Norm Eisen: Is Donald Trump Above the Law?


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Jan 19 2017 34 mins  

It feels like every day we reach a new point of “well, this has never happened before” in American politics. And I’m not just talking about the Tweets. Ok, the tweets are something. Incredible, really. We can and will have a conversation on when to ignore and when to react to them. But let’s get past the Tweetstorms for a moment. I’m talking about actual questions about democracy and the Constitution and even America itself. Questions that take more than 140 characters to answer. Like this one: Is the President above the law? Ok, I guess that doesn’t take 140 characters to answer. It should only take two characters – three if you count the period. Truly, this question had never previously occurred to me. Most of us thought it was asked and answered, initially in the Constitution, and subsequently through 240 years of democracy. But in a time where things have never happened before, even that simple belief has come into question, most recently during that unbelievable first post-election press conference when Donald Trump said: “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president.” Could that possibly be true? In America? Could the President truly be above the law? Say what you will about the Trump election – and regardless of where you sit, there’s plenty to say – if nothing else, he’s generated a national discussion on government ethics unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. Somehow it seems, we’ve all been transported back to high school civics class. And if it’s a class on government we’ve been taking, there’s no doubt that one of the lead professors – indeed, one of our country’s leading experts – is Ambassador Norm Eisen. Ambassador Eisen is a bit like the Emoluments clause – many of us were not aware of him a few months ago, and now we wonder why we haven’t been following him for years. Indeed, if you turn on the television or read any of our leading newspapers or journals or, yes, go on Twitter lately, you can’t miss Ambassador Eisen or his sometime partner Richard Painter. Eisen and Painter have become the bi-partisan truth squad of government ethics – a human Google search providing not only facts, but also analysis, interpretation, and precedent. Now, as I discuss with Ambassador Eisen, even with the laws and clauses we have, there is plenty of gray area. He gets into that. But if you want to understand what issues President Trump could find himself addressing – and what that might mean for our politics, policy, and even democracy – you’re really going to like this conversation. Some background: Eisen is a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Previously, Eisen worked in the Office of the White House Counsel under President Obama. He was Special Assistant to the President and Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform. Importantly, and particularly timely for where we are today: Eisen worked on the Obama-Biden Transition Project in the Office of the President-Elect. In this role, according to his bio, he “provided ethics training for President-Elect, Vice-President Elect, their spouses and other senior officials, as well as all members of transition teams. [He] also trained and vetted Cabinet members and other nominees and appointees, and assisted with administration’s policy development process regarding ethics, transparency and reform issues, translating campaign promises into action.” Sounds pretty relevant, doesn’t it? Ambassador Eisen is also Co-Founder and Chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. But perhaps his most important title: He’s an optimist. This really comes across in what he says and how he says it. We talked about that, too. Ambassador Eisen brings energy and humor and personality to an area that cynics may previously have called an oxymoron and even non-cynics may have thought was not particularly urgent. That’s all changed, of course. Here’s my conversation with Ambassador Eisen.