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.

Trump doesn’t speak for most Americans – and he doesn’t speak to them, either

Trump in Mississippi.
Trump in Mississippi.

What can you say after the president of the United States publicly ridicules a woman for making a credible allegation of sexual assault, peddles lies wholesale and is cheered on – maybe even egged on — by a crowd of addled fans who roar their support no matter what he says and laugh with delight no matter how cruel he is.

Trump’s raging riffs at a political rally in Mississippi on Tuesday night for once didn’t require the media to put them in much context. Simply listening to them will leave normal people revolted.

So it’s worth pointing out the obvious: Trump wasn’t speaking to normal people.

He was, instead, speaking to an audience made up almost entirely of members of his white-nationalist tribe, self-selected to attend the latest of a series of rallies that not only serve Trump’s narcissism but offer participants an orgiastic celebration of their deepest hatreds, where they can rage among the likeminded, taunt the “fake news” media, bask in a brush with celebrity, and get caught up in the same kind of fervent hysteria normally reserved for football games, game shows, and tent revivals.

Trump exists in a bubble of adoration, from the courtiers with whom he surrounds himself at the White House to his audiences, which are either restricted to fans only or at venues where confrontation is essentially impossible.

He is hardly the first president to live within a bubble. I wrote frequently about George W. Bush’s bubble at the time. It led him to an exaggerated view of how persuasive he was. And it failed him when he tried fruitlessly to sell the privatization of Social Security to the masses, while only addressing ticketed audiences — with the tickets being distributed by his own party.

Barack Obama railed against the bubble, and even lanced it now and then, but increasingly avoided direct contact with critics, especially in public.

But Trump’s bubble puts them all to shame. For one, it’s completely intentional: Trump has no interest in speaking to all of America. He doesn’t even try. He speaks only to his tribe, to incite them. They respond with the worship he craves, and the vicious cycle continues.

One of the few people I’ve heard call attention to this problem is Hillary Clinton, who raised it on Tuesday at the Atlantic Festival.

Trump, she said “has a view of America that is incredibly constrictive. And he talks to that America.  He talks to them all the time.”

The next president may not be as intentionally divisive as Trump has been – it’s hard to imagine anyone could be. And the next president, unlike Trump, will almost assuredly at least try to act as the president of all Americans.

Nevertheless, one possible lesson to be learned here is that the presidency should come with rules – or, barring that, explicitly stated assumptions – that prevent presidents from only addressing their supporters and never encountering normal people.

This is yet another theme I want to return to over time. Please feel free to leave comments or email me at froomkin@whitehousewatch.com with your ideas and your suggestions about who I should interview.

UPDATE at 10:33 a.m. ET:

Trump tweets:

A congressional to-do list for Trump-proofing the presidency


Two organizations that have been at the forefront of thinking ahead to a post-Trump democratic restoration  – Public Citizen and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) – are out today with a thorough and serious to-do list for Congress.

The full report is called “Trump-Proofing the Presidency: A Plan for Executive Branch Ethics Reform.” The second part of the executive summary outlines the specific recommendations in four major areas:

  • Preventing Conflicts of Interest,
  • Improving Financial Disclosure of Candidates and Office Holders
  • Enhancing Rules on Gifts to Candidates and Public Officials, and
  • Strengthening the Integrity of Government

If nothing else, look those over, and start your mulling.

The new report joins and gently competes with Protect Democracy’s “Roadmap for Renewal: A Legislative Blueprint for Protecting our Democracy” issued back in July. And there are more to come.

I’ll be writing more about Trump-proofing suggestions in the next few days and weeks, but read the report in the meantime. And I want to call special attention to its authors’ explanation of why they set their sights primarily on the legislative branch:

We focus on Congress because one overarching lesson from President Trump’s assault on the ethics system is that many parts of that system have worked in the past because presidents wanted to avoid corruption risks; the system was designed to help them do that. We have now seen that it is risky to design a system that relies too heavily on this impulse from an executive. The checks and balances that are the cornerstone of our constitutional system must play a larger role in protecting Americans from corruption and its corrosive effects on their everyday lives; this is Congress’s power and its obligation.

