Today in OpenGov: Paintering a picture of an ethical disaster in a Trump presidency
PAINTERING A PICTURE: Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, ethics counsels in the Obama and Bush White Houses, have been playing an important role in national discourse this year, calling attention to the serious challenges that the President-elect Donald Trump’s lack of disclosure and global business interests pose. As Painter highlighted in an op-ed in the New York Times, Trump’s business conflicts aren’t only an ethical disaster – they’re a diplomatic nightmare, security threat and impending litigation morass. [READ MORE]
BEYOND SELF ENRICHMENT: In a new essay, Sunlight’s John Wonderlich warns of the risks of Trump using corporate power as a pool to consolidate political control and calls for full disclosure so that his wealth, debt, corporate and foreign connections can be both monitored and evaluated against the standard we expect of the American Presidency.
A president, though, who asserts his ability to use corporate influence however he wants to, who ran on his business acumen and negotiating power, and who prides himself on violating norms to represent national interests in a new way, may use his corporate network to a new and different effect.
In each of these scenarios, a Trump-affiliated private, corporate or nonprofit entity could be used as a direct political tool to hide secrets, influence Congress or reinforce a patronage network. This is not an entirely abstract concern, either.
For example, Trump has demonstrated a litigious disdain for the press, and while he will be unable to directly sue news outlets through official government channels, his network of corporations faces no such restriction. Another problematic tool in his toolbox, Trump has dozens of pending development deals. This means that slight differences in decision-making about a hotel or casino can give or take thousands of jobs from a congressional district — an influence that is likely neither illegal for Trump to threaten nor for a member of Congress to heed. Hundreds of thousands of government jobs are managed by private contractors, whose work sits beyond essential public protections like the FOIA or whistleblower protection laws, so outsourcing any politically troublesome services helps obfuscate their function, and outsourcing them to a Trump-owned subsidiary would put them under direct political control. And a charity or family foundation can maintain the presidential imprimatur while directing social services or other arrangements to serve political needs.
While each of these corporate abuses may be unlikely individually, in sum they represent an a type of conflict of interest that has rarely been raised in connection with Trump’s business network. These avenues for using corporate power to consolidate political control are available, and prevented only by the very norms about presidential power that Trump’s political brand repudiates.
To prevent this kind of abuse from happening, not only do we need full divestment from existing business interests, we also need full disclosure so that wealth, debt and corporate connections can be monitored and evaluated. Without Trump’s tax returns, integrity will be an article of faith.
As we interpret Trump’s purported plan to prevent conflicts of interest, we should remember that the line between state and corporate power has been policed by norms that Trump’s brand is defined by violating. Our sense of risk and conflict needs to be updated too. Just as biased state power might unfairly enrich, corporate power that serves state interests would violate integrity and trust more fundamentally than Americans are prepared to anticipate.
President-elect Trump’s conflicts of interests matter. As John notes, “without Trump’s tax returns, integrity will be an article of faith.”
We join other open government watchdogs calling on the President-elect to disentangle his business interests from those of the public before entering office — and for Congress to honor its oversight obligations to the American people. Given the deep divisions and polarization laid bare in this year’s election, the best way to increase public trust that Trump will be acting in the best interests of the public as the 45th President will be achieved through disclosure and divestment. As the public and the press verifies that both are being done in good faith, only then we start to trust only when monitoring over time satisfies the conditions of the ethics agreement. Trump should wholly divest and place the proceeds in a blind trust overseen by an independent overseer.
TRACKING THE TRANSITION
- 127 DAYS: Trump’s last press conference was on July 27, 2016. Both President Bush and Obama held a press conference within three days of accepting the results of the election. As we said before the election, regular press conferences are an essential part of the accountability we can and should expect of the President of the United States – and a President-elect. Just as the actions of presidential candidates during a campaign are a bellwether for open government and transparency in his or her White House, the transparency and accountability of a President-elect are a preview for the White House to come. In a moment when presidents can and “go direct” to the public online, taking questions from the press in public forums remains relevant to democracy.
STATE AND LOCAL
- Should the public have access to data police acquire through private companies? Sunlight’s Emily Shaw told the American Bar Association Journal that the laws being passed to govern this aspect of data range from open and transparent to closed and opaque.
“Legislatures have been playing catch-up over the last couple of years,” Shaw says. She notes that legislatures are challenged by trying to balance concerns related to people’s privacy, restrictions around ongoing investigations and the cost of redaction. Shaw points to Washington as an example of a state with an expansive open records law that is applied to police body camera footage. However, she says that because of the complicated nature of the issue, there is every reason to expect that “where states can, they’ll try to shut down access.” [ABA Journal]
- As we’ve highlighted before, the next horizon for freedom of information laws will be public sector software code — or private sector code, when it is used by governments to make decisions, from regulation to criminal justice. If we are to determine if or when flawed data creates bias in the software, auditing the code is an answer. “Algorithmic transparency” would extend a public’s right to access information to the code used in commerce and governance — and it’s already a reality in France. Nicholas Diakopoulos and Sorelle Friedler outline principles for algorithmic accountability that governments using software should consider: responsibility, explainability, accuracy, and fairness. [Tech Review]
- Elizabeth Moses explored how open government can be used for climate action. [EcoBusiness]
- Here’s a look at Nepal’s road to a more open government. [OGP]
- Toby McIntosh reports that there’s been limited progress towards measuring Sustainable Development Goal 16, the implementation of access to information laws. [FreedomInfo]
- The Open Government Partnership’s Global Summit will be Dec. 7-9 in Paris, France. Your correspondent will be attending the conference, as I have from the beginning, when the global partnership launched in New York City in 2011. Sunlight’s Steven Larrick will be presenting on “Remix to Reform,” with Greg Jordan-Dettamore. Please send us news and announcements and tune in to #OGPSummit.
- The Public Interest Declassification Board will hold a public meeting to “discuss recommendations for improved transparency and open government for the new Presidential Administration” in DC on Dec. 8. [RSVP]
- What events will YOU be attending over the next six months? Write to email@example.com.