Ethics 101: No longer a required course for POTUS
What does ethics mean? Different people have varying views of its definition. Clearly, what is ethical and what is lawful are not always the same. For instance, prior to the Civil War, slavery was legal, yet many people rightly and passionately believed that it was unethical. Ethical behavior is partly determined by society. Therefore, it can change from country to country or from era to era. The Santa Clara University Makkula Center for Applied Ethics defines ethics as referring to “well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.” Government representatives must follow a code of ethics, and several offices are tasked with the such oversight. After the Watergate Scandal, and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which established a comprehensive code that applies to all federal officials. It improved transparency by mandating release of financial and employment histories, instituting a delay between leaving federal office and working to lobby the government, and creating an office of independent counsel. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush signed an executive order listing ethical principles for the executive branch. The order specifically forbids officers from participating in acts as a government official that would result in private financial benefit. Two such provisions state “employees shall not use public office for private gain, and employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.” Congress subsequently passed a law containing the details of this executive order. However, this law specifically exempts the President and Vice President. Yet, there are several clear rules of ethical conduct that do apply to President Trump. While all gifts are prohibited to any federal employee, the President may accept gifts as long as those gifts are not coerced nor in exchange for an official act. Moreover, gifts from a foreign government are prohibited by the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution unless the President first receives the consent of Congress. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) was established in 1978 and resides within the executive branch. It also appears to legally exempt the President. Yet for decades, presidents have followed their recommendations. To best do so, presidents divest themselves of financial assets and place the proceeds within a blind trust. While Trump did hand over control of his business entities to his sons, he did not relinquish his financial stake. In other words, he still profits personally when representatives from foreign governments stay at one of his hotels. His financial stake in a global real estate company provides ample opportunity for conflict of interest. For instance, his recent executive order to ban refugees from seven predominantly-Muslim countries conspicuously excluded similar countries who have a greater history of terrorist activity but also contain Trump-owned or affiliated hotels or properties. In the New York Times, ethics lawyers for the Bush and Obama administrations warned prior to the inauguration, “Without an ethics firewall that is set up at once and continues into the administration, scandal is sure to follow.” In fact, just this week, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway promoted the President’s daughter’s fashion line. On Fox and Friends, while discussing Nordstrom’s decision to stop carrying her clothing line, Conway promoted, “Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.” Using her position within the White House to promote a private corporation is a clear ethical violation. When asked about the matter at today’s press conference, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded that she had been “counseled.” Government ethics is now a moving target. Fraud and abuse will follow unless citizens and the press persist in their demand for transparency.