GAO treads carefully through Trump transition

If you're looking for total vindication or a "smoking gun" of how the Trump administration acted during the presidential transition, it's not here.

In its famously even-handed tones, the Government Accountability Office provides a detailed look at how then-President-elect Donald Trump approached transition. Three Democrats requested the study. People will take from it according to their political aims. But it’s worth reading just to get an unbiased view of the facts, nearly a year since a contentious election.

A strong, statutory framework exists for transitions. It was strengthened by the Presidential Transitions Improvement Act of 2015.  Against this backdrop, GAO looked carefully at the most recent transition.

Some things the incoming Trump team did do:

  • Signed memorandums of agreement with the Obama administration and the General Services Administration. These covered access to federal personnel, changes to the transition team, and use of GSA offices and its help.
  • Provided a legally required report, 30 days after inauguration, on its transition fundraising. It raised $6.5 million in private funds to augment the $7 million provided by the government.
  • Made public the names and funding sources of so-called landing team members. Those are the groups that do advance work at agencies ahead of inauguration.
  • Had transition members sign codes of ethical conduct barring conflicts of interest and use of government information. But the transition team did not name an ethics oversight official.
  • Had President Trump himself deliver a financial disclosure report to the Office of Government Ethics (in June) covering 2016.
  • Followed required travel procedures during the transition period.
  • Made 60 calls between either President-elect Trump or Vice President-elect Michael Pence to foreign leaders during transition. Before its first inauguration, the Obama-Biden team made 70.

The GAO report describes the constitutional ban on foreign gifts, but makes no comment on whether an “emolument” violation has occurred.

Some things the Trump transition or President Trump himself did not do:

  • Establish a blind trust for the president’s assets or “limiting investments to non-conflicting assets.”
  • Give OGE appointees’ financial information so it, OGE, could conduct blind reviews, not knowing the person’s name or affiliation.
  • As noted, appoint an independent overseer of team members’ ethics practices. But it had brought in an outside ethics adviser, Stefan Passatino.
  • Withhold announcements of nominees until after their ethics packages had cleared OGE, a practice the administration later reversed.
  • Respond to GAO auditors’ requests for interviews with administration officials on various components of transition such as legal structure, use of OGE.
  • Do much consulting with OGE or seem to pay a lot of attention to its advice before issuing an executive order on ethics commitments.
  • Spend all of the federal money available for transition. The transition spent only 45 percent of the $7 million provided, plus presumably the $6.5 million it raised on its own.

The report states clearly that certain ethical strictures do not apply to the president or, in some cases, to the vice president. It also points out since OGE has advised incoming presidents for many years, it’s probably best if they act as if all the rules applied to them. GAO provides many more facts. But reading with my unpracticed eye, I don’t get a clear picture. Ethical? Unethical?

This report shows GAO in “just the fact, ma’am” mode. It’s neither a guide to impeachment, nor an endorsement of unimpeachable rectitude. If you’re looking for one or the other, you’ll have to keep looking.

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