Ethics Office Tells Trump & Co.: Sorry, You're Not Above the Rules

The head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has taken issue with the Trump administration’s grasp of ethics rules, expressing deep concern that the executive branch apparently thinks it is above such regulations.

In a letter sent Thursday to deputy White House counsel Stefan Passantino, OGE director Walter Shaub admonished the administration for failing to censure advisor Kellyanne Conway for her February endorsement of Ivanka Trump’s products on the television program “Fox & Friends.” The OGE had previously told the White House that there was “strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted.”

But Passantino let Shaub know earlier this month that the White House would not discipline Conway, saying she acted “inadvertently” when she openly encouraged people to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” after President Donald Trump slammed Nordstrom department store for dropping his daughter’s fashion line.

In that letter, Passantino further asserted: “We note initially that although many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics (“OGE”) do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President, the Office of the White House Counsel has instructed all such employees to abide by 3 CFR 100.1,” which NPR describes as “the segment of ethics law that pertains to Executive Office employees.”

Shaub said Thursday he “remain[s] concerned about Ms. Conway’s misuse of position,” and that failing to issue punishment “risks undermining the ethics program.”

However, he continued:

The Hill reports:

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Cummings also wrote to Passantino (pdf) separately on Thursday, stating that “[t]he president’s staff needs to follow ethics rules—not flout them.”

Noting that Passantino’s language closely mirrored that of the Koch Brothers-funded conservative group Cause for Action, which itself wrote the OGE in February to defend Conway’s conduct, Cummings then asked the administration to clarify its stance on how ethics rules apply to the executive branch.

Each week of the Trump presidency seems to bring additional ethical quandaries, leading Brennan Center fellow and Stetson University College of Law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy to write this week that rejecting formal ethics training for his staff, nominees, and advisors was perhaps “the worst $1 million Trump ever saved.”

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The Associated Press reported Wednesday, for example, that “China has granted preliminary approval for 38 new Trump trademarks, paving the way for Donald Trump and his family to potentially develop a host of branded businesses from hotels to insurance to bodyguard and escort services.”

The wire service added:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also drew attention to the Chinese trademarks on Friday:

In an attempt to address at least some of the administration’s conflicts of interest, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) on Thursday introduced the No Taxpayer Revenue Used to Monetize the Presidency Act, or the No TRUMP Act.

The legislation would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for events, overnight stays, food, or other miscellaneous expenses at hotels owned or operated by a president or his or her relatives, according to a press statement. As examples, Blumenauer cited “reports of taxpayers footing bills for Secret Service and embassy officials to travel with Trump’s children on a business trip and as government officials spend time at Trump facilities,” USA Today reported.

“Trump and his family are riddled with conflicts of interests,” Blumenauer said. “Putting a strain on government resources for Trump to hold meetings with U.S. officials at Mar-a-Lago or for the Trump children to travel the world to promote the family business are just more examples. Presidents should not financially benefit from holding the office. No taxpayer money should be spent at Trump hotels. Period.”

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