A small, previously obscure federal ethics office has catalogued a burst of inquiries and complaints from the public — more than 30,000 — since Donald Trump’s election as president, compared to a few hundred in all of fiscal 2015.
The huge increase in public outreach to the Office of Government Ethics reflects an administration with unprecedented corporate entanglements and an outwardly blase approach to ethics statutes and the truth, as well as a flair for scandal and drama.
But the rise is also evidence of a mobilized opposition movement that has put ethics and fighting corruption at the center of its attacks. Democrats on the Hill, motivated by a resist-Trump, grass-roots movement around the country, aim to weaken the president’s power and thwart his administration’s policy agenda at every turn — if not force him out of office.
The taking down of a president is a long shot, especially for the minority party with its limited procedural tools and near total inability to set the congressional agenda or to hold oversight hearings. While the strategy isn’t risk-free for Democrats, it could set up their party for future electoral gains.
“Democrats are, No. 1, trying to rouse their base and their troops for the midterm elections and then in 2020,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Every week of its short reign, the Trump administration has obliged Democratic messaging by offering new fodder with missteps on a variety of fronts that its rivals can target.
Instead of minimizing bad headlines, the White House has blown them up into even bigger stories.
President Trump, for example, maintains ownership of the Trump Organization and its holdings that range from a swanky new hotel just blocks from the White House to golf courses and properties in far-flung countries including Azerbaijan, Scotland and Turkey. His oldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, operate the company now, but are hardly viewed as independent from their father.
The president’s oldest daughter, Ivanka, became an unpaid White House employee in late March. Her father initially denied reports back in November that she would gain security clearance and set up in the West Wing. Her husband, Jared Kushner, serves as one of the president’s most senior advisers.
Cabinet officials and other appointees struggle to unload tricky assets to avoid the appearance of conflicts. Some even gave up on joining the administration over their business entanglements, including Trump’s original pick for Army secretary, Vincent Viola, a billionaire who owns the Florida Panthers hockey team.
Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president who coined the term “alternative facts,” promoted Ivanka Trump’s company brand on live TV in February, prompting some of those 30,000 complaints and questions to the ethics office.
The president has spread accusations, such as one alleging that his predecessor Barack Obama tapped his phones during the campaign.
And there is perhaps the most potentially perilous controversy of all: The FBI says it is investigating Trump insiders and former campaign aides for collusion with Russia on hacks meant to tilt the 2016 election in the president’s favor.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer took to his chamber’s floor last month to call for an improbable halt to the confirmation hearings of the president’s Supreme Court pick, Judge Neil Gorsuch, and cited the government investigation as a reason.
“It is unseemly to be moving forward so fast on confirming a Supreme Court justice with a lifetime appointment while this big, gray cloud of an FBI investigation hangs over the presidency,” the New York Democrat said.
None of these incidents involving Trump or his allies has risen to the level of Watergate, the abuses of power by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s that led to a constitutional crisis, threats of impeachment and, ultimately, his resignation. Yet the criticism and appearance of potential wrongdoing have taken a toll on Trump’s job-approval rating, now at 35 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.
That weakens the president on his signature policies.
The fog of suspicion over his administration made it easier for recalcitrant conservative hard-liners on Capitol Hill to buck him on a bill to repeal the 2010 health care law — providing a major early policy collapse. It will dog the president on his next priority, a tax overhaul. And it makes it nearly impossible for mainstream and progressive Democrats to collaborate with Trump on shared policy objectives to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
Picking their battles
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, have only intensified their focus on scandal fare.
Some, including Rep. Maxine Waters of California, have made no effort to hide their goals. “Get ready for impeachment,” she said recently using the president’s preferred method of communication: Twitter.
Such strategies appear premature and could numb voters to more serious discoveries in the coming months or years.
“There’s some incentive for the opposition party to make every scandal like Watergate — that if you keep digging, you’re going to get to the president, and that’s almost never true,” said the University of Houston’s Brandon Rottinghaus, author of a book on presidential scandals.
“Calls for impeachment early on do more damage to potential findings. There’s a real danger for the opposition,” he said. “You have to pick your battles wisely, and I think they probably have not. But it’s hard — they’re getting heat from their base.”
