President Trump continues to own hundreds of businesses around the world, and he has staffed his administration with wealthy people who have ties to a complex web of companies. Those financial entanglements have prompted government ethics experts to raise concerns about conflicts of interest.
They are worried that this president is violating the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bars elected officials from benefiting from foreign governments. Also, in various legal filings and lawsuits, they have raised questions about whether the financial interests of the president and his appointees may be influencing public policy.
As NPR and other media outlets continue to cover these concerns and conflicts of interest, a question frequently arises: Who oversees the ethics of the president and other high-ranking officials? Who has the power to investigate or enforce ethics rules and laws?
The answer can be as entangled as the government bureaucracies involved. Of course, the media, whistleblowers and the courts are key elements of the accountability ecosystem. A number of agencies or government bodies also have a hand in holding presidents and appointees accountable on ethics and conflicts of interest. But a few play an outsize role — though only some of them have direct purview over the activities of the president.
Below is a reference sheet.
Power: Investigative, Disciplinary
Along with the ultimate power to impeach a president, lawmakers can subpoena executive branch documents and officials, making them one of the most powerful investigators when it comes to the actions of the president individually and the executive branch broadly. This power can be claimed by any congressional committee, depending on the subject matter, including ad hoc special committees. Ethics experts particularly point to the House Oversight Committee and sometimes the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has launched inquiries into the actions of Trump’s first national security pick, Michael Flynn; urged a review of presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway for promoting a Trump brand; and asked questions about Trump’s Washington hotel and the president’s handling of classified information. Chaffetz has faced criticism, including at a February town hall meeting, for not doing enough to keep a check on the White House.
Several other congressional panels — such as Senate Judiciary and House Intelligence — have pursued additional inquiries in recent months, including Russia’s role in the election and Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the Obama administration wiretapped his phones during the campaign.
Department Of Justice
Power: Investigative, Disciplinary
The Justice Department is the one agency with the power to investigate and prosecute potential criminal violations by all public officials, including the president. The Public Integrity Section often receives referrals on conflicts of interest. “Most paths lead to the Justice Department,” says Peter Henning, law professor at Wayne State University and a former federal criminal prosecutor.
The president and vice president are exempt from many of the ethics rules that apply to Cabinet members and other government employees. But criminal laws that do apply — such as anti-bribery and illegal gratuity or some of the federal election laws — are enforced by the DOJ, typically at the discretion of the attorney general.
The DOJ also has the authority to interpret the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which is the subject of one of the early lawsuits against Trump. It prohibits federal officeholders, including the president, from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments.
A group of ethics advocates had pushed the U.S. attorney in Manhattan to investigate foreign payments accepted by the Trump Organization. That U.S. attorney has since been fired, as the new administration has dismissed federal prosecutors appointed by former President Barack Obama.
Advocacy groups have called for a special prosecutor — independent of the Justice Department — to investigate Russia’s role in the election and other matters. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, has recused himself from investigations related to the presidential campaigns, following questions about whether he misled Congress regarding communications with the Russian ambassador.
Office Of Government Ethics
OGE, formed in the fallout of the Watergate scandal, reviews financial disclosures of Cabinet appointees and negotiates ethics agreements — often involving sales of assets — to avoid the influence of personal financial holdings on policy decisions.
OGE also oversees an ethics program that vets thousands of federal employees across agencies to review their financial disclosures and ensure they comply with various conflicts-of-interest rules. Presidents and vice presidents, however, are exempt from some government ethics regulations, including the financial conflict-of-interest statute.
Director Walter M. Shaub Jr. has publicly criticized Trump’s decision to remain the owner of hundreds of businesses while president and has pushed against what he called an “extraordinary assertion” by the White House lawyer that many OGE rules didn’t apply to Executive Office employees. OGE documents obtained by NPR also show the Trump administration has been slow to submit ethics documents. These documents also reflect highly complex financial holdings. The White House, in response, said the reports undergo extensive legal review before submission to OGE.
The FBI is part of the Justice Department, but it acts with autonomy. It can start independent investigations into potential violations of criminal (not civil) statutes, though it depends on the attorney general and DOJ prosecutors to file charges.
FBI Director James Comey has confirmed that the agency is investigating “the nature of any links” between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government and “whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts” to influence the election.
Trump, without offering any evidence, has charged that Obama’s FBI wiretapped his phones during the campaign — an accusation rejected by Comey, who was appointed by Obama in 2013. Comey has 6 1/2 years left in his term and has said he has no plans to resign.
Power: Investigative, Advisory
Virtually all major federal agencies — though not the White House — have an independent, in-house watchdog known as an inspector general.
That means, with the exception of White House officials, most Cabinet secretaries and other key staff in departments and agencies would fall under the purview of one of these internal investigators. The same goes for White House-related matters linked to the agencies, for instance the property-managing Government Services Administration, which has been criticized for maintaining — and later affirming as valid — a luxury-hotel lease contract with the Trump Organization despite a ban on leases involving elected officials.
Though IGs cannot prosecute, they issue public reports, make corrective recommendations and sometimes have the power to sanction employees or otherwise curtail questionable behavior that might be taking place at their agency or department. And they can refer cases to the Justice Department. “Criminal referrals are paid attention to at the DOJ,” Henning says.
White House Counsel’s Office
Power: Advisory, Investigative
The president’s legal advisers — led by general counsel Don McGahn — are the team meant to prevent any potential ethics violations by White House staff. But unlike inspectors general — who don’t take direction of agency chiefs — the White House lawyers “generally act at the direction [of] and for the president,” says Kathleen Clark, who teaches government ethics law at Washington University in St. Louis. “The president is their client.”
Chief ethics lawyer Stefan Passantino has been front and center in one of the earliest White House ethics disputes, involving Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway, who was widely seen as having violated ethics rules by promoting Ivanka Trump’s brand during a TV interview.
Passantino argued that Conway’s mistake was inadvertent and he did not pursue disciplinary action, as advised by the Office of Government Ethics. In the same letter, Passantino also stated that “many regulations promulgated by [OGE] do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President” — a stance forcefully countered by the OGE director.
Government Accountability Office
Power: Investigative, Advisory
GAO is an independent arm of Congress that keeps account of how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars — a sort of internal government auditor or accountant. When reviewing spending by agencies, GAO’s audits are typically broad — not focusing on individuals or looking for wrongdoing.
GAO is the office that looks into potential abuses of funding or investigates questions about the president misusing public funds, says Lawrence Noble, senior director of regulatory reform programs and general counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
State Attorneys General
State AGs have limited power when it comes to federal officials. But given Trump’s ongoing ownership of hundreds of businesses — and his advisers and staff keeping some business ties — state attorneys general have purview over those financial connections. For instance, the Trump Organization has corporate registration in the states of New York, Florida and Delaware. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has gone after the Trump Foundation and Trump University.
Lucia Maffei is an NPR Business Desk intern.
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