Two former chief White House ethics lawyers, Richard Painter from the George W. Bush administration and Norman Eisen from the Obama administration, suggested that there is a media double standard evident in reporting on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. They noted that while Clinton’s “actual or apparent conflicts … have been disclosed and publicly vetted,” Trump’s potential conflicts of interest are significantly more “obscure, profound and dangerous.”
Multiple investigations have revealed ethical issues regarding Trump: He used a charitable foundation in his name for personal gain, made an illegal donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), and ran a fake “university” that defrauded thousands of people. Despite Trump’s unique ethical problems, media continue to devote an overwhelmingly unbalanced amount of coverage to (debunked) Clinton pseudo-scandals, obsess over her “optics”, and draw false equivalencies between the Clinton Foundation and fraudulent Trump Foundation.
In a September 21 op-ed, Painter and Eisen wrote that “a Trump presidency would be ethically compromised” by, among other things, his “refusal to disclose his tax returns,” a “lack of divestment” from Trump-branded properties, and “Trump’s propensity for dishonesty.” Painter and Eisen conclude that while Clinton’s potential and actual conflicts of interest “have been disclosed and publicly vetted,” “They are nowhere near as obscure, profound and dangerous as Trump’s.” From the op-ed (emphasis original):
As government ethics lawyers who have, respectively, counseled the most recent Republican president and the most recent Democratic one, we have watched Donald Trump’s campaign with increasing concern. We have come to believe a Trump presidency would be ethically compromised for the following reasons:
Opacity. Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax returns shields critical information about his finances that is not found in the basic details he is required to provide on his candidate financial disclosure.
Lack of divestment. Trump has said that if elected he would have his children manage his business and would not discuss business matters with them. That is not sufficient. Presidents for the past half-century have either converted assets to simple, conflict-free holdings such as U.S. government bonds, adopted blind trusts or done both.
Domestic conflicts. Without considerable additional detail about Trump’s finances, we cannot be sure his decisions on domestic matters would be conflict-free.
Foreign conflicts. Even more serious are the questions raised by Trump investments abroad. Those relate to some of the United States’ most important — and most sensitive — relationships, among them ones with Russia, China, India, South Korea and Turkey.
Legal exposure. Because of Trump’s seeming unwillingness to set up a true blind trust, and the difficulty of his doing so, his potential foreign conflicts could raise immediate legal issues.
Veracity. Finally, we must address Trump’s propensity for dishonesty. It is disturbing that just 15 percent of his statements checked by PolitiFact are “true” or “mostly true.” No ethics program can work if the client is not honest.
To be sure, counsel for a President Hillary Clinton would have to address actual or apparent conflicts posed by the Clinton Foundation, but those have been disclosed and publicly vetted. They are nowhere near as obscure, profound and dangerous as Trump’s. The ethics lawyer who would have President Trump as his or her client would face a far more daunting task than either of us — or any of our colleagues in recent years — has ever confronted.