President-elect Donald Trump got it half-right. Stripping the Office of Congressional Ethics of its power to investigate wrongdoing should not be a priority for House Republicans — or, for that matter, for any member of Congress, regardless of party affiliation.
However, Trump could have also used the opportunity to assure Americans that ethical conduct is a priority, not just for Congress but for his own presidency. He did not go that far, and indeed, used the word “unfair” to describe the work of the watchdog office.
As The New York Times pointed out, the ethics office, created in 2008 to conduct independent investigations of House members and employees, has been the target of bipartisan criticism about supposed violations of due process rights. Lawmakers, meeting behind closed doors on Monday, voted to undermine the office’s authority by ruling out anonymous complaints or public statements about investigations.
Partisan outrage to those changes quickly followed. “Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in a statement.
On Tuesday morning, Trump weighed in with two consecutive tweets : “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it . . . may be,
their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!” Not long after Trump’s tweets, Politico reported that House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered a motion, accepted by his fellow Republican lawmakers, to restore the current rules governing the ethics office.
As the Democratic National Committee noted in a statement, Trump did not oppose the evisceration, just the urgency to make it a priority. Ethics questions continue to swirl around him, given the many conflicts presented by his business and real estate assets and the presidency he’s about to assume. It will be hard for him to hold others to the highest ethical standards until he shows he’s willing to apply them to himself as well.