The italics are in the original, and they appropriately accentuate what is so different about Trump, what he is teaching us about foreseen and unforeseen loopholes in our constitutional system, and how we can go about fixing them.

And the central challenge, as with so many things Trump, is to restore the system of checks and balances that, tested like never before, has failed thus far.

U.S. pro-democracy policy is surviving, but only in places Trump considers ‘shitholes’

Trump at the State Department in April 2017.
Trump at the State Department in April 2017.

Earlier today, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a riveting and important article posing a troubling question: Can U.S. Democracy Policy Survive Trump?

(Suggestion: Get your mind off Kavanaugh and read it. It won’t cheer you up, but at least you’ll feel smarter when it’s over instead of dumber.)

I admire the bluntness with which Thomas Carothers, the endowment’s senior vice president,  and Frances Z. Brown, a fellow there, describe the problem.

“In short,” they write, “the U.S. president has become a leading light for the surging anti-democratic forces in many parts of the world, a development genuinely unthinkable just a few years ago.”

They back this up very, very well.

I admire how they acknowledge that the “shortcomings of U.S. democracy policy are hardly new” — although Trump’s actions amount to a “diminishment of a different order of magnitude.”

And I’m sympathetic to their argument that, even as the U.S. is praising dictators and denouncing democratic allies at the Trump level, U.S. diplomats are nevertheless quietly and seriously countering democratic backsliding overseas.

But if you look at which countries Carothers and Brown are able to cite as examples of the latter, it appears that pretty much the only place where diplomats are successfully pursuing pro-democracy efforts is in Africa.

You may recall that Trump called the African continent a “shithole” back in January, as he complained privately about non-white immigration. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked.

It was an unmistakably, horrifyingly racist comments that dehumanized people and denigrated entire populations and cultures. It was contemptible.

And sadly, it also suggests why diplomats are still able to do their job in Africa: Because Trump simply doesn’t care.

Read moreU.S. pro-democracy policy is surviving, but only in places Trump considers ‘shitholes’

Time is not on Brett Kavanaugh’s side

The FBI’s renewed investigation into multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by Brett Kavanaugh is not good news for him, or for Donald Trump.

The foremost danger for them, of course, is that FBI agents will quickly and easily find evidence that supports the allegations — or that confirms Kavanaugh’s alter ego as a lying, abusive drunk, hints of which we saw when he lost control in front of a Senate panel on Thursday.

But even if the investigation has been so neutered by the White House counsel as to foreordain a coverup, it gives those who see Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court as an affront to core American values a great gift: Time.

Looking at the multitude of ways in which the Trump presidency is profoundly not normal, a consistent factor is how quickly we lurch from drama to drama, without a moment’s peace. The public and the press can barely keep track of the crises, not to mention process them, react to them, prevent them, or think about how to repair them.

That’s the pace we were going at again on Friday — until Senator Jeff Flake was finally persuaded to call for a few days’ delay.

If Trump is effectively programming the ultimate reality TV series, Thursday’s cliffhanger was supposed to resolve over the weekend, allowing for a new arc to start today.

Instead, the focus is staying on Kavanaugh, utterly overwhelming any interest in Trump’s actually quite startling trade announcement, and turning the ensuing question-and-answer session into yet another occasion for Trump to free-associate, smirkily mocking Democratic senators, falsely asserting that Kavanaugh acknowledges ever had a drinking problem, and offhandedly calling the press corps of being “a part of the Democrat party.”

E.J. Dionne, Jr. noted the upside of the delay in his Washington Post opinion column:

The good news is that the investigation offers time for one important reality to sink in: It is simply not true, as was so often claimed, that both witnesses were equally “believable.”

I strongly endorse his suggested reading, by the way:

Every undecided senator should read Philip Bump’s extensive fact checkin The Post flagging answers Kavanaugh gave that “stretched or misrepresented the truth.” Then, the senators should turn to the New York Times’ equally comprehensive analysis describing responses Kavanaugh gave that were “misleading, disputed or off point.”

