By Jonathan Turley
Below is my column in USA Today on the widening number of ethical issues generated during the Trump Administration. I have been critical of some of the practices of the Trump Administration from nepotism to retroactive waivers to failures to divest. However, there should be equal concern and attention over some of the actions of Trump critics. It seems that the rising political passions are blinded both sides to core ethical principles and considerations.
Here is the column.
The Trump administration may prove for government ethics what the Kennedy administration proved for space exploration: We are rapidly going where no president has gone before — eclipsing even Richard Nixon.
This week, Trump triggered another controversy in saying that he would never have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he knew that the former senator was going to recuse himself from the Russian investigation. In fairness to Trump, some of these ethical problems were not of his making, and his critics have shown a similar disregard for ethical values.
Since his inauguration, the Trump administration has been at odds with ethics officials. The conflict reached its zenith recently with the resignation of Walter Shaub as director of the Office of Government Ethics. Shaub left little doubt that he was resigning in light of the serious conflicts with the Trump White House over breaches.
What is most striking about this record is that Trump’s critics are faring little better in their own ethical challenges. Indeed, this is a class where even the most generous curve would produce few passing grades.
Sally Yates: Fail
The ethical pileup was foreshadowed within days of the Trump inauguration by the actions of former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who ordered the entire Justice Department not to assist Trump in his immigration executive order restricting travelers from seven Muslim majority countries. As evidenced by conflicting opinions in the courts (and the most recent Supreme Court decision allowing the implementation of the immigration ban), there were good faith legal arguments supporting the order. Yet Yates dismissed the review of the Office of Legal Counsel without actually saying that the order was unconstitutional. Even Trump critics and former high-ranking Justice Department officials questioned Yates’ actions as unprecedented and unfounded.
Jeff Sessions: Pass
The next major government ethics challenge was faced by Sessions — the decision that led to Trump’s statement that he would not have appointed Sessions had he known that he would recuse himself. Ironically, this was the only passing grade of any figure in Washington in one of the recent scandals. Sessions yielded to the obvious ethical concerns over heading an investigation into alleged campaign wrongdoing, given his critical role in that campaign. Ethical rules require not simply the avoidance of conflicts but even the appearance of conflicts. Sessions did that and, in this group, he proved the curve breaker by taking the difficult but ethical course.
James Comey: Fail
Former FBI director James Comey has been lionized for leaking memos damaging to Trump and his obvious violation of professional and ethical standards. Comey insisted that he had the right to give the memos to a friend to leak to the news media because the memos were his personal property. The memos were clearly government documents and presumably classified at the confidential or higher levels. Media experts rushed to his side and claimed that the memos were like his personal diary, and one CNN legal analyst (and former FBI agent) Asha Rangappa insisted that the memos constitute merely “personal recollections.” The FBI has since confirmed the obvious that the memos are indeed FBI material, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein this week stated that the memos were confidential and should not have been released. Other reports have confirmed that at least some of the memos were classified. In removing these FBI documents, Comey (who was tasked by Trump to find leakers in his administration) became a leaker himself when it served his interests.
Robert Mueller: Incomplete
One would think that the man who was appointed special counsel to investigate this mess would be clear of even the slightest ethical or professional concerns. From the outset, Robert Mueller was a curious choice. Mueller has a long and deep history with Comey and, according to CNN, interviewed for Comey’s job after Comey was fired by Trump. It seems highly unlikely that Trump did not discuss the termination of Comey with Mueller, as well as what he expected from a replacement during that interview. This makes him a potential witness. At the very least, Mueller should have addressed this conflict publicly and stated how he has taken steps to address it. Trump claimed this week that Mueller has “many other conflicts” that he may reveal later. In any case, the public remains in the dark because neither he nor Mueller have fully disclosed their past dealings. Since Mueller could still make such a record, he can at best eke out an incomplete.
Rod Rosenstein: Incomplete
Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein himself has even more pressing ethical concerns over his role in the investigation. He is an obvious and important witness to both the events leading up to Comey’s firing and its aftermath. Rosenstein was cited by the White House initially as the basis for Comey’s firing — a claim that was reportedly pulled back after vehement objections from Rosenstein. What is clear is that he was consulted by both Sessions and Trump on the firing and supported that decision. It is hard to imagine any investigation into the firing that would not make Rosenstein a central witness. Yet he continues to serve as Mueller’s superior on an investigation that could examine his own decisions and role. He should have recused himself weeks ago, but since he can redeem himself with a belated recusal, he also receives an incomplete.Ethics
In this age of rage, ethics can often seem quaint and precious. However, each of these individuals has shown how ethical lapses can ultimately undermine their credibility and their cause. Key players are now well beyond the navigational beacons of ethics. That course is unlikely to take any of them (or us) to a better place.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.