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Saturday, January 07, 2017

A series of mutually "auspicious moments"

by digby

They're just ignoring the ethics office:

The office tasked with overseeing ethics and conflicts in the federal government struggled to gain access to leaders of the Trump transition team, and warned Trump aides about making decisions on nominees or blind trusts without ethics guidance, according to new emails obtained by MSNBC.

Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub emailed Trump aides in November to lament that despite his office's repeated outreach, "we seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election."

Trump aides may also be risking "embarrassment for the President-elect," Shaub warned, by "announcing cabinet picks" without letting the ethics office review their financial information in advance.

The perils for White House staff were even more severe, Shaub argued, because they might begin their jobs without crucial ethics guidance, raising a risk of inadvertently breaking federal rules.

"They run the risk of having inadvertently violated the criminal conflicts of interest restriction at 18 USC 208," Shaub wrote, citing a federal conflicts law in an email to Trump Transition aide Sean Doocey.

"If we don't get involved early to prevent problems," he added, "we won't be able to help them after the fact."

Shaub also warned that if Trump tried to create his own "blind trust" without the ethics office, the effort could be dead on arrival.

Related: Trump Pushes Back Announcement on Business Conflicts of Interest

The government might decide potential trustees were not independent, he cautioned, if Trump aides talked to them "before consulting" with the ethics office.

In contrast to most proposals floated by the Trump transition team, Shraub added that the ethics office only considers a trust blind if its underlying assets have "been sold off."

In his public remarks, Trump has mostly focused on who would manage the Trump Organization. He has not suggested he would divest, or sell off its assets.

The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Request from MSNBC and The James Madison Project, and represented by the law office of Mark S. Zaid.

But they don;'t care. Read this article in today's New York Times about Jared Kushner's selling of the presidency for personal gain. It's amazing:
On the night of Nov. 16, a group of executives gathered in a private dining room of the restaurant La Chine at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The table was laden with Chinese delicacies and $2,100 bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild. At one end sat Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of the Waldorf’s owner, Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese financial behemoth with estimated assets of $285 billion and an ownership structure shrouded in mystery. Close by sat Jared Kushner, a major New York real estate investor whose father-in-law, Donald J. Trump, had just been elected president of the United States.

It was a mutually auspicious moment.

Mr. Wu and Mr. Kushner — who is married to Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and is one of his closest advisers — were nearing agreement on a joint venture in Manhattan: the redevelopment of 666 Fifth Avenue, the fading crown jewel of the Kushner family real-estate empire. Anbang, which has close ties to the Chinese state, has seen its aggressive efforts to buy up hotels in the United States slowed amid concerns raised by Obama administration officials who review foreign investments for national security risk.

Now, according to two people with knowledge of the get-together, Mr. Wu toasted Mr. Trump and declared his desire to meet the president-elect, whose ascension, he was sure, would be good for global business.

Since the election, intense scrutiny has been trained on Mr. Trump’s company and the potential conflicts of interest he will face. But with Mr. Kushner laying the groundwork for his own White House role, the meeting at the Waldorf shines a light on his family’s multibillion-dollar business, Kushner Companies, and on the ethical thicket he would have to navigate while advising his father-in-law on policy that could affect his bottom line.

Unlike the Trump Organization, which has shifted its focus from acquisition to branding of the Trump name, the Kushner family business, led by Mr. Kushner, is a major real estate investor across the New York area and beyond. The company has participated in roughly $7 billion in acquisitions in the last decade, many of them backed by opaque foreign money, as well as financial institutions Mr. Kushner’s father-in-law will soon have a hand in regulating.

The Anbang talks, which have not previously been reported, began roughly six months ago — “Well before the president-elect’s victory,” Mr. Kushner’s spokeswoman, Risa Heller, noted. That was, however, just as Mr. Trump clinched the Republican nomination. While the talks are far along, representatives for Mr. Kushner said some points remained unresolved. Ms. Heller declined to outline the financial terms under discussion.

Mr. Kushner, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has hired a leading Washington law firm, WilmerHale, to advise him on how to comply with federal ethics laws should he join the White House staff as an adviser to the president. The firm has concluded that one potential sticking point, a federal anti-nepotism law, is not applicable, though not all ethics experts agree. While the law prohibits federal officials from hiring relatives for agencies they lead, Mr. Kushner’s lawyers argue, among other things, that the White House is not an agency and is therefore exempt.

