Speech Ethics

February 13, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

The Senate’s invocation of Rule 19 against Senator Warren could not have been more curiously timed. Supposedly concerned to uphold senatorial debate standards, to keep out the nasty stuff, Senate Republicans disqualified Warren from further debate on the Sessions nomination because she read from Coretta Scott King’s 1986 statement opposing Mr. Sessions’ elevation to the bench. Meanwhile, the President routinely tweets out abuse of political adversaries, in the courts or (as in the case of John McCain) in the Congress.

Of course, the President is not bound by the Congressional rules and traditions. But that is the interesting question: if there are standards to be applied to democratic debate, especially to the remarks of senior elected officials, why should those standards be limited to legislative speech? And, if extended to executive branch speech, how?

It might be thought that standards of this kind are significant only in the management of a deliberative body: their function could simply be to avert fist fights on “the floor,” where debate takes place, or, short of violence, to keep order. There is more to them than just this functional administrative purpose. When the Senate censured Joe McCarthy in 1954, the politics were complex, but the Resolution noted his verbal abuse of adversaries. It cited his accusations that the Senate was convening a “lynch-party” against him, that a senior Member directing the Select Committee censure inquiry was “cowardly,” and that the Committee was acting as “attorneys-in-fact” for the Communist Party. The Senate applied the severe penalty of censure in part because McCarthy’s vicious speech violated “senatorial ethics” and "tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."

This goal of protecting against institutional disrepute has been reflected for years in the ethics codes of both the House and the Senate.  See, e.g. S. Res. 338, 88th Cong., 2d. Sess. (1964]; House Rule XXIII Cl. 1 (“A Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, officer, or employee of the House shall behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”) Members engaged in abusive and irresponsible speech are not only disregarding some housekeeping regulation, like a prohibition against bringing their dinners into the chambers: They are presumptively acting in violation of their personal ethical obligations. There is no reason why reckless, vituperative speech by executive branch officials would not bring dishonor and discredit to that branch of the Government.

The Attorney General is often said to be the Cabinet officer whose responsibilities require a special degree of independence from presidential control. This is not new ground. Even President Washington envisioned the chief legal officer of the executive branch as a "skilled neutral expositor of the law.” Frederick A.O Schwarz and Aziz Z. Huq, Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror 191 (2007). In more recent times, partly as a result of Bobby Kennedy’s service as Attorney General in his brother’s Administration, and then of the troubles that followed from Richard Nixon’s choice for that post of his law partner and campaign chair John Mitchell, the pressure on the AG to establish an acceptable level of independence within an Administration has intensified.

There remain practical and theoretical limits to that neutrality. The AG is answerable to the President and is required like other Cabinet officers to pay attention to presidential policy priorities. There are, however, careful judgments to be made: norms that survive in one form or another, from Administration to Administration, that help keep the federal law enforcement apparatus from being wholly annexed to the political purposes of the West Wing.

Whether these norms have been properly tended to and enforced is never going to be the subject of agreement. Each party out of power has reasons--and some times defensible reasons-- to question an Administration’s adherence to norms. This is healthy: it is one way that norms survive, because with whatever degree of sincerity, and whether on the offensive or in self-defense, everyone claims that they care about them. Norms depend vitally on the simple and repeated declaration that they exist and will be upheld. So it helps to reinforce, and enforce, the norms when Democrats complain about the deficient independence of a Republican AG, and Republicans take up the charge at the time of a Democratic Administration, and each stoutly stands behind the necessity of an appropriate measure of DOJ independence.

This all requires alertness to anything that could be new in an Administration’s articulation of the role of its AG. And what White House senior adviser Steve Bannon has had to say about the role of Senator Jeff Sessions appears to be new.

President Trump’s Voter Fraud “Investigation”

January 26, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

President Trump has more detail to provide on what he means by a “major investigation” into voter fraud. Already, however, he has drawn sharp objections to his preoccupation with illegal voting, including from within his own party and the National Association of Secretaries of State, on the basis that there is no evidence to support his claim. His own press secretary seems to have retreated to the position that "he [the president] believes what he believes."

But it cannot be lost in this debate that the President is taking an extraordinary step with the contrivance of some sort of “investigation,” whatever the form takes. He is moving, openly and aggressively and within days of his inauguration, to use his public office to advance his personal political interests as a candidate for office. One such interest, apparently, is to contest the popular vote count of the 2016 general election--his election. The second, it is fair to assume, is to do everything necessary to establish the fraud he is convinced is rampant and push for measures he deems helpful to his next election campaign.

The first of these objectives is quirky. It is not the usual course of events that a candidate challenges the outcome of an election that he won. But it is still his own election and he intends now, as President, to put the 2016 popular vote margin in question for his own political benefit, to satisfy--as he sees it--a political need.

