After Donald Trump’s teaser about the “fake news awards” on Sunday, many ethics experts are putting a halt to the event, saying it could run afoul of White House rules and the First Amendment.
Norman Eisen, who is the former special counsel for ethics under the Obama administration, and Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, have both tweeted that if any of the White House staff members were involved in these proceedings, they would be in violation of the executive branch’s Standards of Ethical Conduct, which ban employees from using their office for “the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise.” In other words, they are taking advantage of their privileged platforms.
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The two ethics experts tweeted the following:
WARNING to White House staff: the president may be exempt from the rules at 5 CFR § 2635.701 et seq. on misuse of position BUT YOU ARE NOT. If you help @potus with the below, you risk violating §§ 702, 704 & 705 forbidding use of gov time & $$$ to harm some media & aid others. https://t.co/gHxzJcCEAW
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) January 7, 2018
Hey @PressSec & @RajShah45, Norm is right. If you or *ANY* WH staffers work on this or post it on the WH website, it will be a violation of the Standards of Conduct. Beware of laws on using federal appropriations too, if there are any visuals, certificates, handouts, or trophies. https://t.co/3tlyrkNc9H
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) January 7, 2018
To put things into perspective, ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, Richard Painter confirmed the ethics violations, saying that “there were plenty of valid reasons for executive branch employees to use their position to criticize private enterprises.”
Speaking with POLITICO, Painter said:
There has to be a legitimate official government reason for the position you’re taking with the respect to the particular company. But here the only reason is they don’t like the coverage of the president.”
In addition, Painter said that First Amendment issues could be at stake, which essentially is a more serious violation than the ethics rules itself. Problems could arise, he said, “if Trump threatened any sort of action against media outlets he dislikes during the awards.”
POLITICO also noted how crucial this is for the White House:
Federal officials who violate ethics rules can face discipline from their agencies, ranging from censure to suspension to dismissal. While the Office of Government Ethics sets forth the regulations and can urge the White House to act, it does not have the power to actually enforce them. That means that the White House, essentially, polices itself.”
But in a situation where this administration itself is under investigation for actually breaking the law, rather than some ethics rules that they clearly aren’t paying attention to in the first place, Robert Mueller may elect to charge everyone who complied willingly with illegal orders from an illegitimate president equally under the law.
That means that even staffers and aides should be watching themselves legally, and possibly even securing lawyers for themselves.
They certainly don’t want Donald Trump to be the reason they wind up in prison.
More often than not, Trump finds new ways to defy ethical, constitutional and basic human decency norms. What is worse is that he drags his cult-like administration along with him. Nonetheless, these “awards” that Trump is attempting to orchestrate undermines democracy and free speech, and if he’s not careful, he could lose his entire White House.