Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer to former President George W. Bush, had a lot to unpack during his talk Thursday at Edina City Hall.
“This has been a terrible two or three weeks for ethics,” Painter said in his lecture, sponsored by the League of Women Voters Edina.
Painter, who teaches corporate law at the University of Minnesota, spoke to a full house about the conflicts of interest that he said President-elect Donald Trump and his team must address before he takes office next week.
The days before Trump’s inauguration will be busy for the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, an ethics watchdog for the executive branch, he said. Painter said the office needs to make sure no financial conflicts emerge in the new administration, which he called a “billionaire’s club.”
“Nobody knew what the Office of Government Ethics was until about a week or two ago,” Painter said, adding that it would “be great to be obscure when you’re in government ethics, because it means people are behaving themselves in Washington.”
Government ethics have been in the spotlight after House Republicans last week voted to gut the congressional ethics office. That decision was reversed the following day after a political uproar.
Unlike cabinet members, neither the president nor vice president are required by law to relinquish investments that may pose a conflict of interest. During a news conference Wednesday, Trump’s lawyer said his holdings and investments would be put into a trust and his sons Eric and Donald Jr. would run his businesses.
Painter said Trump, his team and family should put all their financial investments on the table.
“Do you want to give the appearance that you’re engaging in conduct that would be a criminal offense for anybody else who’s working for you, simply because you’re exempt from the statute?” Painter asked. “Or do you want to do what every other president has done and avoid the conflicts of interest?”
The Constitution bars elected officials from receiving payments from foreign governments. Any doubts about that, Painter said, could be answered if Trump disclosed his income tax returns.
“Given the current situation, the House and the Senate intelligence committees ought to be able to review all of the president-elect’s tax returns,” he said. “We ought to know what his business relationships are.”
Painter said that the actions of Trump family members also could pose a problem. Responding to a question, Painter said Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, newly appointed White House aide Jared Kushner, should not talk business with Trump’s sons.
Painter served as ethics counsel for the White House from 2005 to 2007 and moved to Minnesota afterward.
At the start of his talk, Painter declared the “role of money in politics” to make up the most worrisome impact on American democracy.
“Whatever conflicts of interest we want to say that President-elect Trump brings into this administration, into Washington, it is disingenuous to say that he is bringing in a lot of corruption that we didn’t have there before,” he said.