republicans look at Trump and say, ‘If he can get away with it, so can we.’”