Dr. Tom Price, the orthopedic surgeon tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to oversee the Department of Health and Human Services, has found a miracle cure for ailing investment portfolios.
Price, a Georgia Republican, did some creative investing while leading the House Budget Committee last year. He bought stock in a maker of joint replacements a week before he introduced legislation that would help the company – which then made a campaign contribution to Price.
Nothing to see here, says the Trump team: A broker bought the shares without Price’s knowledge.
Also last year, Price himself bought shares in an Australian immunotherapy company after hearing about it from fellow congressman Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who is on the company’s board and is a member of Trump’s transition team. Price was included in a private placement of stock not available to the public, and Price’s price was right: His investment is reportedly up 400 percent.
Nothing to see here, either, Price told a Senate panel Wednesday: He paid the same price as all the others who were let in on the private deal (including Collins, his staff chief and a lobbyist).
It all feels a bit, well, swampy.
“These sound like sweetheart deals,” observed Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. “I think our job in this body and in Congress and in government is to avoid the appearance of a conflict, and, boy, you have not done this.”
Each day of the Trump transition seems to deliver a new blow to the embattled notion of honest government. The House Republican majority, in its first major action of the new session, attempted to defang and gag the Office of Congressional Ethics. That effort was postponed after Trump raised doubts about the timing, but House Republicans quietly slipped through two other changes rolling back ethics rules – shielding lawmakers’ spending records from investigators and giving the majority party power to name the chief of the ethics office without the minority’s sign-off.
At the same time, the director of the Office of Government Ethics condemned the rush to confirm Trump’s nominees without complete vetting and Trump’s refusal to eliminate his own conflicts of interest by divesting.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, responded – by attacking the ethics agency and threatening to defund it. Chaffetz told my colleague Jennifer Rubin that his committee wasn’t concerned about the potential for Trump’s self-dealing.
This, collectively, is a sudden and sharp departure from a long-term trend toward cleaner government. Ethics in government have generally improved since the Watergate-era reforms, with pieces of legislation further tightening restrictions after intermittent scandals. But now there’s a concerted push to discredit ethics standards and their enforcers.
To see how much of a change this is, consider that the Office of Government Ethics now under attack by congressional Republicans and the Trump transition was created under President George H.W. Bush as part of ethics reforms the Republican president championed in 1989.
“The millions of Americans who meet their obligations honestly and teach their kids to do it the same way see nothing extraordinary about asking the same of their government,” he said when unveiling his ethics proposals. “Should there not be an underlying standard of integrity for all?”
Bush quoted Thomas Jefferson, from 1774: “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”
Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, has been brutally honest in his assessment of the transition, criticizing Trump for his failure to divest and warning he would “not succumb to pressure to cut corners and ignore conflicts of interest” by rushing the vetting of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
In response, incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus warned Shaub to “be careful,” and Chaffetz, while threatening the agency’s funding, told Shaub he should “not engage in public relations.” Chaffetz demanded a private interview with Shaub but has refused Shaub’s request for a public hearing on the matter.
The reaction is revealing: The government’s ethics watchdog howls about breaches of ethical standards – and the response is to silence the watchdog.
That’s what ties together the recently attempted actions by the Trump transition team and congressional Republicans – dismantling and silencing the Office of Congressional Ethics, defunding and muzzling the Office of Government Ethics, rushing appointees through without conflict-of-interest exams and ignoring Trump’s own conflicts. They protect government officials’ self-dealing from the public’s prying eyes.
Without ethics enforcers and requirements, we wouldn’t have known about Price’s questionable stock trades. And that, apparently, is how the new administration wants it – without Jefferson’s “art of being honest” interfering with Trump’s art of the deal.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.