Opinion

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

Ethics 101, or how to stop a slow-motion train wreck of US democracy

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a press conference Wednesday in New York.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
US President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a press conference Wednesday in New York.

Vladimir Putin must be laughing himself silly at the slow-motion derailment of faith in American democracy he’s sought to engineer. But our future president can still avert that train wreck by putting transparency and the country’s interests over his own.

In the span of a few days, Washington has careened from revelations by US intelligence agencies that Russia hacked e-mails and spread disinformation to favor Donald Trump, to lurid and unsubstantiated allegations of collusion with Russia by Trump aides and potential blackmail of our president-elect. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the leak of unproven rumors “corrosive and damaging to our national security.”

Accusations don’t need to be true to be harmful, and unless proof is unearthed, I’m sympathetic to the president-elect on this, as I was to Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, who were victimized by false smears. Trump insists he had no knowledge of Russian interference and owes no debt to Russia, and he should demand independent probes by Congress and the Department of Justice to dispel any doubts lingering at home or abroad. Equally pressing, he must protect himself and the American people from conflicts of interest. It’s not just Trump’s reputation, but the reputation of our country that’s now at stake.

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Even by the high bar for drama set by the 2016 presidential campaign, Wednesday dawned ominously with Trump comparing US spy agencies to “Nazi Germany.” It took a turn to commedia dell’arte when demonstrators costumed as T-Rexes picketed Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state who approved a $500 billion deal with Russia as head of Exxon, and won Putin’s order of friendship.

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The theater of the bizarre built a full head of steam at a Trump press conference — his first in six months — complete with props (thousands of pages of paper) and a chorus (fans who clapped on cue). He sought to divide and conquer the media (“a failing pile of garbage” who will “suffer the consequences”), and have his cake and eat it too over his business and the presidency.

Trump launched his mission as “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created” by employing people to cart in reams of papers that Trump claimed were financial documents — and cart them away again without review. Was he releasing his tax returns, like every modern president before him? Alas, no. “The only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, OK?” Trump sneered.

Wrong. Surveys during and after the campaign consistently show most Americans believe Trump should release his taxes: 60 percent in a Pew Research poll this week. Fifty-seven percent have concerns about conflicts of interest.

Sheri Dillon, a lawyer Trump hired from a firm whose Moscow office in 2016 won a “Russian Law Firm of the Year” award (I’m not making this up), asserted that conflicts of interest can’t apply to the president. Nevertheless, he will turn over management of companies to his elder sons and “donate all profits from foreign government payments made to his hotel to the United States Treasury,” she said, stressing his munificence to the American people. That wouldn’t stop anyone from currying favor in a Trump hotel of course, and it raises questions whether the US Treasury would be indebted to foreign influences.

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Within hours, the nonpartisan head of the Office of Government Ethics (a respected and previously invisible bureaucrat) and ethics lawyers for George W. Bush and Barack Obama held a news conference raising a holy stink over the scheme. Walter J. Shaub Jr., a career government attorney, said Trump’s plan fails the standard met by every president since Watergate — or, for that matter, Tillerson’s “sterling” ethics agreement. The former Exxon CEO forfeited millions of dollars in bonuses and is free from any financial conflicts, Shaub said.

Shaub rejected the notion that presidents can’t have conflicts of interest, and urged Trump to fully divest from his businesses, invoking darlings of conservative ideology —the Constitution, the Bible, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the Wall Street Journal and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan — to bolster his point.

Trump’s reluctance to break up a family business is understandable, particularly if he feels his children would suffer. But ceding corporate control temporarily to family (“if they do a bad job, I’ll say, ‘You’re fired’”) leaves him vulnerable to perceived conflicts and endless investigations, and diminishes faith in our system for preventing corruption.

Every president before Trump has made sacrifices to serve. It’s a high price to pay, but surely worth it to be president.

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.