Republicans are deeply concerned about ethics in government and the vast potential for corruption stemming from conflicts of interest. We know this because of the acute worries they expressed over how these issues could have cast a shadow over a Hillary Clinton presidency.
“If Hillary Clinton wins this election and they don’t shut down the Clinton Foundation and come clean with all of its past activities, then there’s no telling the kind of corruption that you might see out of the Clinton White House,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt.
Presumably Cotton will take the lead in advising Donald Trump to “shut down” his business activities and “come clean” on what came before. Surely Cotton wants to be consistent.
The same must be true of Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chair whom Trump tapped as his chief of staff. “When that 3 a.m. phone call comes, Americans deserve to have a president on the line who is not compromised by foreign donations,” Priebus said earnestly in a statement on Aug. 18.
Priebus, you would think, believes this even more strongly about a president whose enterprises might reap direct profits for himself or members of his family from foreign businesses or governments. Priebus must thus be hard at work right now on a plan for Trump to sell off his assets.
“The deals that she and her husband were pocketing – hundreds of thousands of foreign money,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, told the Breitbart website, the right-wing outlet once led by the soon-to-be White House chief strategist, Stephen Bannon. Issa added that Clinton wanted her activities “to be behind closed doors” and “did that because she doesn’t know where the line is.”
We can assume that Issa will press the president-elect about the dangers of doing business deals “behind closed doors” and instruct him about where the ethical “line” should be.
And it would be truly heartening to know that Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a vociferous critic of the Clinton Foundation (“There’s a connection between what the foundation is doing and what the secretary of state’s office is doing”) plans to apply the same benchmarks to Trump.
After all, when the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was asked last August on CNN if Trump should release his tax returns, his answer was both colorful and unequivocal. “If you’re going to run and try to become the president of the United States,” Chaffetz replied, “you’re going to have to open up your kimono and show everything, your tax returns, your medical records. You are … just going to have to do that.”
I eagerly await Chaffetz’s news conference reiterating his kimono policy, since he made very clear that he sees his role as nonpartisan. “My job is not to be a cheerleader for the president,” he said. “My job is to hold them accountable and to provide that oversight. That’s what we do.” Early, comprehensive hearings on the problems Trump’s business dealings would pose to his independence and trustworthiness as our commander in chief would be a fine way to prove he meant this.
Republicans did an extraordinary job raising doubts about Clinton – helped, we learned courtesy of The Washington Post, by a Russian disinformation campaign. Does the GOP want to cast itself as a band of hypocrites who cared not at all about ethics and were simply trying to win an election?
At least some conservative voices have been raised to push Trump to divest himself of his businesses, lest he create conflicts that would, I’d insist, reach far beyond anything that Clinton was accused of. The Wall Street Journal editorial page observed that the Trump family’s potential conflicts “span the globe” and could “become a daily political target.” The loyally conservative paper said Trump’s “best option is to liquidate his stake in the company.”
The Journal was joined in this view by conservative writer John Podhoretz, who asked what would happen “when the Trump Organization gets an insane sweetheart deal from a semi-state-run business somewhere?” Impeachment, he warned, might be the only remedy.
If Trump wasn’t ready to put his business life behind him, he should not have run for president. And if Republicans – after all of their ethical sermons about Clinton – do not now demand that the incoming president unequivocally cut all of his and his family’s ties to his companies, they will be fully implicated in any Trump scandal that results from a shameful and partisan double standard.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.