by THE EDITORIAL BOARD · April 18, 2017
Anyone who has been paying the slightest attention knows by now that this president and this White House intend to play by their own set of rules — rules that in some cases come close to breaking the law and, at the very least, defy traditions of conduct and transparency Americans have come to expect from their public servants. We know that Donald Trump has refused, unlike other presidents, to release his tax returns; that his trust agreement allows him undisclosed access to profits from his businesses; and even that he clings to a profitable lease on a hotel only a stone’s throw from the White House when divesting himself of that lease is not only the obvious but the right thing to do.
But just when you think you’ve seen enough there’s more. On Friday, the administration announced it would no longer release White House visitors’ logs that have been available for years. (It cynically said posting these records would cost taxpayers $70,000 by 2020. Compare that with the multimillion-dollar tab for each weekend trip Mr. Trump takes to Mar-a-Lago.) Meanwhile, news trickled out that on the very day Ivanka Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s children were serenading the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at Mar-a-Lago, the People’s Republic of China approved new trademarks allowing Ivanka to peddle jewelry, bags and spa services to a nation of 1.4 billion where she is a role model for aspirational oligarchs.
In the great scheme of things, neither the visitor blackout nor Ms. Trump’s commercial coup seems a big deal. Yet both symbolize larger problems. One is an almost total absence of openness in an administration that is already teeming with real and potential conflicts and that has decided it can grant secret waivers to ethics requirements. The other is a culture of self-enrichment and self-dealing in which corporate C.E.O.s, lobbyists and foreign officials seeking the first family’s favor hold parties at Mar-a-Lago and at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, a couple of blocks from the White House. On Tuesday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group, expanded a lawsuit charging that the hotel violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits the president from taking payments from foreign nations.
One has to ask when this seamless meshing of statesmanship and merchandising will stop, if ever. Mr. Trump struggled for years to close deals across the Middle East; now that he’s president, doors are opening. His family is seeking or holds trademarks in Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, where the president’s sons just opened a golf course in Dubai, and in Jordan, whose King Abdullah II just visited the White House to discuss joint efforts against ISIS.
But Americans who expect that their government will stop this grotesque flouting of rules and traditional norms have so far been deeply disappointed. The Office of Government Ethics received 39,105 public queries and complaints about Trump administration ethics over the past six months, compared with 733 during the same period in 2009. But the office has no investigative or subpoena power: Its authority rests on the willingness of a president to take transparency in public service seriously, which this president does not.
That leaves Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has the legal authority and the resources to investigate and hold the administration to account. Anyone familiar with Mr. Chaffetz’s record of partisan, ineffectual witch-hunting won’t be surprised to learn that he’s done nothing. His questioning of Walter Shaub Jr., chief of the ethics office, was a masterpiece of misdirection in which he accused Mr. Shaub of partisanship when he tried to explain laws governing disclosure of Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees.
Mr. Shaub and his team have been working nights and weekends trying to rein in what they can of the Trump entourage’s abuses, combing through the financial disclosures of administration appointees and ringing alarm bells. They’ve had a few successes: So far the Senate has refused to confirm nominees whose financial disclosures don’t earn approval from the ethics office, which has unearthed potential conflicts and led several nominees to shed assets that pose problems. But that’s hardly a match for an administration filled with people who seem determined to wring every last dollar and ounce of trust from the American people.