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Corruption

The Nightmarish Existence of the Watchdogs Keeping Tabs on Trump

The Founding Fathers probably didn't conceive of branding deals when they wrote the Constitution, but here we are.

by Allie Conti
Mar 22 2017, 4:36pm

Paul S. Ryan, not to be confused with the Speaker of the House, divides his professional life into two periods: before the Announcement and after.

Prior to the January 11 press conference in which Donald Trump said he wouldn't divest from his sprawling company despite being elected president, Ryan had a vaguely normal nine-to-five work existence. He'd wake up in the morning, drink some coffee, and drop his toddler off at daycare before heading into the office of Common Cause, an ethics watchdog group in DC where he serves as vice president of policy and litigation. But now he checks social media the second his kids nod off and again in the early morning hours, mimicking the erratic sleep schedule of a president who might ignite a mini-scandal at any moment with an off-hand tweet—or several of them.

"I didn't work late nights, early mornings, or through the weekends," Ryan tells me. "Now I feel like I'm now on duty 24/7."

After eight years keeping tabs on the less-than-pure but mostly scandal-free Barack Obama, good-government types like Ryan are noticing their jobs have taken on a wildly different tenor in an era of reality TV presidents and alternative facts. Back in February, Common Cause filed a complaint with the Office of Government Ethics after White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway encouraged FOX News viewers to buy Ivanka Trump products. But the enforcement mechanism at question here basically relied on the agency employing her—a.k.a. the White House—to dole out punishment. As it turned out, Trump's White House did nothing. Not only that, but Ivanka Trump's now set to get her own office in the West Wing.

Trump's refusal to adhere to the norms of modern politics, like his failure to adhere to norms governing everything from religious discrimination to bragging about groping women, have sent America's ethics watchdogs scrambling. In Ryan's case, that now means deciding whether to go all-in on fights in several states to make the release of tax returns—a thing presidents were, until recently, expected to do—a requirement for appearing on the ballot.

"We've recognized in the past couple months that some traditions around transparency are no longer good enough," he says. "We did take that for granted, and we no longer take that for granted."

The folks at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) have chosen perhaps the most aggressive tactic so far: suing the president straight up. In January, the institution filed a unique complaint against Trump that claimed it was overburdened by his prolific conflicts of interest. As Jordan Libowitz, the group's communications director, tells me, his phone has barely stopped ringing since the inauguration, and CREW is in the process of doubling staff. This hiring effort is possible in part because CREW has enjoyed its own post-election surge of donations, albeit not quite on the same scale as, say, the ACLU. During the first week of Trump's presidency, Libowitz says, CREW received between five and ten times as much money as it would normally get in any year.

Even with the extra cash, an expensive lawsuit might not seem like the most logical way to go after Trump—especially one that's been criticized for being extremely unlikely to succeed. But Libowitz says the idea wasn't to make a rhetorical point. As opponents of Trump's Muslim bans have learned, the courts represent a key weapon when going up against a president who doesn't play by the rules.

"We're basically asking the court to declare that he is violating the Constitution and that he could do something about it," Libowitz says. "If Trump sold his business and set up a blind trust, we would be ecstatic to drop our lawsuit."

John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation, another good government group in DC, says it dawned on him during the primary that if Trump won, he wouldn't be required to divest by law—only by tradition. But he figured it was too late to do anything about it by that point. And Trump wasn't going to actually win, right?

"It was hard to advocate for and discuss with Congress, because it felt like a cry wolf situation to warn of something that seemed so unlikely," he tells me. "It was also hard for members of Congress to conceive of the American presidency as something that came with branding deals."

Almost two months into a Trump presidency, Wonderlich says he's clocking longer days like everyone else in his profession. But the biggest adjustment, he says, is recalibrating expectations around the fact that he can longer take the most basic truths for granted, like whether the administration will stand behind its own statistics.

Wonderlich says that he's been in contact with people who work on political reform in the Ukraine and economic reform in Argentina—when the country defaulted on its national debt—for guidance. Even so, maintaining his composure has been a challenge.

"This is a president who has cultivated inconsistency as an expression of his own power," he says. "That makes it tempting to ignore what he says, but because he's in control, you still have to pay attention to something like a conspiracy theory about fraudulent voters that seems to come from a conversation he had on a golf course. We haven't been in a position before where we have to be guarded against governmental misinformation before."

Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, says that her organization saw an uptick of interest in ethics issues during the election over questions regarding Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. But she had a difficult time getting people to focus on the unprecedented number of conflicts that would arise if her opponent won. And now that he's in office, she's running into a new, even more frustrating obstacle.

"They say, 'He's rich, so none of this matters,' but yes, these things do matter," Hobert Flynn tells me. It's true that some Trump voters have expressed confidence that his wealth might inoculate his administration potential conflicts of interest, a line of argument the president has made himself. But so far, the facts say otherwise, with a recent trademark decision affecting Trump's business in China drawing special attention. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner's family business eying a real estate deal with a Communist Party–affiliated Chinese company has also raised red flags.

Flynn's goal now is to try to explain how people currying favor with the president can affect the safety and quality of their water or food or healthcare. And she hopes that by connecting these dots, people will rise up and start holding members of Congress accountable, even though that might be something of a Sisyphean task.

"Not only is it a challenging issue, but it's just the sheer volume of things that come up that makes it even more challenging," she says. "It's practically a daily occurrence. Oh my God, it hasn't even been 100 days. It feels like it's been a year or two."

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