Bipartisan group calls for presidents to get ‘financial risk assessment’ to identify vulnerabilities to ‘foreign powers’

A group of prominent Republicans and Democrats is calling for Congress to require a “national security financial risk assessment” by top ethics and intelligence officers of the portfolios of incoming senior officials, including presidents.

A new report from the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy – co-chaired by former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara and Republican former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman –  includes a number of proposed reforms to strengthen government ethics and the rule of law in the post-Trump era.

The risk assessment proposal responds what the group called “a broad bipartisan consensus on the need to combat foreign interference in our elections and in the workings of our government.”

A review of top officials’ holdings “would provide a way to help ensure that those leaders remain accountable to the American people rather than any foreign power,” the report says.

While noting that the issue “is not unique to the current administration,” the group calls attention to reports about Trump’s global business interests, Jared Kushner’s overseas contacts, and Wilbur Ross’s Chinese and Russian business dealings.

The report concludes that “the president is a unique target for foreign adversaries. And those efforts are more likely to bear some fruit when a large number of high-ranking officials, including the president and other senior administration officials, have globe-spanning business interests.”

It recommends that Congress should pass legislation to require the following:

  • For incoming presidents, vice presidents, and senior White House staff who work on national security-related matters, Congress should require the administration of a national security financial risk assessment led by the director of the Office of Government Ethics and the director of National Intelligence. The purpose of the review would be to identify whether an official’s financial holdings present potential national security vulnerabilities and to issue divestment recommendations beyond what may be already required by other laws.
  • Officials subject to the review should be required to provide reviewers with their tax returns and ethics filings, as well as other information the reviewers request about their holdings (such as business transaction history and records of material holdings or transactions with foreign entities), with a requirement to update filings whenever there is material transaction but at least on a yearly basis. The reviewers should be required to keep any nonpublic information they receive strictly confidential.
  • The reviewers should be empowered to obtain access to all relevant government information sources and follow-up information from the filers.
  • The review should be undertaken on a confidential basis, with findings presented to the “Gang of Eight,” the bipartisan group of congressional leaders customarily briefed on classified intelligence matters as part of their oversight role.
  • The official in question should be informed of vulnerabilities the review uncovers, unless doing so would imperil counterintelligence gathering.

The group is housed at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Two other eye-catching legislative proposals would clearly articulate “what payments and benefits” are prohibited by the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses, and would “require written justifications from the president for pardons involving close associates.”

Otherwise, the group’s report – the first of several — includes proposals such as requiring presidential candidates to disclose tax returns and beef up ethics mechanisms very similar to those made by other good-government groups.

I wrote on Tuesday about a new report from  Public Citizen and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) that more broadly suggests how Congress can “Trump-proof” the presidency. The group Protect Democracy put out its roadmap in July.

“I don’t think that we are at a stage right now where it’s really critical to have everyone on exactly the same page with the exact same solutions,” Jennifer Ahearn, policy director for CREW, told me in an interview today.

She said the groups are instead hoping to begin a conversation. “Let’s get some ideas out there and let’s get people talking about them,” she said.

More on that tomorrow.

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