The first casualty of the new government taking over Washington may be information about the government itself.
The new Republican-led Congress is moving toward confirming several nominees to run executive branch departments even though they have not yet had their financial disclosures vetted and cleared by ethics officials. The first act by the House of Representatives was a vote – later rescinded under fire – to dilute the power of an independent ethics office, notably its authority to share information about members with the public.
At the same time, President-elect Donald Trump continues to refuse to release his tax returns. He’s asked for an investigation to find out how NBC News got intelligence information. And he has not yet said how or whether he’ll divorce himself from his business interests.
“There seems to be a new kind of culture coming in, different from what we’ve seen the past,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Republicans downplay the controversies as partisan whining. “Little procedural complaints,” was how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, described the complaints about the lack of information from Cabinet nominees.
So all of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration in having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Democratic complaints that some Trump Cabinet nominees haven’t provided enough information
To ethics watchdogs, the trend is clear and troublesome. Trump made draining the Washington swamp a major theme of his campaign, yet the public is probably more confused and skeptical than ever, independent groups maintained.
“It’s hard for the public to keep track of all that’s going on,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan public interest group.
Wednesday, for instance, looms as overwhelming to constituents trying to make sense of the controversies. Trump plans his first news conference since his election, while at roughly the same time, five nominees are due for Senate confirmation hearings.
The turn-away from transparency began Jan. 2, the night before the new Congress was sworn in.
“Maybe they thought it was a federal holiday and no one was paying attention,” Flynn said.
Nearly half of the House’s Republicans voted in a private meeting to curb the influence of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. They wanted it under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee, which would give House members more control over its proceedings.
Watchdog groups and social media exploded with outrage. “The American people will see this latest push to undermine congressional ethics enforcement as shady and corrupt,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative research group. Trump in tweets questioned the timing of the initiative, and the GOP dropped the idea.
This drive-by effort to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics, which provides appropriate independence and transparency to the House ethics process, is a poor way for the Republican majority to begin ‘draining the swamp.’ Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, as some House Republicans tried to curb the clout of the chamber’s independent ethics office.
But other veils of secrecy remained.
The government’s ethics watchdog expressed “great concern” that a lack of information has left Trump administration nominees with “potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues” before their confirmation hearings.
On Friday, Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, wrote Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that nominees must have their financial disclosure data certified by the office before hearings. Not all nominees have “completed the ethics review process,” he said. He did not name those nominees.
The Senate is to begin confirmation hearings Tuesday, and it hopes to have several nominees confirmed shortly after Trump takes office Jan. 20. Shaub did not say which nominees had not provided information.
The office has released material for some key nominees due for hearings this week, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., attorney general; Rex Tillerson, secretary of state; Gen. James Mattis, defense secretary; and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., Central Intelligence Agency.
To ethics experts, as well as Democrats, Shaub’s warning was another chapter in an ongoing, disturbing saga.
“I really am worried about where this administration is headed,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Trump is setting a tone. He has never held a government office, and doesn’t feel “the norms of public service apply to him,” said Libowitz. Since Trump won the election, Libowitz added, many Republicans think the public is fine with skirting ethics norms.
GOP interests maintain that the controversy is manufactured by Democrats seeking a partisan advantage.
“Walter Shaub is an Obama appointee with a partisan agenda. His eruptions since Election Day show that beyond a shadow of a doubt,” said a statement by America Rising, a Republican research organization. Obama appointed Shaub as director in 2013. Shaub had worked for the agency during the George W. Bush administration.
“They want to put a bunch of political peeping Toms into the tax records of people,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump senior adviser, told “Fox & Friends” on Monday.
Our Cabinet designees have . . . had about 70 hours of mock sessions, they've answered over 2,600 questions and they've met with 87 United States senators, including 37 Democrats. Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, on ‘Fox & Friends’
Judicial Watch’s Fitton was not overly concerned about the ethics delay. Confirmation hearings, he noted, are often quick and hardly go into much depth, and candidates are often not heavily scrutinized.
“Both parties do that,” he said.
Trump’s refusal to release his full tax returns was an issue throughout the presidential campaign. Presidential nominees for the past 40 years have routinely released their tax returns or summaries.
Trump said he wouldn’t release his until an Internal Revenue Service audit was completed, but nothing in IRS rules prevents him from doing so.
He also has not said how he will handle his business interests once he takes office, though he’s expected to discuss those matters Wednesday at a news conference. He is not barred by federal law from retaining those interests, though presidents historically have put their assets into blind trusts or turned over their businesses to others.
It all worries the ethics watchers.
“This is highly unusual,” said Holman of all the secrecy. “Republicans look at Trump and say, ‘If he can get away with it, so can we.’ ”