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Personal ties blur ethical lines on Pennsylvania Avenue

While President Trump previously issued an executive order holding members of the Trump administration to high ethical standards, numerous waivers of the order have raised ethical concerns of their own.

Upon taking office in late January 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order obliging himself and his appointees to signing an ethics pledge that committed those working within the Trump administration to abide by a series of ethical considerations as a result of being “invested with public trust.”

[T]he White House has set its own rules aside to allow key staffers to work on matters in the private sector, despite their current roles and influence in the White House.

Since Trump took office, his executive order on ethics has been waived for several advisors, lawyers, and others working within the White House. Such waivers allow White House staffers to work on matters that may relate to to their former employers or clients, or allow them to work on issues typically excluded because of lobbying in the past. Essentially, the White House has set its own rules aside to allow key staffers to work on matters in the private sector, despite their current roles and influence in the White House. On the other hand, The New York Times has reported that “Lindsay E. Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement that the Trump administration had tried, when possible, to urge aides to avoid conflicts and had asked them to not work on topics they once handled in the private sector, instead of granting waivers.” Walters went on to note “The White House has voluntarily released the ethics waivers as part of the president’s commitment to the American people to be transparent.”

Several of these waivers are very broad in scope and have been issued to some of the highest-level White House officials, including chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, Trump counselor, Kellyanne Conway, and Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Joshua Pitcock. In total, Trump has already issued 17 waivers, which is the same number of waivers Obama issued over his 8-year administration. Perhaps one of the more concerning waivers was the one given to Mr. Bannon, in which Bannon was permitted to communicate with Breitbart News, the conservative website he used to oversee.

As a result of the waiver given to Bannon, Breitbart News now has a direct link into the White House. While press releases from the White House are nothing new, the Trump administration has seemingly taken transparency less seriously than it pledged during Trump’s campaign with plans to “drain the swamp.”

By banning reporters, refusing to answer questions, and sometimes simply refusing to hear questions at all, the output of information from the White House has been limited.

Earlier in February 2017, not even one month into the new administration’s term, White House press secretary Sean Spicer banned reporters from attending a non-televised briefing. The reporters banned came from notably liberal sources, including CNN, the New York Times, Politico, and the Los Angeles Times. It should be noted that the only news outlets invited included those who have reported more sympathetically to the Trump administration. President Trump himself affirmed the decision as he took to Twitter, writing: “FAKE NEWS media… The failing [New York Times] has become a joke. Likewise CNN…” Later, Trump referred to the sources as the enemies of the American people.

Since the ban, the complete press corps has been allowed back in, but open communication between the White House and the media has seemingly been all but sincere. Several times, Sean Spicer has left press briefings without taking any questions from the reporters, which is a highly unusual practice in the White House.

By banning reporters, refusing to answer to questions, and sometimes simply refusing to hear questions at all, the output of information from the White House has been limited. Such circumstances therein beg the question about “transparency” in the new administration. Is isolating the White House and its inner operations working for the People? Based on the recent disapproval ratings reaching an all-time high, perhaps it is not helping.

Questions regarding “honesty” from Trump and his officials are abundant. The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has been accused of perjuring himself before the Senate when testifying to communications with the Russians. Yet, General Sessions previously declared he would testify adversely to what former FBI Director James Comey said regarding his investigation into the Trump administration’s actions. With contradicting information, either Sessions or Comey must have committed perjury before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Additionally, Trump himself agreed to testify against Comey, who was the FBI Director until Trump fired him. The problem is, by accusing Comey of lying, the president now has to prove his accusations or lose his credibility.

[I]n an increasingly opaque administration, a clear view can be difficult to find.

All of these factors matter in relation to the ethics waivers because there seems to be an issue regarding the integrity and honesty in communications between the White House and the public. Now, these waivers have arguably become “permission slips” for more to go on behind the scenes without any accountability. When top advisors and counselors are permitted to engage in potentially self-serving relationships, the American public is then forced to look closer; however, in an increasingly opaque administration, a clear view can be difficult to find.

Mr. Bannon’s waiver regarding his communication with Breitbart is likely to raise an eyebrow or two. Functionally, this means a favorable news source to the White House will have the inside scoop from a White House official. The waiver gives Bannon the power to create the news while also reporting it. This is happening in the midst of other reporters fighting bans and begging for answers to questions that Spicer is not taking.

The more concerning part of Bannon’s waiver is the time in which it was issued. The waiver was conveniently left undated, potentially freeing him from a pending ethics complaint regarding his past discussion with Breitbart editors. Of course, Bannon is now free for future discourse, too. However, this discussion may not be over according to Walter Schaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), who stated, “There is no such thing as a retroactive waiver. If you need a retroactive waiver, you have violated a rule.”

The Trump White House is no stranger to the OGE, as the mere issuance of the waivers prompted dispute between the two. The White House sent a letter to Schaub asking the director to withdraw the OGE’s request for copies of the waivers. Schaub denied the the White House’s request and reminded the administration in his own letter that “[p]ublic confidence in the integrity of government decision making demands no less.”

Furthermore, by taking the history of (dis)honesty with a grain of salt, the People now have reasons to question the constitutionality of some of the administration’s actions. Unquestionably, the administration has made attempts to bind the media and the control the information publicized. In attempting to stifle media coverage, the public must decide whether freedom of the press is truly under siege.

The quintessence of injustice sits at the feet of the one who chooses to make the rules he has no intention of following.

Another right has recently been called into question as the president has taken to Twitter again, raising even more First Amendment concerns. Sean Spicer recently declared Trump’s tweets as “official White House statements.” Thus, when Trump blocked Twitter users who tweeted critical things to him, Trump may have overstepped and silenced adverse opinions of government officials, which would be an inherent violation of the Free Speech Clause. Facing serious accusations, the president may face a lawsuit if he doesn’t unblock Twitter users according to the Knight First Amendment Institute.

As President, Trump was not required to issue an executive order, especially on interior ethical obligations. This begs the question of why he issued an ethical order to begin with if his intention was to relieve so many of his appointees from the ethical obligations he mandated important enough to become law. Acknowledging he and his administration have been “invested with [the public’s] trust,” it is important the president adheres to the rules, including the ones he himself puts into place. The quintessence of injustice sits at the feet of the one who chooses to make the rules he has no intention of following.

Taylor Elkins
About Taylor Elkins (9 Articles)
Taylor Elkins is a third year law student and serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Born and raised in Owasso, Oklahoma, Taylor went to Baylor University where she obtained a degree in biology and political science. During her time at Campbell, Taylor has worked at the North Carolina Department of Justice in the Criminal Appellate Division. She won Campbell's Richard Lord Intramural Moot Court Competition, and is now a member of Campbell's national moot court team. She is interested in patent law as well as appellate advocacy.