STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Two past White House ethics lawyers - one Democrat, one Republicans - say they agree. They consider President Trump's first year in office to be the most unethical in modern history, and their group has put out a report saying so. Richard Painter served as the top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, and he's on the line from Minnesota.
Good morning, sir.
RICHARD PAINTER: Good morning.
INSKEEP: ...Where it's rumored to be well below zero. Norman Eisen had a top ethics role in the Obama administration, and he's just been on his phone tweeting out a link to the report we described. Mr. Eisen, good morning to you, once again.
NORMAN EISEN: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Let me be blunt here. What's so wrong? The president is continuing to own businesses around the world, true, but he's noted he's exempt from ethics laws. He hasn't broken any laws, according to him.
EISEN: Well, Steve, Richard and I had the privilege to come on your program at the beginning of this administration, and we said with great regret and sadness that if the president insisted on that original sin of coming into office with crippling conflicts, every issue he decides on - domestic and foreign - relating to one of his business investments that he's retained, breaking a 40-year bipartisan tradition of giving up your businesses - that that was going to creep like a cancer through his presidency. And it's happened.
INSKEEP: But let me just bring in Richard Painter because you said crippling conflicts. The president has noted he's exempted from ethics laws. The way he defines it is, I cannot have a conflict because I am president. Is he wrong, Richard Painter?
PAINTER: He's exempted from one particular criminal statute - 18 United States Code 208, which prohibits government officials from participating in particular matters that have a direct, predictable effect on their financial interests. But that's just one particular statute. The real problem with President Trump, or the most serious, most dangerous problem, is he ignores the Constitution. And with respect to financial conflicts of interest, the Constitution has a provision that prohibits any person holding a position of trust in the United States government from receiving profits and benefits from foreign governments. It's called the Emoluments Clause.
But it is very clear the founders did not want anybody, including the president, receiving profits of benefits from dealings with foreign governments. He's ignored that. He has refused to divest the businesses that are borrowing money from foreign governments and foreign-government-owned banks that are doing business with foreign governments. And that is one of many serious violations of the Constitution, so I think it's very important to view the ethics problem within the constitutional framework.
INSKEEP: Got to note, though - your...
PAINTER: ...Because that's the real danger.
INSKEEP: Got to note, though - your group sued on that very basis - the Emoluments Clause - and the suit was thrown out. You didn't have standing to sue, regardless of the merits of the case.
EISEN: Yeah, well...
PAINTER: Yes, that was the basis of our particular standing and the opinion of the federal district judge in New York, and we're appealing that. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of whether the president is in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
INSKEEP: Norm Eisen...
PAINTER: And there are two other lawsuits pending, as well.
EISEN: Exactly. There - that first case will be appealed, and the next case is coming up in Maryland federal court. Steve, think about it this way. Say, well, CREW can't bring it. The court didn't reach...
INSKEEP: That's the name of your group, right.
EISEN: That's our group. CREW can't bring it. Well, OK, the next case is being brought by the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia. So if we don't have standing, then surely, a state and D.C. have standing to address these issues. And there's other - there's another case behind that involving Congress, so these matters are going to be heard. And that initial constitutional violation - if you start your administration with violating the Constitution, of course that's going to send a message that it's a free-for-all, and we've just seen a deterioration since then.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about another aspect of this because as I understand the judge's ruling - throwing out your lawsuit - the judge said, really, this ought to be up to Congress to police, among other things. Congress, of course, is controlled by Republicans. They've said they want to hold the White House accountable. They've been accused of actually defending the White House.
But, you know, we're just been discussing immigration, and it's an issue in which it appears the president was at one point ready to compromise with Democrats, and conservatives realized they needed to stay very close to the president and talk to him a lot or he was going to wander off and not support their policies. You have an example of why Republicans in Congress need, politically, to stay close to the president. What would you advise them to do when it comes to ethics and this president?
EISEN: Well, the...
PAINTER: Do their job.
PAINTER: To do their job. And, you know, we spent Martin Luther King Day with senior members of leadership in Congress debating about the difference between a blank hole and a blank house. I mean, this is, you know, pathetic. It's not just particular ethics violations. It's the president's attitude, his language, his assault on the Constitution. And that's why it's so important to view these ethics problems within the framework of the Constitution.
He has assaulted the First Amendment, the freedom of the press. And now he's going to have this sort of fake news awards. And yes, there's a particular government ethics violation that is violated there. White House staff participate. The important thing, though, is to view this against the background of the Constitution, and he does not respect the First Amendment, freedom of the press, freedom of the free exercise of religion when you talk about a Muslim ban repeatedly. It goes on and on, and we cannot have a president who does not respect the Constitution. That's the way you move toward a dictatorships.
INSKEEP: Norm Eisen, you - I just want to ask one last question in the few seconds we have. Can't the president argue he's actually lost some money by being president? There's a hotel in SoHo that has to have the Trump name taken off. People won't stay there because people don't like his policies. He's pursuing policies that have made his businesses less popular.
EISEN: How do we know if he's lost or gained? He won't give us his tax returns - another unprecedented act. And all of it has led to this. Contempt for ethics is what led to him making loyalty demands, trying to get Comey to drop the investigation, and it's led to a plethora of unethical conduct across the administration. That's why we've issued our new report at CREW.
INSKEEP: OK. Norm Eisen was the top ethics lawyer for President Obama. Richard Painter was the top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. Thanks to both of you, gentlemen.
EISEN: Thanks, Steve.
PAINTER: Thank you, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEV'S "DUNE")
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