“China may be a country where Ivanka Trump can get preferential treatment on trademarks for the price of a dinner at Mar-A-Lago, but that’s not how things work in the United States. The White House needs to send a clear message that U.S. government decisions are based on the merits and the law, not a goodie bag for political favors.”
– Allison Murphy, Counsel, United to Protect Democracy
United to Protect Democracy is calling on the White House to issue and enforce a robust policy to prevent inappropriate political interference in federal government functions. For more than four decades, Administrations of both parties have committed to such policies, which help ensure that the government is run for the benefit of the public and not used as a tool to benefit political allies or punish political enemies of the President.
“These policies help maintain public trust in the evenhanded application of our laws,” wrote Protect Democracy Counsel Allison Murphy – a former White House Counsel’s Office attorney – in a letter to current White House Counsel Donald McGahn. “It would be deeply troubling, for example, if the President’s political advisors in the West Wing could email Customs and Border Patrol or the Transportation Security Administration to ask them to search a particular individual’s laptop at an airport because that individual had been critical of the Administration; or could ask the Department of Health and Human Services to stand down from investigating an executive for health care fraud because that individual contributed to a political campaign.”
Last month, following Protect Democracy’s memo detailing the bipartisan history of policies governing agency contacts, the White House finally released its own policy on contacts with the Department of Justice (DOJ). However, as Murphy writes, it is lacking in two respects:
“First, it is incomplete. It covers only certain communications between the White House and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), whereas prior policies have covered the full range of law enforcement and other specific party matters that are routinely handled by many federal agencies. Second, a policy alone, without appropriate training and enforcement, is merely words on paper. A number of troubling news reports suggest that more training and enforcement is necessary to make such a policy effective.”
Among those revelations:
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus apparently violated the White House’s own policy when he contacted the FBI about the ongoing investigation into the relationship between Russian intelligence and associates of President Trump.
President Trump himself reportedly called then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara outside of proper protocols.
White House policy aide Stephen Miller, who is neither an attorney nor a member of the White House Counsel’s Office, reportedly called a DOJ attorney at home to dictate DOJ’s defense of the President’s ban on travel from predominantly-muslim countries.
McGahn apparently attempted to obtain “what [he] believed to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” in an investigation related to President Trump.
While these reports have all been the result of apparently inappropriate contacts with DOJ, many other federal agencies carry out vital law enforcement functions that should also be protected from White House interference.
“For example, the Department of Homeland Security is home to several major law enforcement agencies, as are several other Departments: the Department of the Interior houses the U.S. Park Police; the Treasury Department is home to the IRS Criminal Investigative Division; and many Departments have Offices of the Inspector General that carry out law enforcement functions,” Murphy notes. “The White House must have in place a policy regulating contacts with all of these agencies, just as it does with DOJ. White House staff should follow the same strictures with respect to civil and criminal investigative and enforcement functions at all federal agencies…”
And law enforcement is not the only government function that should be executed without political interference. From the awarding of government contracts to regulatory waiver applications to the decisions of independent regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Communications Commission, and Federal Trade Commission, there are decisions across the government that are required by law to be carried out based on the merits alone, without political interference.
“We strongly urge you to issue a full contacts policy covering all of the above contacts and concerns,” Murphy implores in the letter. “Failing to institute a robust policy would retreat from bipartisan precedent and send the wrong message about the value of integrity and impartiality in our government’s law enforcement and other functions.”