This is the second time in two weeks that he’s lashed out at Republicans who risk undermining his “drain the swamp” brand. The first came a few days before Christmas, when Newt Gingrich said in an interview that Trump has given up using that phrase entirely. Trump corrected him, privately and publicly, and Gingrich duly begged forgiveness. But who cares? Gingrich is one guy, without a formal role in the administration.
Having the House GOP gut the chamber’s ethics office as one of its first actions this year is more serious, and catnip for Democrats. (BuzzFeed has a bullet-point list of reforms implemented by the change, most notably eliminating anonymous ethics complaints and reducing the Office of Congressional Ethics’s independence by placing it under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Ethics.) “Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’” Nancy Pelosi crowed in a statement, “but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House G.O.P. has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
The House GOP vote got a lot of media coverage overnight. Now here’s Trump criticizing the move — sort of:
With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
He’s not questioning the reforms, he’s questioning the timing, which is an odd equivocation for a populist. If he wants to drain the swamp, neutering the Office of Congressional Ethics is as bad an idea six months from now as it is today. But the timing is bad, above and apart from whether the substance of the reforms is bad too. Relaxing ethical standards should not be the first move made in Year One of the new people-powered American government.
A few minutes after Trump tweeted that, Paul Ryan’s office released this statement:
“After eight years of operation, many members believe the Office of Congressional Ethics is in need of reform to protect due process and ensure it is operating according to its stated mission. I want to make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the Office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress. The Office will continue to be governed by a bipartisan independent outside board with ultimate decision-making authority. The Office is still expected to take in complaints of wrongdoing from the public. It will still investigate them thoroughly and independently. And the outside board will still decide whether or not evidence exists to warrant a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee. With the amendment adopted last night, the bipartisan, evenly-divided House Ethics Committee will now have oversight of the complaints office. But the Office is not controlled by the Committee, and I expect that oversight authority to be exercised solely to ensure the Office is properly following its rules and laws, just as any government entity should. I have made clear to the new Chair of the House Ethics Committee that it is not to interfere with the Office’s investigations or prevent it from doing its job. All members of Congress are required to earn the public’s trust every single day, and this House will hold members accountable to the people.”
That’s Ryan, who reportedly opposed the changes to OCE, trying to reassure critics that the body will still be independent, kinda sorta. Here’s the key question: Is Trump just checking a box in criticizing the reforms, washing his hands of the matter so that unhappy populists don’t hold him responsible for what the GOP did? Or is he actually trying to kill the reforms? The vote within the House GOP caucus last night to support the amendment was 119-74, but of course the amendment won’t be binding until the full House votes on it today. Assuming Democrats vote unanimously against the changes (which isn’t a sure thing), 74 Republican votes would be more than enough to defeat the amendment. Republicans typically are expected to vote with the majority of their caucus when the full House votes, though, even if they were on the losing side of their caucus vote. (That’s how the majority protects its power. Hash out policy disputes behind closed doors, then everyone votes for the winning position.) It could be that Trump’s criticism of the OCE reforms will encourage those 74 Republicans to break with their own party this time and vote with the Democrats, which would be a dangerous precedent for House Republican unity. If Trump weighs in publicly every time the caucus votes in a way he doesn’t like, leading to mass defections among the Republican minority, how does Ryan hold his caucus together? If the rules package that includes the OCE reforms is voted down today, that’ll be a sign that Trump is ultimately calling the shots for the GOP caucus.
Good point by Ben Shapiro too: Is this really the best way for Trump to lobby Congress, with tweets?
The good news: we can all see the sausage being made. Trump isn’t going to hide it when he’s in conflict with Congress, and we’re going to be able to determine who’s right, and who’s wrong.
The bad news: everything will be litigated publicly for the Republicans. Trump probably isn’t going to quietly negotiate when he disagrees, or when a bad headline appears. Rather, he’ll quickly leap to Twitter to share his thoughts, ratcheting up tensions with the Republicans with whom he’s supposed to be working, taking the most palatable public position while undercutting the members of his own party on tough issue fights.
Here’s Kellyanne Conway being asked about the OCE reforms this morning and half-heartedly defending them — while noting that she hadn’t spoken to Trump about them yet. (The segment aired before he tweeted.) If she had, this interview might have gone differently. Needless to say, one likely reason that Trump has been aggressive in challenging righties who complicate the idea of “draining the swamp,” even to the point of calling out Gingrich for a casual comment he made in an interview, is because his own ethical problems loom so largely over his presidency already. Conway also said this morning that Trump is hoping to hold a press conference on his business holdings and potential conflicts of interest next week, on January 11th — assuming his lawyers and compliance officers believe he’s ready by then to announce his plans. Loudly chastising others for their weakness on ethics in the meantime is his way of buying credibility on that subject on the cheap, so that when the media comes after him over foreign “emoluments,” he can say “no one cares more about ethics than me” and the average voter will believe him.
Kellyanne Conway told the Morning Joe panel that she hasn't talked to Donald Trump about the vote: https://t.co/atJeCyUU5H
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) January 3, 2017
NEWS: I'm told special House GOP conference called at 11:50am in HC-5. Rules changes coming?
— Rachael Bade (@rachaelmbade) January 3, 2017
If they do end up canceling the changes to OCE in the wake of Trump’s tweets, I wonder how that bodes for Ryan’s hold on his own caucus. It’s possible, I guess, that Ryan quietly asked Trump to say something publicly against the reforms, knowing that it would make the pro-reform majority rethink their position. But that’s a dangerous game for a Speaker to play. Show the president that he can make the House do his bidding on this issue and he’ll try to make them do it on other issues, including ones where Ryan isn’t on the same side as him. (Medicare?)
Update: Well, there you go. As Trump suggested, they’re not canceling the reforms, they’re postponing them until the media spotlight has moved on to other things and the changes can be passed with less fanfare.
NEW: House Republicans withdraw ethics changes for now, postpone to future date.
— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) January 3, 2017
Update: The incoming chair of the House Committee on Ethics says they’ll “address” OCE reforms by August.