The Wallace Global Fund fired Morgan Lewis for advising Donald Trump on the mechanisms for controlling conflict of interest. It scorned the firm’s legal analysis and its dismissal of counsel was meant to keep the Fund from being “complicit” in the President’s disregard of legal and ethical norms. The Fund has concluded that the president’s actions are, on the ethical merits, clearly indefensible--case closed. So the Fund deems the lawyers culpable for putting their names and reputations behind what it has concluded is beyond the pale.
There is a different way of looking at what may exceptional about the Trump ethics regime, and it does not require agreement on specific violations of ethical obligations, or arguments about the viability of specific legal theories, or the questioning of the professional standards followed by law firms or lawyers. It is more concerned with a change, for the worse, in the institutional safeguards for keeping government service under public ethical controls. The problem could be thought of as a sort of privatization of public ethics.
This privatizing element has been introduced through certain features of the Trump business interests, and even more, the issues presented by the family members that the President would like to have by his side. Some special arrangement is generally thought necessary to allow the president to have the counsel and company of his daughter and son in-law. They will take unpaid positions within the White House, but in form, as recently announced, they will be treated as employees subject to conflict of interest rules that apply to all others.
Both Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump have complex continuing interests in their businesses, and they argue that there is no fair or practical way to dispose of many of them. They will maintain and retain enough connection to their business to monitor, with the advice of counsel, potential problems that may arise. A similar mechanism was established by the president to administer his “trust,” run by his sons, and advised by a special ethics counsel selected from private practice. His trust also has added a compliance adviser, a long time lawyer and official in the Trump business.
All of this occurs “in the family,” and this is largely how it is reported. But it does not have to end there in future administrations. Another president may feel free to appoint “volunteer” senior White House advisers without family ties but with similarly far-flung and complex business interests. Paid their dollar a year, they would maintain much of their financial interests, perhaps excluding the simplest conflicts presented by easily disposable stock holdings. They would also set up with their lawyers a private arrangement for the management of any conflicts.
Congress, the Office of Government Ethics, and the White House have been lobbing views back and forth on whether the White House is subject to executive branch-wide ethics standards. It all started with the White House Counsel’s response to Kellyanne Conway’s exhortation to the public to” go buy” Ivanka Trump-branded line of products.
This Administration’s complex--and in the perspective of critics, troubling--position on core ethics issues would seem to make it especially important for the resolution of a case like Conway’s to go smoothly. The President has to show that he can successfully deal with the conflicts presented by his and his family's business interests. He faces deep doubts about the structure set up for this purpose, which includes control of his interests put in the hands of his own children, one of whom recently declared that the Trump brand is “the hottest it has ever been.” Then there is the ambiguous if not dubious trail of statements from the Administration about how Mr. Trump understands ethical constraints. Early on, the President said he had been advised that he was free of any limits under federal conflict of interest regulation, while his Chief of State averred that every step would be taken to avoid any “undue influence” of business interests over the Administration’s policies and actions. And the President has not kept his executive duties apart from his commercial interests, just this last weekend holding meetings at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia.
So all who are involved in settling or overseeing the conclusion to the Conway episode-- the White House, OGE and the Congress--have had special obligations to be clear about the issue and the reasons for the disposition. The public would then learn something about the ethics Standards and rules, about how the Administration will approach their interpretation and enforcement, and about whether there are holes to be filled or procedures to be tightened.
So how has it gone? Not especially well, except for the response from one senior Member of Congress, Elijah Cummings, who has raised the key questions that now have to be answered.