Review of Overcoming Trumpery: The Reform Recipes Republicans Will Never Allow | Books
Jhe great abuses of power by the Richard Nixon administration, collectively remembered as Watergate, had one huge upside: they inspired a series of laws that greatly strengthened American democracy.
This new book from the Brookings Institution, subtitled How to Restore Ethics, The Rule of Law and Democracy, recalls those distant days of a functioning legislative process.
The response to Watergate gave us real limits on individual contributions to candidates and political action committees (Federal Election Campaign Act); a truly independent Office of Special Counsel (Ethics in Government Act); inspectors general in each major agency (Inspector General Act); a much more efficient access to information process; and a Sunshine Law that enshrines the new notion that government must be “the servant of the people” and “fully responsible to them.”
Since then, an increasingly conservative Supreme Court has eviscerated every major campaign finance reform, most disastrously in 2010 with Citizens United, and in 2013 tore down the most effective parts of the Human Rights Act. vote. Congress allowed the Special Advocates Act to lapse, in part because of how Ken Starr abused it when he investigated Bill Clinton.
The collapse of the Watergate reforms was one of many factors that set the stage for the most corrupt American government of modern times, that of Donald Trump.
Even someone as accustomed to Trump’s crimes as I can still be amazed when all known abuses are listed in one volume. What the authors of this book identify as “the seven deadly sins of deception” include “disregard for ethics, undermining the rule of law, relentless lying and misinformation, impudence” and, of course, “the pursuit of personal and political interests”.
The book identifies Trump’s original sin as his refusal to place his businesses in blind trust, which has led to no less than 3,400 conflicts of interest. It didn’t help that the federal conflict of interest law specifically exempts the president. Under the first modern-day president with no interest in “legitimacy” or the “appearance of legitimacy of the presidency,” this left virtually nothing off limits.
The Emoluments Clause of the constitution prohibits any government official from accepting “any gift, emolument, office, or title, of any kind, from any king, prince, or foreign state”, but has no enforcement mechanism. So a shameless president could be paid through his hotels by everyone from the Philippines to Kuwait, while the Bank of China paid a Trump company about $5.4 million. (As a fig leaf, Trump gave the Treasury $448,000 from profits earned by foreign governments during two years of his presidency, but without any accounting.)
Trump even got the feds to pay him directly, charging the Secret Service $32,400 for bed and breakfasts for a visit to Mar-a-Lago plus $17,000 a month for a chalet at his golf club. New Jersey.
The US Office of Special Counsel has listed dozens of violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits political activity by federal officials. The miscreants included Peter Navarro, Dan Scavino, Nikki Haley and especially Kellyanne Conway. The OSC referred its findings to Trump, who of course did nothing. Conway was cheerful.
“Let me know when the jail term starts,” she said.
There was also Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressing the Republican convention from a cliff overlooking Jerusalem during a mission to Israel. In another category of corruption were the $43,000 soundproof phone booth installed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the million dollars Health Secretary Tom Price spent on luxury travel . These two actually quit.
The book is primarily focused on Trump’s four-year crime spree. But he’s bipartisan enough to pin the blame on Democrats for creating a climate in which no crime seemed too big not to prosecute.
Barack Obama’s strict ethics rules imposed by executive orders produced a nearly scandal-free administration. But Claire O Finkelstein and Richard W Painter argue that there was a scandal that set a terrible precedent: the decision not to prosecute anyone at the CIA for unlawful torture practiced under George W Bush.
This “lack of accountability” was “deeply corrosive. The decision to ‘look forward, not back’ on torture…has undermined the country’s ability to hold government officials to the constraints of the law”.
However, the authors are probably a bit too optimistic when they argue that a more forceful stance might have made the Trump administration more eager to prosecute its own lawbreakers.
The authors point out that there are two things in the federal government that are even worse than the massive violation of ethics codes in the executive branch: the near total absence of ethics codes in Congress and judicial powers.
The House Ethics Manual says it is “fundamental that a Member … not use his or her official position for personal gain”. But that makes “virtually no sense” since members can take action in the “industries in which they hold company stock”.
The Senate exonerates itself from ethical concerns with two brilliant words: no member may promote a bill whose “primary purpose” is “to serve only its pecuniary interest”. Thus, as long as the legislation also has other purposes, personal gain is not a barrier to passage.
The authors argue that since the Watergate crimes pale in comparison to Trump’s corruption, this should be the greatest opportunity for deep reform since the 1970s. But of course, there is no chance that such reform goes through this Congress because Republicans have no interest in making government honest.
Nothing tells us more about the collapse of our democracy than the primary concern of House and Senate Minority Leaders Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell. Their sole purpose is to avoid any action that would offend the perpetrator or instigator of all these crimes. Instead of forcing him to resign like Nixon did, these shaky men still claim that Donald Trump is the only man qualified to lead them.