Americans hold our elected officials to high ethical standards because we understand that a strong democracy requires transparency, accountability, and rules that apply equally to everyone. We expect the people we elect to set an example for others on the public payroll by making decisions with the common good, not their private interests, in mind.
“State of the Swamp,” a report published last week by Common Cause, makes a powerful case that in his first 100 days, President Donald Trump failed these fundamental tests of leadership. It suggests Trump is providing an example, multiple examples actually, of things public servants should avoid.
Trump’s administration is riddled with landmines of corruption waiting to explode with one wrong step. Far from “draining the swamp” as he promised, the president has stocked his cabinet with ultra-rich business executives with scant records of public service and little apparent understanding of the overwhelming majority of the people they serve. He is mixing private and public business in ways that declare he has little interest in the integrity of the office of the President or public opinion and that he sees himself and those around him as above the law.
Earlier this month, as polls showed three of every four Americans support release of his tax returns, millions of people in more than 100 cities marched to protest the president’s refusal to provide them. “State of the Swamp” notes that every president since Richard Nixon has released his tax returns or, in Gerald Ford’s case, a robust, 10-year summary of his personal finances.
While any presidential candidate’s refusal to release tax returns would be suspicious, Trump’s refusal is downright dangerous. The president retains ownership of his businesses and can receive profits from his holdings at any time. But because we don’t know the full extent of his holdings or his income from them, or the extent of his debts and who holds them, it’s impossible to determine whether Trump is making official decisions to serve public or private interests.
The president has been caught discussing his foreign real estate developments with foreign heads-of-state. His infamous travel ban exempted Middle Eastern countries where he does business. His recently softened rhetoric concerning China follows the Chinese government’s approval of dozens of Trump-brand trademarks.
Ethical questions also surround Trump’s family and Cabinet. His adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, are protected by the Secret Service at taxpayer expense on international business trips that continue despite the president’s promise that his company would make no new foreign deals. The president’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are now White House staffers, but retain their extensive business holdings.
Perhaps taking their cues from the president, much of the Cabinet either failed to disclose important information or misled senators during the confirmation process. The offenders include Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Michael Flynn, the now-departed national security adviser. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was caught failing to disclose her stake in a family trust that is part owner of a chain of for-profit colleges. Tom Price, the new secretary of Health and Human Services, is under investigation for making stock trades as the House committee he chaired was considering legislation impacting the companies involved.
The picture that emerges is of an administration drowning in the swamp the president promised to drain. Americans deserve better.
Most troubling is the rapidly growing body of evidence that Russia tried to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, perhaps in concert with him and/or his campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies and testimony to two congressional committees continue to tie Trump campaign officials, at least one of whom – Flynn - is reportedly seeking immunity, to various Russian entities.
The Trump family has bragged about its business dealings in Russia and with Russians in the U.S. During the campaign, candidate Trump repeatedly lavished praise on Russia and President Vladimir Putin. All that is more than enough reason for Trump to release his taxes and give Americans a clearer picture of any connections he and his businesses have with the Russian government.
Because congressional committees are partisan and have plenty of other things to do, we need an independent commission with a professional staff to focus exclusively on Russia’s influence in our election and the Trump campaign’s possible connections to Russia. The failure of congressional leaders to staff an independent investigation is fast becoming the only question in Washington that matters. What will it take for Congress to make the Russia investigation the priority the American people believe it deserves?
Office: Common Cause National