And they can examine a very helpful graph created by Alvin Chang at Vox. It uses bright colors to chart the comparative responsiveness of the two witnesses. Where they answered directly, the graph showed blue; where they dodged a question or refused to answer, it showed magenta. Ford’s chart is a sea of blue; Kavanaugh’s is replete with evasive magenta.

But there’s another, maybe even more important reality that should and could sink in with a little more time: how Kavanaugh’s red-faced, venomous partisan outburst on Thursday – calling the allegations “a calculated and orchestrated political hit…  on behalf of the Clintons” – renders him unfit for a leading role in a judicial branch that is supposed to be beyond partisan politics.

Now, obviously the Supreme Court is riven with politics, with four of its members already representing extremist right-wing views of the Constitution and social justice. But its members collegially avoid declaring their party loyalties, rather than get spitting mad about them. The appearance of a judicial system that is blind to bias is imperative for our democracy, even if the reality falls a bit short.

And don’t underestimate the value of a blistering, hysterically funny Saturday Night Live sketch (11 million views and counting on YouTube alone) in affecting popular discourse. Normally, Trump outrages have come and gone before SNL is able to mock them.

Finally, although the Kavanaugh nomination initially brought together almost everyone under the conservative tent including the never-Trumpers, the next few days will give that coalition more time to fray, and might give the tiny handful of allegedly non-Trump-lickspittle Republican senators a chance to find some way to vote no.

Because it’s no longer just a matter of Trump putting a lasting conservative imprint on the Supreme Court.

It’s now a matter of putting a Trump imprint on the Supreme Court – the imprint of misogyny, rage, white-male victimization, loss of control, and manifest unfitness for the job. And that imprint, placed by the Republican Party that has many elections in its future, would last a lifetime.

With a new NAFTA, Trump’s norm-shattering favors labor for once

Trump announces new trade agreement.
Trump announces new trade agreement.

Donald Trump has smashed presidential precedents left and right -– almost exclusively to the benefit of the right.

The uppermost current example, of course, is his backing of an unhinged apparent sexual predator who would use a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court to fight for white patriarchy and unlimited executive power.

But the trade agreement Trump announced today includes some concessions to the labor movement that Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — reflecting the globalist consensus long embraced by the bipartisan elite in Washington – saw as utterly anachronistic.

It also reflects a rejection of the deeply held view among previous presidents from both parties that the unfettered flow of capital and goods serves U.S. interests – despite the ample evidence that it favors giant multinational corporations and investors over American workers.

“Without tariffs, we wouldn’t be standing here,” Trump said Monday morning. And although he doesn’t seem to understand how tariffs actually work, he was probably right.

It’s too early to conclude anything with great certainty – the final text is only now being closely examined by third parties, and it’s likely there are all sorts of pro-corporate surprises to come, especially when it comes to patents and intellectual property.

But starting in 2020, the new deal would require “a car or truck must have 75 percent of its components manufactured in Canada, Mexico or the United States, a substantial boost from the current 62.5 percent requirement,” the Washington Post reports. “There’s also a new rule that a significant percentage of the work done on the car must be completed by workers earning at least $16 an hour, or about three times what the typical Mexican autoworker makes.”

Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Trade Watch, and the dean of the anti-globalization/anti-free-trade activists, issued a statement that I’m pretty sure was more favorable than any she’s issued in my lifetime. “The new deal includes some important improvements for which we have long advocated, some new terms we oppose and more work required to stop NAFTA’s ongoing job outsourcing, downward pressure on our wages and environmental damage,” she said.

She called out “important progress… with the removal of investment terms that help outsource jobs and a dramatic reining-in of NAFTA’s outrageous corporate Investor State Dispute Settlement tribunals under which corporations have grabbed hundreds of millions from taxpayers after attacks on environmental and health policies.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s new strategy “seeks to win over labor unions long opposed to free-trade pacts, while maintaining support from business groups that have generally supported them.”

And Teamsters leader Jim Hoffa said in a statement that the union was “pleased” by the new agreement, noting “with approval the considerable progress on workers’ rights.” He said new labor requirements “contain obligations and protections that are superior to the original NAFTA, and also to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”