The consensus was clear at a discussion by ethics experts at the Texas Tribune festival on Saturday: Donald Trump’s White House may be the most unethical administration Americans have ever seen.
Walter Shaub, who was the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics until he quit in frustration earlier this year, said Trump had told his office to “go jump in a lake.” Richard Painter, another ethics lawyer who served during George W. Bush’s presidency, said both houses of Congress should be actively investigating Trump, who showed “a lack of respect for the United States Constitution.”
Shaub said he had initially won some battles with Trump over ethics. For instance, the White House was very slow in sending over disclosure paperwork for nominees to important positions. But Shaub said he was able to force the administration to comply with ethics guidelines if the nominees needed confirmation by the Senate.
The White House nominees that didn’t need Senate confirmation, however, created the biggest problems for Shaub. When he asked for basic information about those nominees’ normal line of work and for their ethics paperwork, Trump “cut us off,” he said.
The last straw for Shaub, who is now with an organization called the Campaign Legal Center, was having to fight for a month to get basic ethics records that did not even turn out to be useful.
In general, Shaub said, Trump’s actions represent a “significant departure” from “ethical norms.” He added that it will be on the next president to repair the damage that’s been done.
“I put up as good of a fight as I could,” said Schaub, who resigned in July.
Painter, who was chief ethics lawyer for Bush’s administration, used even stronger and more colorful language to criticize Trump. He joked several times that Trump’s tax returns might uncover assets held in Russian currency, and that Bush administration officials would have been fired or perhaps even sent to jail if they had taken some of Trump’s actions.
“People voted for Donald Trump to be a president … not to be a king,” he said. “He’s gotta respect the Constitution or he’s not gonna keep his job.”
All of the ethics experts — the panel also included Matthew Miller, former director of the Office of Public Affairs for the U.S. Department of Justice and Ken Starr, the who headed the ethics investigation into former President Bill Clinton — expressed the deepest dismay over allegations that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating, including the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and whether Trump committed obstruction of justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey.
“The biggest threat we’re facing is any threat to Bob Mueller being fired,” Shaub said. Should that happen, Shaub said he would take to the streets and that others should too.
Painter also said that other apparent ethics violations by Trump should also be investigated, even if they are not crimes.
“We should not tolerate in our daily lives anyone who can’t tell the truth,” he said.