As for conflicts of interest, Mr. Kushner would be required to make limited financial disclosures, which could give the public a clearer picture of his holdings. And, unlike Mr. Trump, who as president will be exempt from conflict-of-interest laws, he would have to recuse himself from decisions with a “direct and predictable effect” on his financial interests.

They'll find a way around that too.

This is just a free-for-all. I won't be surprised to learn they're short-selling before Trump tanks the stock of companies with a tweet. He's doing that with regularity. But nobody cares.  They aren't bothering to vet any of the cabinet or their political appointees. Why bother? None of it matters.

The "President Brand" is the most lucrative brand in the world and Trump and his family and cronies are going to milk it for all its worth.

By the way, Vladimir Putin is rumored to be the richest man in the world. I'm guessing Trump sees beating him that way as his goal.

I wrote about Trump's "ethics" lawyer here. He defended Tom DeLay.

And there's this on Jared Kushner.

The conflicts are overwhelming. And since they don't care and members of their party don't care --- indeed, they seem to want to get in on the action --- this is just inexorably unfolding before our eyes.


January 6, 2017

The Honorable Charles E. Schumer
Minority Leader
United States Senate
322 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Elizabeth Warren
United States Senator
317 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senators Schumer and Warren:

I write in response to your letter dated January 5, 2017, requesting information about the
work of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to implement the Ethics in Government
Act in connection with the individuals whom the President-elect has announced he intends to
nominate. 1 This response addresses the issues your letter raises.

As OGE's Director, the announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not
completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me. This schedule has created undue
pressure on OGE's staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews.
More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved
ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings. 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 Ethics in Government Act establishes a requirement that covered nominees to
Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed positions must obtain OGE's certification of their
financial disclosure reports.2 That this certification must be obtained prior to the hearing is
evidenced by the additional requirement that nominees must "make current" their financial
disclosure reports as to earned income by the date of the hearing. 3 Further evidence is found in
the requirement that, "The [OGE] Director shall forward a copy of the report of each nominee to the congressional committee considering the nomination."4 This timing is significant because the
need for OGE's certification prior to the hearing creates the leverage necessary to compel
nominees to disclose their assets fully and resolve all conflicts of interest.

The nominee financial disclosure process is complex. It involves assisting nominees to
make complete and accurate disclosure of complex financial holdings and arrangements,
identifying conflicts of interest uncovered through reviews of nominees' disclosures, and
developing comprehensive written ethics agreements that resolve all identified conflicts of
interest. This work is labor-intensive. As a result, the process is necessarily measured in weeks,
not days. OGE's staff and agency ethics officials must have adequate opportunities to ensure that
the Senate receives a complete accounting of each nominee's relevant financial interests and an
explanation of the steps the nominee will take to resolve conflicts of interest. To provide a
window into the complexity of this work, I have enclosed non-exhaustive checklists that we have
developed for financial disclosure reviews, OGE's Nominee Ethics Guide, the Appendix to the
Nominee Ethics Guide, and a copy of OGE's Ethics Agreement Guide.5

This normally intensive process has been further complicated by both the Senate hearing
schedule and the announcement of nominees prior to consulting OGE for an evaluation of any
ethics issues. In the past, the ethics work was fully completed prior to the announcement of
nominees in the overwhelming majority of cases.6 Under this traditional process, the names of
nominees were not made public until OGE "precleared" them and, therefore, there was no
opportunity for undue influence on the independent ethics review process.

During this Presidential transition, not all of the nominees presently scheduled for
hearings have completed the ethics review process. In fact, OGE has not received even initial
draft financial disclosure reports for some of the nominees scheduled for hearings. Despite the
challenges current circumstances present, OGE's staff and agency ethics officials have been
working diligently in an effort to deliver expedited reviews that meet the Senate's schedule. As a
measure of our success, I note that we have precleared 58% of the financial disclosure reports
that we have received from the President-elect's Transition Team. By the same date eight years
ago, we had precleared 21 % of the financial disclosure reports that we had received from the
transition team.

We remain committed to completing the ethics work on each nominee as quickly as
possible without compromising the integrity of our ethics work or the nominee's future activities
on behalf the American public. I am optimistic that we will be able to continue expediting our
ethics reviews of the President-elect's nominees to meet reasonable timeframes without
sacrificing quality. It would, however, be cause for alarm if the Senate were to go forward with hearings on nominees whose reports OGE has not certified. For as long as I remain Director,
OGE's staff and agency ethics officials will not succumb to pressure to cut corners and ignore
conflicts of interest.


Walter M. Shaub, Jr.