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Ethics in Government

Hannah Fay, Staff Writer

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On February 9, 2017 the United States Government Ethics Office website crashed because it could not handle the volume of traffic on its page “after a flood of inquiries,” according to NPR. Surprisingly, this is not unprecedented–it was actually the second time within a month’s span that the website crashed. President Donald Trump’s actions in his first few months in office are largely to thank for the nation’s freshly-piqued interest in ethics, and its interest in discerning just what is and isn’t acceptable behavior for government officials.

Though Donald Trump made his plans to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington a main tenet of his campaign, laws were already in place to do just that–dating as far back as the Gilded Age. The Pendleton Act set a precedent for curbing political corruption, prohibiting “retaliatory discharge or demotion of government employees for political reasons,” as The City of New York’s website defines it.

Since then, scandals, court cases, and everything in-between have built up the United States’ legal artillery in defending ourselves from corruption. The most significant chunk of legislation, though, came in the years following Nixon’s Watergate scandal. The Ethics in Government Act created rules that you may be familiar with if only because of buzzwords like “conflict of interest” and “divestment”–brought into the public eye in recent months by Trump’s ability to create conflicts of interest by leaving his family in charge of his real estate empire and it also set up the Government Ethics Office to enforce these laws. 

Generally, they’ve worked out. You can’t get more bipartisan than prohibiting government workers from accepting bribes in the form of gifts from foreign leaders or from profiting off of the laws they pass and policies they pursue. Interestingly, though, the president is often exempted from ethics laws that apply to all other federal workers.

This last point makes it hard to hold Donald Trump legally accountable for what The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah dubbed his “part-time job.” By the Department of the Interior’s definition, a conflict of interest is “any particular matter in which [the employee] has a financial interest,” including “where the financial interests of a member of the employee’s household would be impacted.” The alarm bells of unethical behavior should now be sounding in every American’s head: even if Trump has nominally detached from his business, his family’s financial gain is still inextricably tied to it. And though Trump has said that he has passed on all his business responsibilities to his sons, there is no real way to prove that he can totally and completely disconnect–especially when he will likely resume control of the company following his term in office.

One needs only to skim each week’s headlines to know that Trump’s inability to stay isolated from his wealth and his business connections continues to be an issue. These controversies distract, almost daily, from his most pressing work and detract from what’s left of his presidential dignity. When our commander-in-chief is spending time tweeting at a national clothing chain or news outlet, he is taking away from time that could be valuably spent in, say, informational briefings or meetings with world leaders. And even when he is spending time talking to world leaders, it seems to result in him treading murky waters: he was recently granted 38 trademarks in China, which he applied for in 2016 but were not approved until after the election, according to The Guardian. Even if Trump is not technically included in the list of employees that must comply with ethics laws, the fact that his violations clearly impair his ability to govern proves that it is crucial he is held accountable.

While some Republican members of Congress have spoken out against his actions, the majority of criticism has come from whistleblowers, those who “disclosed information that they reasonably believed provided evidence of a violation of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a specific and substantial danger to public health and safety,” according to MSNBC. Most of these whistleblowers are government employees left over from the Obama era, and are already being undermined by Trump. The Washington Post has reported on the Trump administration cracking down on whistleblowers through legislation in everything from the Department of Energy to the Department of Labor. This is the ultimate irony–these workers are protected under the Civil Reform Act of 1978, but without them, there will be no one to speak up about such violations.

This is where we, the people, come in. As American citizens, we must continue to be vigilant. There is no law that explicitly prevents the president from misleading the public–so it is our responsibility to research and discern which of Trump’s actions are lawful, which are unlawful, and which are unacceptable. To accept these dangerous behaviors or dismiss them as idiosyncrasies of the president’s personality is to normalize them. And normalization of behaviors that threaten the function and security of our democracy is unacceptable.

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