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Newsletter | Revolving Door Project Newsletter | August 24, 2022

Strong on the Law, Weak on its Aims

2020 Election/TransitionEthics in GovernmentExecutive Branch

Each administration’s constellations of ethics issues have their own repeating patterns.

This edition of the Revolving Door Project newsletter was originally published on our Substack. View and subscribe here.

“They keep thinking like lawyers without applying commonsense notions of right and wrong or trust and accountability,” POGO’s Walter Shaub commented Friday. “This administration is strong on the law and weak on commitment to the underlying aims of an ethics program.” 

Shaub gave this discerning quote to HuffPost in relation to the Biden administration’s decision to permit Kurt Delbene, Chief Information Officer for the Department of Veteran Affairs and husband to Representative Suzan DelBene (D-Wash), a reliable big tech ally in Congress, to keep approximately $15.2 million in future grants of Microsoft stock to be vested in an irrevocable trust for his children, while negotiating lucrative contracts with Microsoft in his government position. Shaub’s distinction—that while Trump violated both the letter of the law and its intent, the Biden administration is at times more faithful to the letter of the law than its raison d’etre—resonates with our ethics critiques specific to each presidency.

Trump’s unswervingly self-serving corruption was about as subtle as his “dictator chic” penthouse. That’s why we’ve argued for blanket de-Trumpification, replacing all Trump appointees across the Biden administration. Biden has not heeded this call. Now, a month and a half from midterms, Trump appointees hold leadership positions at many federal agencies, the consequence of Biden’s unwillingness to take a no-exemptions approach to cleaning house. We’ve been commenting on the ongoing fallout of that decision for many months. 

RDP’s Toni Aguilar Rosenthal wrote last week about “Corrupt Cuffari and our Continued Case for De-Trumpification,” highlighting several officials within our national security apparatus who were handpicked by Trump, and continue to undermine good governance. This includes Joseph Cuffari, of course, the Inspector General of the Homeland Security Department whose failure to report to Congress or take steps to recover the Secret Service’s missing January 6 text messages is now a headlining scandal. But Cuffari is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Toni also brings up Trump-appointed FBI Director Chris Wray, who hyper-surveilled Black activists while failing to take seriously white nationalists’ public preparations for January 6, and allowed the Trump White House to direct the FBI’s investigation into the Brett Kavanaugh rape allegations. And she problematizes the “accountability vortex” created by Trump’s appointment of Sean O’Donnell to two full-time positions as DoD Inspector General and EPA Inspector General. He continues to hold both positions to this day—a “functionally impossible” task. Biden’s nominee to replace O’Donnell at DoD is current NSA Inspector General Robert Storch, who raises concern since Trump re-nominated Storch (after he was initially nominated by Obama) back in 2017.

The past few months have been punctuated by one revelation after another about the security and intelligence failures surrounding January 6, 2021, from deleted text messages from senior Pentagon officials, Homeland Security leadership, ICE personnel and Secret Service members, to employees at the CIA, DIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies openly claiming “that the January 6th terrorist attack on our Capitol was justified.” Amidst this rash of scandals, it is deeply worrisome that so many inspectors general themselves personify the very oversight and accountability concerns that they are supposed to be in charge of investigating. Biden’s failure to treat all of Trump’s chosen personnel as toxic has complicated the process of excavating the rot left over from the previous administration, which continues to erode trust in government. 

Biden’s choice to re-nominate Trump’s Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell amidst the trading scandal that saw two Fed bank presidents resign remains one of the administration’s highest profile ethics failures. Back in January, our former Research Director and newly minted law student Eleanor Eagan wrote, “As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell undergoes consideration for a second term, the public deserves thorough, straightforward answers to many outstanding questions about these scandals.” Powell has now been confirmed for a second term, but many of those questions remain unanswered.

Along with Trump holdovers, of course, there are plenty of Biden appointees whose corporate pasts raise eyebrows. Anita Dunn’s tenure is an example par excellence. A recent press release summarizes our reaction to her new 93-page financial disclosure succinctly: “What The Hell Is Anita Dunn Even Allowed To Work On?” 

Eleanor and our Executive Director Jeff Hauser emphasized the importance of ethics policies drawing “red lines that are simple to explain, administer and enforce” earlier this summer. By refusing blanket de-Trumpification—simple to explain, easy to administer—Biden has made his administration’s work of restoring ethics in government harder. And it doesn’t help that Congress has been reluctant to lead the charge for de-Trumpifying the ranks of executive branch leadership. 

Last Friday, Toni and I wrote for the American Prospect about how Congress has been missing in action on replacing Trump holdovers. We outlined what robust congressional oversight could look like in a friendly administration, including giving Biden cover for firing the last of Trump’s appointees despite bad-faith Republican opposition. Committee hearings also provide Congress with an opportunity to educate the public about the harms being done to them and the government’s steps to remedy those harms, and to listen to their constituents and take action on the issues they most care about. 

“Donald Trump broke many of the counterbalancing oversight mechanisms intended to keep our government functional,” we wrote. “Congress has a perennial opportunity, and a serious responsibility, to step up as a watchdog while many parts of the government remain in disarray, gutted under the supervision of the last executive. Congress has its own serial dysfunction to contend with, but when it comes to oversight responsibilities, its tools are intact and underutilized.”

A counterpoint to Congress’ real opportunity to lead on oversight, of course, is the need for Congress to turn that magnifying glass on itself. (We’ll see whether congresspeople vote to ban themselves from trading stocks this fall.) One overlooked opportunity: Eleanor wrote for The Lever in late July about how, since the 2007 passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act began requiring retiring lawmakers to notify a congressional ethics committee when they begin negotiating for a new job, “more than 500 federal lawmakers have retired, with many taking lucrative gigs as lobbyists, lawyers or trade association officials — and only 18 departing representatives and senators have filed such disclosures.” 

Meanwhile in the executive branch, Andrea Beaty’s excellent white paper earlier this summer documented the extent of the revolving door between the DOJ Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission and corporate-aligned entities, finding that over 60 percent of those government employees left for BigLaw firms, merger-driven corporations, and economic consulting firms from 2014 to 2021. She makes several suggestions for ethics reforms that would slow the revolving door to industry. 

On a more promising note, yesterday’s news of the National Security Council “quietly gearing up to try to pierce the veil” of government secrecy and reform the system for determining what information is classified would be a welcome step for government transparency. As Jeff and Eleanor wrote for Politico EU in July, lawmakers should “welcome sunlight as an additional disinfectant.” Restoring trust in government will require instituting stronger accountability measures for those in government, and swiftly replacing those who violate ethical standards. And more than anything, it will require leadership to demonstrate a clear, consistent faithfulness to “commonsense notions of right and wrong or trust and accountability,” as Shaub put it, even and especially when ethics laws are insufficiently strict. 

With the wreckage of Trump’s presidency still strewn about and smoldering, it will take more than adhering to the letter of the law to persuade the American people that those in government are working in the public’s best interest, not serving their own. 

Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:

Where Has Congress Been on Trump Holdovers?

Open Letter to President Biden on Executive Gun Control Actions

Corrupt Cuffari and our Continued Case for De-Trumpification

Biden Urged to Take Steps to Finally Get Rid of DeJoy as He Plows Ahead With Job Cuts

Top Biden Adviser Anita Dunn Divulges Massive Conflict Of Interest: She Worked For Pfizer 

Report warns corruption runs deeper than the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security

2020 Election/TransitionEthics in GovernmentExecutive Branch

More articles by Hannah Story Brown

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