Norm Eisen, Barack Obama’s White House ethics czar, was such a stickler for enforcing the rules that even some colleagues privately expressed relief when he traipsed off to Prague for an ambassadorship.
Now, people can’t get enough of him.
Eisen and Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer from the George W. Bush administration, have teamed up to become two of the most vocal critics of President Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest. They not only sued the president within days of his inauguration, they have also appeared regularly on TV news and testified on Capitol Hill on all manner of legal minutiae.
Though government ethics law may seem a lonely pursuit, leading a resistance against the Trump team’s web of potential ethics woes clearly is not.
“I never imagined that White House ethics experts would be in such demand,” Eisen said by phone on a recent Friday as he shopped for groceries for his Shabbat dinner. “It’s an impenetrable ethics thicket of constitutional dimensions.”
Eisen and Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, are affiliated with the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which Eisen co-founded in 2003. Through CREW, Eisen and Painter — and other legal scholars such as Laurence H. Tribe and Zephyr Teachout — sued Trump over the previously obscure Emoluments Clause in the Constitution that forbids presidents from profiting from foreign governments.
They allege that whenever foreign governments foot the bill in Trump hotels, for example, it violates the clause because Trump did not divest himself of The Trump Organization. The president did step away from his management duties, handing them over to his oldest sons and another executive.
“I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president,” Trump said during a January news briefing explaining his plans for his company. “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time. … But I don’t want to do that.”
Although it’s true presidents are exempt from conflict-of-interest rules that apply to other administration officials, Trump’s private-sector ties continue to raise questions.
“Never before have the people of the United States elected a president with business interests as vast, complicated, and secret as those of Donald J. Trump,” the CREW complaint states. Those “business interests are creating countless conflicts of interest, as well as unprecedented influence by foreign governments.”
Some of their fellow ethics experts, though, say the aggressive tack by Eisen and Painter against potential conflicts of interest in the Trump administration may be more of a public relations and fundraising stunt. And that could ultimately cause the public’s attention to fade, even amid legitimate concerns.
Their interpretation of the Emoluments Clause is “unprecedented,” and is one a court “will be very unlikely to uphold,” said Rob Kelner, a GOP ethics lawyer at Covington & Burling.
“CREW chose to adopt a policy in which they would throw everything, including the kitchen sink, against Donald Trump virtually from Day One,” said Kelner, who criticized Trump during the 2016 campaign. “The danger is, it makes the whole effort look political and, I think, makes it tougher for them to attract independent-minded people to their side.”
But Eisen and Painter said they are willing to praise Trump, his Cabinet members and the whole administration when they do something right.
“I don’t think we are reflexively anti-Trump,” Eisen said. “When they do something right, then we say so. The problem is the demerits far outweigh the merits.”
The past is also a guide.
Eisen is completing a book that is both history and personal memoir called “The Last Palace.” He describes it as “the fragility of democracy as seen through the windows of my ambassador house in Prague.”
“Part of the reason Richard and I have been so outspoken is we want to avert the most dangerous outcomes,” he said. “And one of the lessons of this history is: You need to be very, very strong in defending your democracy. You defend from the start as if the threat is the most profound.”
Since the Trump lawsuit, and with Eisen and Painter’s rising profile, CREW has seen “an outpouring of grass-roots support,” said Jordan Libowitz, the group’s communications director. “We’ve seen jumps on social media and the phones haven’t stopped ringing with people asking how they can support us.”
Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who serves as the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, invited Eisen and Painter to join a panel discussion in December about questions over Trump’s business holdings.
“The way they have been working together shows that the concerns about conflicts of interest in the current administration are bipartisan,” Cummings said.
Eisen and Painter, both 56, became acquainted through earlier ethics events and panel discussions, both men recalled.
When Eisen returned stateside in 2014 from his tour in the Czech Republic, he joined the Brookings Institution as a fellow and participated in roundtable discussions on government ethics.
“There aren’t that many people who do it, and Richard would often be another speaker at those conferences,” Eisen said. “Sitting on a panel, sometimes there would be other liberals or Democrats, but invariably I would find I most agreed with Richard. I found it very pleasing that we had this natural affinity that we thought about things the same way.”
Painter, who joined the Bush White House because of his expertise in ethics and finance law, said the two usually stick to ethics matters in their conversations. In addition to his position on ethics, Painter also takes an unusual position, for a Republican, in advocating for a campaign finance overhaul, including support for a $200 tax credit for every American to put toward the presidential candidate of their choice.
Trump, Painter noted, brought attention from the GOP side to the issue of political money during the campaign. The president criticized the system for favoring big donors. But Trump did not offer specific solutions, and his White House counsel, Donald McGahn, is a former Federal Election Commission official who favors campaign finance deregulation.
“Trump is about Trump,” said Painter, whose 2016 book “Taxation Only With Representation,” makes a conservative pitch for campaign finance changes typically embraced by Democrats. “He used this issue to get elected, but he’s not solving any of the problems.”
On social issues, too, Painter said he doesn’t identify with his party’s right wing. “So there are going to be people who say I’m a RINO,” he said, referring to the acronym for Republicans in name only. “You wouldn’t find as much difference between myself and Norm Eisen as you would with the Ted Cruz-type of guys.”
Perhaps that’s why Eisen, a Harvard Law School classmate of Barack Obama, and Painter, a graduate of Yale Law School, have found common ground.
“The things that connect us as Americans are deeper than our differences,” Eisen said.