WASHINGTON — In approximately 10 months, a new presidential administration will take shape. It could be a second term of the Trump administration, or an entirely new one led by Joe Biden. It may come as the coronavirus epidemic still rages or, more likely, in the epidemic’s fraught aftermath.
And just how that administration takes shape could have great consequences in the years to come. That’s why there’s reason to cheer a little-noticed bill that could ensure that the transition is conducted with the proper ethical strictures in place — the kinds of strictures that did not exist in 2016.
No, the transitions bill won’t cure the coronavirus, but advocates of the legislation say it’s an unlikely success story, particularly given who championed it.
President Trump branded one of them “Pocahantas,” while she, in turn, calls him Vladimir Putin’s “elf on the shelf.” Earlier this month, in an unlikely act of bipartisanship, Trump signed a bill written, in part, by Elizabeth Warren, one of his most stinging critics in the Senate. What’s more, the bill seems to directly address the accusations of corruption she has leveled against him.
Trump may not have even known he was signing a bill written by Warren.
That’s because the bill, the Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019, was principally sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who is a Democrat, and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican. The legislation is identical to a bill Warren and Carper had earlier introduced that was also supported by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the House Oversight Committee chairman who recently died. Cummings was as determined an adversary of Trump as Warren has been.
The bill would require every presidential transition to have — and release to the American people — an ethics plan. In effect, the new law amounts to a codified message that incoming presidents have to take ethics seriously.
Crucially, the law must also say what the president will do to resolve his or her own conflicts of interest. The measure was obviously written with Trump in mind, and was a provision especially dear to Warren. Like many Democrats, she remains dismayed by the president’s nebulous arrangement with the Trump Organization, the real estate and marketing business he founded, which is now operated by his sons.
Trump promised that his business interests would be placed in a “blind trust” after he took office, but he does not appear to have followed through with that promise.
Even supporters of the president admit the Trump transition was chaotic, ethically challenged and not always confidence-inspiring. “We could have done a much better job,” former White House chief political strategist Steve Bannon remembered in 2018. “Absolutely, much better job. It's one of the things that Trump didn’t fight,” he said, referring to Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” that was official Washington and to stock his White House with “the best people.”
This turned out to be difficult for a campaign that had made little preparation because it thought it had little chance of winning. “The swamp draining, we had all these potential things,” Bannon lamented of lost opportunities to enact an agenda aligned with his populist principles, which had helped Trump win the White House. “They just got ground up, and it just turned out not to be a priority.”
The bill passed the Senate with unanimous consent, which means there were no objections to the measure. It then passed the House with a voice vote, as its passage was never in doubt.
The legislation — the 15th law signed this year by a president who has spent most of 2020 fighting off impeachment and, now, the escalating coronavirus outbreak — places greater ethical strictures on how a president-elect puts in place key members of an administration in the critical weeks between election and inauguration. It amends the original 1963 law on presidential transitions and is part of a broader, yet-unrealized government ethics proposal introduced by Warren. That proposal would put strict new rules on public service, thus probably leading to the kind of swamp-draining Trump had promised. But that broader ethics plan is unlikely to be realized anytime soon, given Republican opposition to such measures.
The new law, relatively modest in scope, requires every presidential nominee to have a concrete, public ethics plan, one that will stipulate how the campaign will handle the hiring of lobbyists, potential conflicts of interest and restrictions on access to classified information during the transition period. It also stipulates how the candidate will address his or her own conflicts of interest if elected president.
Trump signed the bill into law on March 3. Warren had hoped to be the first president to have to abide by the new ethics provisions, but she ended her campaign two days after those provisions became law. Trump could also be the first who is subject to its strictures, since incumbent presidents have transitions.
While it may lack teeth — a president could simply create a plan that suits his or her own needs — the legislation will at least force the incoming administration to address potential conflicts of interest in a transparent fashion.
Trump and Warren did not celebrate with a round of golf at Mar-a-Lago. Instead, Warren noted the bill by bashing the man who signed it. “The Trump transition team was absolutely awash in conflicts and corruption, and now the American people can celebrate new rules to ensure that never happens again,” the Massachusetts senator told Yahoo News.
“I know he would be proud today,” she said of Cummings.
The bill received praise from the Partnership for Public Service, a bipartisan center focusing on good governance. A policy director there described it as an encouraging sign that a Capitol Hill that can agree on almost nothing found it can agree on something, and that that something turned out to be presidential ethics reform, of all things. Upon passage of the bill, the group praised legislators for codifying “lessons learned in the 2016 transition.”
Those lessons could probably fill a legal tome — and have already made for several popular books about how the days and weeks after Trump’s victory resulted in chaos in the months and years to come.
Trump’s transition was spearheaded by then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who did not believe Trump would win. Christie was fired after the election, and his plan — however flawed — was discarded. The transition was then divided between presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign manager and Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon and incoming chief of staff and GOP head Reince Priebus.
The transition was a “shallow hole,” says one campaign staffer who stayed on with Trump and served some time in the White House.
Because none of the three had high-level executive branch experience, Washington and Wall Street got to shape an administration that had promised to be beholden to neither. “The time we needed to put an apparatus around Trump, that gave him some time to work himself in to be commander in chief,” Bannon explained in 2018. But that involved many Republican operatives who had spent the previous eight years working in private industry. They were the very “deep state” whom Bannon feared, the people Trump was never going to pick.
“Here’s the brutal reality,” Bannon said. “There is not a deep bench of talent that could step into the government and run things.”
Once in office, Trump signed an executive order that would have seemed to close the revolving door between private industry and public service. But he has routinely granted waivers to officials with industry ties, robbing the executive order of any power it may have had.
What motivated him to sign a new ethics bill is not clear, though it may be that Johnson is a Trump ally, Carper is not a nemesis and Warren’s hand in the legislation simply went unnoticed by the White House. The White House declined to talk about the bill.
Warren, conversely, has wanted to talk about this since roughly the day Trump was elected. “Within days of your election, you have elevated a slew of Wall Street bankers, industry insiders, and special interest lobbyists to your transition team,” she wrote to him on Nov. 15, 2016, as the new administration was starting to take shape at Trump Tower.
And she reminded him of the now-famous refrain that had become the rallying cry of his campaign’s final stages. “Maintaining a transition team of Washington insiders sends a clear signal to all who are watching you — that you are already breaking your campaign promises to ‘drain the swamp’ and that you are selling out the American public,” Warren wrote. Trump did not answer.
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