Tag Archives: ethics

Trump’s Lawyers Speak for … Trump, Themselves, Somebody, Nobody

Multiple sources have reported that Donald Trump’s “personal attorney” called for the Justice Department to fire Robert Mueller and terminate his investigation into, among other things, collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian government interests intending to support his candidacy and damage Hillary Clinton’s chances. See, e.g., http://wapo.st/2plSJhp. The demand by John Dowd followed immediately the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe which, according to Dowd, was fatally influenced by political bias. Repeating claims made directly by Trump, Dowd said “I pray” that the investigation is ended.

Dowd’s “prayer” will have the same effect as the “thoughts and prayers” that are the sole national Republican response to the Parkland Florida school massacre.

Curiously, Dowd told the Daily Beast that he was speaking on behalf of the president in his capacity as Trump’s attorney. When the Daily Beast published that statement, Dowd immediately retracted it and said he was not speaking for the president.

If Dowd was truth-telling in his retraction, it means that while serving as Trump’s personal attorney, he has made public statements on his own initiative about a matter of the greatest importance to his client without his client’s knowledge or approval. If indeed Dowd were not speaking for Trump, one would expect Trump, the client whose interests are being affected, to discharge his attorney for acting without permission in a way that could damage the client. On the other hand, if Trump liked what Dowd said, he (Trump) would not fire the attorney and would align himself with the attorney’s statements. That is, in fact, what Trump did via the usual Saturday tweet storm, denying yet again that he colluded with Russians and yet again attacking federal law enforcement agencies and the State Department that he has criticized repeatedly during the campaign and after becoming president.

This dance brings to mind that other Trump attorney who claims to have acted in another matter of vital importance to Trump but without Trump’s knowledge or approval. This, of course, is Michael Cohen who has represented Trump for years and who admits he paid $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels to secure her agreement to remain silent about her claimed affair with Trump, an affair that Trump has denied.

So, once again, we have an attorney for Trump claiming to act on behalf of Trump without Trump’s knowledge or consent, using the attorney’s own funds and without expectation of reimbursement.

While the standards of attorney conduct have apparently loosened dramatically over recent decades, it is still considered risky for an attorney to invest in a client’s business. The potential for conflicts of interest to arise when at attorney has a financial stake in a client’s business is serious. One supposes, however, that even when it occurs, the attorney’s investment in the client’s affairs is disclosed to the client. Indeed, I believe it would be a clear ethics violation for an attorney to invest in a client’s business without disclosure to the client.

So, if I am correct, Dowd either is lying about Trump’s knowledge of the payoff to Daniels and the signing of the Nondisclosure Agreement by Dowd on Trump’s behalf or Dowd acted on Trump’s behalf without disclosing that he was, in effect, investing in Trump’s business (in this case, the business being the presidential campaign) by making the secret payment to Daniels with no expectation of repayment. Trump himself did not sign the NDA, but standing alone, that fact does not prove that he was ignorant of the arrangements. Even if it’s true that Cohen did not expect repayment (he reportedly complained to friends that Trump had stiffed him, but this is not substantiated), the payment still represents an investment that would, if successful in silencing Daniels, help get Trump elected, with longer term rewards to Dowd from his alliance with President Trump.

If there is a middle ground here, I don’t see it. We have two different attorneys acting on behalf of a client they claim was ignorant of their actions on the client’s behalf, in matters of the utmost importance to the client’s future. Perhaps someone more steeped in the nuances of attorney ethics than I can explain how such actions are not ethics violations. And, of course, if Trump did know what was being done on his behalf in either or both cases, then the lying is compounded and becomes further dishonesty and corruption on the part of the president.

Time will tell how all this shakes out. Ms. Daniels is represented by Michael Avenatti who is very measured in his public statements and, by relying on his client to speak about Trump, seems to know what he is about. Her interview with 60 Minutes is scheduled to be broadcast next Sunday and, if it happens, will shed new and dramatic light on the situation. And then there is James Comey’s book which is about to publish. Buckle your seat belts. The ride is about to get wilder.

White House Rejects Then Accepts Ethics Transparency

Another pointless dispute within the Trump administration appears to have been resolved. It was pointless because, one way or another, the information sought by the Government Ethics Office (GEO) – lists of lobbyists given waivers by the White House to work in the Executive Branch –was going to be discovered and reported. With who-knows-how-many former lobbyists showing up at government meetings and signing off on government documents, sooner or later their identities would have been uncovered and reported. In the meantime, this episode, as with many others, illustrates the propensity of the Trump administration toward secrecy regarding the public’s business that these people are supposedly performing.

The dispute is thusly stated. Eight days after taking office, President Trump signed an Executive Order entitled “ETHICS COMMITMENTS BY EXECUTIVE BRANCH APPOINTEES” that, among other things forbids, for 2 years from appointment, participation in Executive Branch activities involving “any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts.” EO sec. 6. If an appointee was a registered lobbyist with the 2 years before appointment, the EO also bars participation, for 2 years from appointment, in “any particular matter on which [the appointee] lobbied within the 2 years before the date of my appointment or participate in the specific issue area in which that particular matter falls.”

The apparent purpose of this early EO was to show Trump’s commitment to ethics in government and the Executive Branch in particular. However, the broad sweep of the EO is limited by the definitions that apply and create potentially large loopholes. For example, “lobbied” is defined as “to have acted as a registered lobbyist.” EO sec. 2(m). Although “Lobbying activities” has the same meaning as that term has in the Lobbying Disclosure Act,” the EO excludes activities such as “communicating or appearing with regard to:  a judicial proceeding; a criminal or civil law enforcement inquiry, investigation, or proceeding; or any agency process for rulemaking, adjudication, or licensing, as defined in and governed by the Administrative Procedure Act, as amended, 5 U.S.C. 551 et seq.” EO sec. 2(n). Why such exclusions were necessary is something of a mystery since the Lobbying Disclosure Act, 2 USC sec. 1601, itself contains similar exclusions. Restating those exclusions may be presumed to have had some purpose other than confusion, but, again, this is not clear. In any case they exclude from the EO lobbyists who were hired to engage in activities on behalf of entities that may come before the Executive Branch, including the White House itself, on those same issues.

Moreover, the Lobbying Disclosure Act contains this exception: “The term “lobbyist” means, in English, someone retained to engage is “more than one lobbying contact” but not including “an individual whose lobbying activities constitute less than 20 percent of the time engaged in the services provided by such individual to that client over a 3-month period.” So, again in English, that means that a “lobbyist” is not subject to the EO at all if work for a particular client represented less than 20 percent of the total time devoted to that client’s interests during any quarterly reporting period, a test that could easily be met by a multitude of true full-time lobbyists with many clients. And, obviously, if one is not a “lobbyist,” there is no need to register as one under the Disclosure Act and there is no bar to working for the White House or one of the Executive Departments on any issue. This seems to leave a gaping hole for conflicts of interest in appearance if not in reality.

On top of those loopholes, the EO itself contains a formal waiver provision enabling “The President or his designee” to “grant to any person a waiver of any restrictions” otherwise contained in the EO. It was those waivers that the GEO wanted to see and that for some time the White House refused to disclose. After exchanges of challenging letters between the White House and GEO, the White House relented.

The Obama administration routinely released waiver information for similar actions from a restrictive policy on hiring of former lobbyists for Executive Branch work, but, for reasons that defy understanding, the Trump administration initially declined to follow suit. The objection to the jurisdiction of GEO seems absurd on its face and a needless resistance to transparency, another self-inflicted wound, in keeping with a general tendency of this administration to work in the shadows. And another reason for the electorate to distrust the motives of Trump and his enablers.