I give Donald Trump credit for two things I never thought I'd say: First, I wish I was a practicing lawyer again. Now that civil liberties are under siege, being a lawyer seems relevant and—would you believe this?—noble. Second, I'm suddenly fascinated by the intersection of law and ethics.
About my going back to law: Not to worry. I'm not that reckless. (Think of the poor client!)
I'm left, then, with my new obsession with ethics. Last week, I wrote about the White House counsel ("Yo, Where's Don McGahn"), wondering about the kind of guidance he gave (or not) to senior officials about avoiding conflicts of interests. My hunch was that he didn't drive home the point nearly enough. Otherwise, Kellyanne Conway might have stopped herself from telling TV viewers to buy Ivanka clothes, and Trump might not have lashed out at Nordstrom for dumping his daughter's line. (Let me take that back: Trump wouldn't have behaved differently.)
Since that post, McGahn is suddenly in the spotlight—most recently about the way he handled Michael Flynn's conversations with Russian officials, which led to Flynn's resignation as national security advisor. I have no idea how McGahn advised Trump when it came out that Flynn had lied about those conversations. (Flynn told the FBI and Vice President Pence that he did not discuss sanctions against Russia when, in fact, he did.)
But this much we do know: According to White House spokesperson Sean Spicer, McGahn concluded Flynn's action wasn't a "violation of law" though it was a "violation of trust."
And this sums up the ethos of the Trump administration: Law and morality are regarded as traveling parallel paths. And never the twain shall meet.
Trump seems to draw a sharp line between what is legal versus what is morally correct—technically abiding by the former while discounting the later. Indeed, during the campaign, Trump bragged about how he paid as little in taxes as possible, essentially saying that only stupid people don't take advantage of what the law allows. And that attitude continues, as evidenced by Trump's refusal to divulge his tax filings or disassociate himself from his family business. As he's stated many times, the conflict of interest law exempts the president.
Which leads me to this question: Is this the kind of distinction clients look for in their lawyers—someone who can tell them how far they can push the ethics boundaries without breaking the law?