Indeed, liberal interest groups and grass-roots activists alike have taken up the mantra of ethics and corruption. They are outraged by Trump’s weekend jaunts to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Florida, where the president has conducted sometimes sensitive business in the open and given his members close-up, uncommon, pay-to-play access to the White House.
Trump’s business empire recently won valuable trademarks in China, prompting lawmakers and interest groups to ask publicly whether such actions may influence the administration’s foreign policy. Foreign dignitaries are booking his Trump International Hotel in Washington, spurring lawsuits alleging that the president is violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bans government officials from receiving gifts or money from foreign powers.
The Trump Organization’s lease on the Old Post Office Building, which houses its hotel in Washington, stipulates that a government official can’t benefit from it. The General Services Administration, which oversees the lease, ruled recently that the Trump hotel was in compliance, triggering outrage from government watchdog groups.
Neither the White House nor the Trump Organization responded to requests for comment.
The president’s sons run the company “in a very professional manner. They’re not going to discuss it with me,” Trump said during a news conference in January outlining the business arrangement.
He and White House officials have repeatedly said the president has no business ties with Russia, a country he has embraced. “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” Trump tweeted in January.
The administration is under increasing pressure, though, as more comes to light about Russian and other foreign ties to former campaign manager Paul Manafort and the White House’s ex-national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Because Trump refuses to release his past tax returns — unheard of by a major party presidential nominee in 40 years — the public is in the dark about his business ties abroad. “We have never, ever, in the history of this country had a presidency caught up with corruption and conflicts of interest like this one,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.
Trump’s failure to divest of his global business empire makes him unique, but scandals have dogged plenty of his predecessors.
A GOP-controlled House impeached President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, for lying under oath about an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. The Iran-Contra affair in which officials covertly sold arms to Iran and sent money to militants in Nicaragua rocked President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Warren Harding’s presidency was the subject of a bribery investigation, known as the Teapot Dome scandal, when he died in office.
Though some Democrats have broken out the “I” word — impeachment — others are more measured in their calls for bipartisan investigations and focus on ethics.
They want to know more about the president’s warm rhetoric toward Russia and whether his campaign operation worked in conjunction with President Vladimir Putin’s government to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“The end goal is upholding the values of our democracy and our Constitution,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.
“If there are conflicts of interest that go into those provisions of the Constitution that said you can’t have foreign interests influence our elections and our elected officials, then we must investigate them,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “So our mission is to protect the very fundamentals of our democracy. … This isn’t just about one political party or one candidate losing an election.”
If Democrats controlled either the House or the Senate, they could schedule oversight hearings in that chamber. They would have the power to subpoena witnesses and documents.
Instead, they’ve convened press conferences and panel discussions in the Capitol. They write letters. And they tweet.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced legislation requiring the president to divest his business holdings and to release his tax returns, though it won’t move in the Republican-controlled Senate.
She and other lawmakers — including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — have written letters to the Office of Government Ethics to publicize potential violations of ethics laws.
It’s all part of an effort to pressure Republicans to hold hearings, as some chairmen recently have done to examine the Russia affair. Though a few Republicans, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said the situation merits an independent investigation, most in the GOP have showed a reluctance to probe a president of their party.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a 13-term New York Democrat, said he’s found a way to force Republicans to vote on Trump’s ethical matters. He drew up a resolution of inquiry asking for wide-ranging Justice Department documents, including those related to counterintelligence investigations into Russian interference in the election, the president’s business deals and possible violations of the Emoluments Clause.
The House parliamentarian referred the matter, as Nadler intended, to the House Judiciary Committee on which he serves. The resolution failed on a party-line vote, but the congressman doesn’t view it as a total loss.
“The resolution of inquiry is a tactic to force Republicans to vote either to support the resolution of inquiry or to continue a cover-up,” Nadler said during an interview in his congressional office. Two other lawmakers offered additional resolutions in Judiciary last week, and Nadler expects more Democrats to take up the tactic, including on the Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs panels.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, has used the same tactic as well as privileged resolutions on the House floor aimed at obtaining Trump’s tax returns. Pascrell’s efforts have also been rejected largely along party lines, though GOP Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina has voted with Democrats. Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina has voted “present” to maintain some party loyalty, but said Trump should release his taxes and be transparent.
