In January, the anti-corruption organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, released a detailed report on the historically unethical presidency of Donald Trump. By February, it was outdated, as Trump’s administration and family charted new frontiers in ethical transgression.
Just this week, Donald Trump Jr. traveled to India to promote his family’s real estate projects and give a foreign policy speech; ads in Indian newspapers offered dinner with the presidential scion in exchange for down payments on Trump-branded apartments. Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is reportedly demanding that he maintain his access to top-secret information despite his inability, after 13 months of serving in the White House, to pass an FBI background check.
David Shulkin, secretary of veterans affairs, remained defiant after revelations that his chief of staff altered a document to justify a government-funded trip to Europe for Shulkin’s wife, vowing to purge “subversion” at his agency. Trump reportedly sought advice on gun control from members of Mar-a-Lago, the private club where a $200,000 initiation fee buys plutocrats privileged access to the president.
It’s impossible, in real time, to keep up with every new Trumpian advance in corruption and self-dealing, and Republicans in Congress aren’t even trying. True, they’ve been moved to act in a few high-profile cases – on Wednesday, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, demanded documents about government-funded luxury travel by Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. But overall, the administration enjoys a corrosive degree of impunity.
The Republican monopoly on federal power, however, will not last forever. Assuming American democracy survives Trump, there will someday be an opportunity to seek accountability from the president and his entourage. If we expect America to ever again be more than a squalid kleptocracy, we’re going to need a comprehensive plan of de-Trumpification, including wide-ranging investigations and legal reforms. It’s not too early to start thinking about what that might look like.
After all, if Democrats take back the House in November, they'll be able to subpoena Trump’s tax returns and start hearings on his manifold conflicts of interest. Should Democrats retake the Senate, something akin to the Church Committee, which investigated abuses by our intelligence agencies in the 1970s, could give us a measure of clarity and closure about this uniquely dark, disorienting period. Eventually, laws can be adopted to help us avoid repeating it.
Some preliminary work on de-Trumpification has already begun. In January, Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, and Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that they’d be leading a task force on the rule of law and democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, part of New York University’s law school. The idea is to figure out which of the norms that Trump has blithely discarded can be written into law or otherwise codified.
“We know we want to take on financial and ethical conflicts,” Whitman told me. “We’re going to take on political interference with law enforcement and the courts, the protection of a free and independent press.” The task force plans to look at how the government uses – or misuses – data and science, and, in light of some of Trump’s wildly unqualified appointments, how people are chosen for government jobs.
Whitman is waiting for the task force to begin its work before talking about specific proposals. But Norm Eisen, the chairman of CREW, who was Barack Obama’s ethics czar, has also been thinking about post-Trump reconstruction, and he has some ideas.
Until now, he told me, most people assumed that no president would dare to flout norms against profiting from the office. Trump has shown otherwise. “So we need to have legislation that No. 1, requires the release of tax return information and, No. 2, requires presidential compliance, to the full extent allowed by the Constitution, with conflict-of-interest law,” Eisen said.
Eisen also suggests strengthening the power of the inspectors general, officials charged with investigating fraud and abuse in government agencies. He argues that the Office of Government Ethics – which until now has relied largely on administration officials’ capacity for shame – be given legal teeth, including subpoena power.
And he thinks we need statutes laying out what it means to comply with the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits government officials from accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments, and which no president has ever ignored the way Trump has. “We now know there’s nothing to save us if you have a president who runs roughshod over these things,” Eisen said.
Steven Levitsky, a Harvard professor and a co-author of the recent book “How Democracies Die,” cautions that new laws aren’t enough to knit together the fraying civic fabric that allowed for Trump’s rise.
“No set of rules anywhere can respond to every situation, cover every ambiguity,” he said. Even the most exacting regulations can’t compensate for bad faith and a total-war approach to politics. Our political parties are so “intensely polarized – and this polarization is being driven by Republican Party extremism – that they are willing to basically employ any means necessary to win,” Levitsky said. “As long as that’s the case, you’re going to see politicians breaking norms and skirting rules, or using the letter of the law in ways that undermine its spirit.”
This is almost certainly true, but people outside the Republican Party don’t have the power to moderate it. All they can do is forcefully rebuke it, and the banana republic governance the party has imposed on the country it purports to love. De-Trumpification would be a way to officially mark this obscene presidency as aberrant, a negative example for future generations. Like a lot of parents I know, I’m dismayed that my kids, now too little to understand what a president is, will someday study Trump in school. One of the great tasks of the post-Trump era will be ensuring that the lessons of his presidency are the right ones.