Does battle over Trump's nominees augur a new era of ethics battles?

The Office of Government Ethics head says it hasn't had time to properly carry out background checks of Trump nominees. 

Evan Vucci/AP
Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, accompanied by, from left, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Trump, Melania Trump, Tiffany Trump and Ivanka Trump, speaks during the grand opening of the Trump International Hotel-Old Post Office in Washington in Oct. 2016.

The head of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) is complaining of “undue pressure” to speed through background checks of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, in a letter to Senate Democrats. 

The letter, sent from ethics director Walter Shaub, Jr. in response to Democratic queries, expresses concern over the possibility that several nominees could sit for Senate confirmation hearings next week, before the OGE has finished clearing them for potential ethical conflicts.

“The announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me,” Mr. Shaub wrote, according to PBS. “I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process."

The complaint is the latest in a web of possible ethics controversies involving a Trump White House, and may foreshadow a presidency in which political battles are waged to an unusual extent on the grounds of ethics.

Democrats seized on the letter, with Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York calling it "crystal-clear that the transition team’s collusion with Senate Republicans to jam through these Cabinet nominees before they’ve been thoroughly vetted is unprecedented”, according to the Washington Post. 

“The Senate and the American people deserve to know that these Cabinet nominees have a plan to avoid any conflicts of interest, that they’re working on behalf of the American people and not their own bottom line, and that they plan to fully comply with the law,” he added. 

It comes just days after Senator Schumer and other Democrats in the chamber, who are trying to delay the process, held a news conference to demand that the House’s ethics office launch a pre-hearing investigation into Trump’s pick for secretary of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, on the heels of a Wall Street Journal report that the representative traded over $300,000 in health company shares while advocating for legislation that could have affected those companies’ stock prices. 

That has angered Republicans, who say filling the presidential cabinet promptly is a national-security need.

"Holding up confirmations just for delay’s sake is irresponsible and it is dangerous,” Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas told the New York Times. 

Perhaps the most important part of the background checks starts with the nominee’s submission of a financial disclosure form – the same one that the president and vice-president file – which is then reviewed by the OGE as well as the White House Counsel’s Office, notes CNN. The OGE generally works with nominees, identifying conflicts of interest that could get them in legal trouble and recommending courses of action to avoid it. 

Nominees are subject to conflict statutes that the president-elect isn’t. But many constitutional-law experts say Trump's own refusal to divest in his vast business empire could put him at risk of violating a clause prohibiting US officials from accepting compensation from foreign officials. And as The Christian Science Monitor reported in December, the Office of Government Ethics has seemed to warn Trump, in oblique fashion, that his pledge to leave his children in charge of his business operations might not put him on solid ethical ground.  

[T]he Office tweeted nine posts stating that they were delighted that he “decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!” 

But observers pointed out that Trump did not say that he would divest his businesses….That left many wondering: Do the OGE's tweets hint at confidential negotiations they’ve had with Trump’s team, or is it merely a sarcastic attempt to get a message across? 

Senate control of some presidential nominees has eroded in recent years, partly thanks to Democrats themselves: in 2012, the chamber passed a bipartisan law that removed the requirement for Senate confirmation for 163 positions, on the grounds that it would ease the chamber’s workload for processing nominations.

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