“We’re pretty confident that the more pressure we put on, the closer we’ll get to the answer,” Pascrell said.
If successful, he added, “We’re going to look at all the forms that business people have to present when they’re dealing with the IRS. We’re going to open up people’s eyes.”
The constant campaign
Such votes, Democrats believe, may haunt GOP members in 2018 and beyond.
“Depending, in 2018, where things are at, how popular the president is or unpopular, how will these issues look at that time?” Nadler said. “The fact that someone voted against an investigation could be unfortunate to his campaign.”
Republican campaign operatives say it would be a stretch for Democrats to sweep the midterm elections over Russia, ethics and the president’s business. Once five House vacancies are filled, Democrats would need to pick up about two dozen seats to reclaim the majority.
If congressional Democrats stick with Trump’s scandals as their message to win in 2018, their results may look more like 2016’s failure, said Steve Gordon, a longtime Republican campaign strategist.
GOP incumbents will be more vulnerable to attacks based on specific policy matters and a general inability to govern if gridlock continues amid all-Republican control. But Trump clearly will cast a shadow over 2018.
“I can tell you that any incumbent worth their weight in salt is going ahead and raising money five ways from Sunday because it is fair to say that they — that amorphous they — lose their independence to some degree being connected to Trump because Trump blocks the sun,” Gordon said.
Democrats’ focus on ethics and corruption echoes their party’s successful “culture of corruption” messaging during the 2006 midterms, which helped them win back the House.
House Democrats have set up what they call the Democracy Reform Task Force, led by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland. The task force’s chief goals are to expose the president’s conflicts of interest and ethical abuses and also to tie those to specific policy matters, Sarbanes said.
J. Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist in South Carolina, likens the ethics and corruption attacks to relentless, pesky beach bugs.
“Sand gnats can’t kill you, but it sure takes a lot of energy to swat them away,” he said. “It takes you off task. Democrats are trying to get the administration into a multi-fronted war to keep them off of governing.”
Trump’s loyal core supporters aren’t likely to turn on him, especially over ethics violations. The attacks may win him sympathy. They’re not rattled by his business ties — they hired him to run the nation in large part because of his billionaire mogul image. But if the consistently negative headlines weaken the White House and stymie the president’s agenda, even Trump’s base may lose heart.
“They’re willing to overlook, writ large, a lot of these wild claims by the Democrats because results are expected to follow,” noted Gidley, a Trump supporter.
“Now if results don’t follow and we don’t get tax cuts and a huge increase in protecting our border, repeal and replace Obamacare, fund the military, then those wild claims won’t fall on deaf ears,” he said.
Trump’s scandals already have weakened him and may diminish his influence and imperil his policy agenda.
“The inaction of the Trump administration and Trump himself, the Trump Organization and his appointments, to deal with ethics will undermine their capacity to have political clout moving ahead,” said American University’s James Thurber, a presidential scholar and governmental ethics advocate. “So his power shifts to the Hill, and they will push what they think is best.”
Even before congressional Republicans and the White House have taken up a tax bill in earnest, Democrats have begun to preview how they will connect the issue with Trump’s failure to disclose his own taxes.
A portion of the president’s 2005 tax return leaked to a reporter and made a brief splash on MSNBC last month during “The Rachel Maddow Show.” The document showed that Trump paid more than $31 million because of the alternative minimum tax, which was enacted to ensure that everyone paid some tax.
Trump and House Republicans seek to eliminate the AMT in their tax overhaul proposals.
“We don’t know whether when he promotes a particular tax change, or a particular trade policy whether that’s affecting Mr. Trump or is in the best interest of our country,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
That’s a question that won’t go away soon and can apply to almost anything on the Trump administration’s agenda.
“We’re going to show voters how these conflicts harm them and how not having the full picture of what ties he has with his business is going to affect the policy-making process,” Sarbanes said.
“Voters are going to care more about the conflicts when they start to see how they will impact them and their lives,” he said.