California Can't Make Trump an Ethical President
There is no easy way to police President Donald Trump's expansive and unprecedented conflicts of interest. California Governor Jerry Brown has recognized that unfortunate fact by vetoing legislation to require presidential candidates to make their tax returns public in order to appear on the state ballot.
The rationale for the legislation, passed last month, is understandable. Most details of Trump's businesses -- including specifications about his companies' debts, creditors and investors -- remain obscure because, in defiance of ethical norms and decades of standard practice, he has refused to release his tax documents.
In response, California's Democratic-controlled legislature sought to codify the obligation. In vetoing the bill, Brown -- also a Democrat, but one admirably resistant to pursuing partisan dead-ends -- concluded that it was both constitutionally suspect and politically unwise. "Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?" Brown noted in his veto message. "A certified birth certificate?" Should requirements for ballot access, Brown rightly asked, "vary depending on which political party is in power?"
Yet the problem of Trump's gargantuan conflicts remains.
While continuing to withhold his taxes, along with any accounting of the revenue flowing to his businesses from the U.S. government, foreign governments, favor seekers or lobbyists, Trump has filed the legally required document. The form provides a useful set of hints, but it's far from a thorough accounting.
First, the financial categories are too broad for someone of Trump's wealth. Had former President Barack Obama listed a loan in excess of $50 million, the public rightly would've demanded details. For Trump, the loan is just another line item among many. Yet for a man who charges the Secret Service rental fees for golf carts while protecting him at his own golf clubs, $50 million is not chump change.
The second problem is that crucial information remains hidden.
What to do? As Richard Painter, former White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, has pointed out, Congress could strengthen current disclosure requirements in important ways.
The current disclosure form reports personal assets, income and liabilities. It does not, however, require similar financial details about entities that the candidate or office holder controls. As a result, the public lacks vital information about business partners and creditors in the companies that Trump controls.
Despite the obvious need to minimize conflicts of interest in government, it's impossible to compel ethical behavior from someone who shows no regard for ethical obligations. “The president," as Trump has famously insisted, "can’t have a conflict of interest.”
That mistaken analysis, and the recklessness that generates it, may at some point endanger Trump's presidency. Meanwhile, to better safeguard the public interest, Congress should amend the disclosure requirement to include specific details of related business debts, sources of capital and revenues. Trump's flagrant disregard of ethical norms only underscores how necessary such rigorous financial disclosure is -- starting at the top.
--Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Michael Newman
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