The second of these interests is his own reelection. Until we learn otherwise, Mr. Trump will be a candidate for re-election in 2020. Now, as president, he intends to order up some investigation with implications for this candidacy. Critical commentators have touched on this concern to some degree, warning that this investigation might be intended to feed into the broader GOP initiative on voter ID and other restrictions on the franchise. The investigation would serve to spur proposals for further additional restrictions that, while unwarranted as policy but designed to burden voters, could discourage or impede voting primarily in communities with high Democratic support. This is a possible, perhaps even a likely, outcome, and it both deeply objectionable and sure to spark a new round of voting rights litigation. But the context in which the President has raised the issue is not his party’s programmatic attention to voter fraud, but his election, the 2016 election, and his conviction that it cost him millions of votes.

The CREW “Emoluments” Suit and the Congress

January 24, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

CREW and its distinguished legal team has produced a sharply turned-out complaint seeking a declaratory judgment and associated injunctive relief to redress their claim that President Trump is violating and will continue to violate the Emoluments Clause. It may face long odds: there is a challenging question of standing, and, spooked by the unprecedented nature of the intervention being requested, courts may be eager to seize on the standing issue as their way out. But if CREW is motivated to keep the pressure on the President, increasing the cost of his adoption of a controversial resolution of this issue, the complaint will have served at least that purpose.

There is some suggestion that CREW’s team may hope (and indeed have reason) to declare victory if awarded enough discovery to pry the President’s tax returns out of his hands. In announcing the suit, CREW’s Chair has stated that “President Trump is the first president in decades not to release his tax returns. Seventy five percent of Americans want to see the President’s tax returns and so do we. We will seek those in discovery in this case in order to establish the details of the emoluments clause violations here.” The open pursuit of that objective would not necessarily move a court in CREW’s direction. A court that is disinclined to jump into this battle may be similarly reluctant to be the chosen vehicle for setting the political conflict over the disclosure of the returns.

Then there is the other branch, Congress, which CREW repeatedly notes must consent under the Clause to the President’s acceptance of any “emolument.” This is an intriguing facet of the legal action. A court could give CREW what it is looking for: agreement that the President’s business interests constitute a channel for acceptance of emoluments, and forcing the Republican Congress to decide whether step in and, by consenting,” save Trump’s current plan for “separating” himself from those interests without surrendering them. Congress would then own that choice, and it would be a choice: sanction the business arrangements and the threat of conflicts, or sting the President by withholding its consent.

The majority in Congress would be unhappy with this possible outcome, but maybe more so with another. If a court dismisses the suit, and the dismissal is upheld on an appeal should one be filed, the Republicans can and surely will claim--as will the White House--that the President’s position has been vindicated. That would not necessarily be true, of course, if the court resolves the case against CREW on standing. Or even if the court, rejecting the CREW standing theory, hints in dicta at sympathy for the substantive constitutional claim. The Republican “message” would, predictably, be that the courts had settled the issue, and that Trump was in the clear. (And that would be still more the case if the court’s dicta express sympathy for defendant Trump’s position.)

The Trump Conflict-Of-Interest Plan, On its Own Terms

January 12, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Donald Trump’s plan for mitigating, not eliminating, the potential for conflicts between his business and his presidency has not satisfied the most senior executive branch ethics regulators or a number of the commentators well-versed in ethics standards. He will retain his interest in his businesses known as the Trump Organization, but not management control, which will pass to his sons. His counsel has detailed various steps to accomplish his “complete” severance or isolation from business operations. To the extent that the business surrenders any advantage from the presidency, it is a cost to the foreign operations: no new foreign deals, and all foreign government payments to his hotel will be donated to the Treasury. Mr. Trump maintains that he is not required to go farther and, in the words of his counsel, he “should not be expected to destroy the company be built.”

It is possible that under pressure, the Trump team will reverse course and yield to the demand for divestment and a blind trust, but after all the time the Trump team and counsel have devoted to considering his course of action, this seems unlikely. Then the question would be: if this is the plan, how exactly will it work, and with what degree of transparency allowing for an evaluation of the seriousness and effectiveness of the controls the Trump Organization plans to put in place?

For example, the Organization has not named but will establish the positions of ethics adviser and chief compliance counsel. The adviser will review all domestic deals and issue written approvals of any that “potentially raise ethics or conflict of interest concerns.” The chief compliance counsel will be charged with ensuring that the “Trump businesses… are operating at the highest levels of integrity and not taking any actions that could be perceived as exploiting the office of the presidency.”

The relationship between the two, adviser and counsel, is one question. Will the adviser be required to consult with the chief compliance counsel in the course of reviewing a deal? According to Trump counsel, the adviser is a member of the “management team.” Normally, management would turn to counsel for advice, especially where the issue is one of law as well as applicable ethical standards (the ethics adviser is responsible for ensuring that "the Trump Organization continues to operate in accordance with the highest… legal… standards.")(emphasis added). Does this plan anticipate that the adviser will issue an approval only with the concurrence of the compliance counsel?

Category: Donald Trump, Ethics