Richard Painter is a never-Trumper.
He was the White House Ethics Chief under Republican President George W. Bush, and now serves as the vice president of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, but Painter still tweets that Congress should seek to "impeach and remove Trump" and quips about how Special Counsel Robert Mueller "is going to bust up this frat party."
In the age of Donald Trump, the expert in ethics and policy feels freer to say what’s truly on his mind about the current administration. In an exclusive interview with Newsweek, Painter outlines the many ethical issues he believes Congress should be looking into, and how Trump may seek to avoid his own political doom.
(The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Newsweek: Let's begin by asking you about new reports that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort offered private updates to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Is it typical for a presidential campaign to offer private updates to their wealthy donors, or do you believe there was some sort of collaboration to influence the election outcome here involving financial transactions between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives?
Richard Painter: Well, big donors get updates sometimes, sure. But it’s illegal for foreign nationals to be donors to a political campaign—and they were treating him like he’s a big donor.
Newsweek: To what level does an issue like this rise? If it’s found that the Trump campaign was in fact collaborating with Kremlin-connected operatives while receiving financial transactions from Russians, would you consider that an impeachable offense?
RP: Yeah, well, it depends on who knew about it. You don’t impeach the president because someone on his campaign did something illegal. The question is who knew about it. We need to find out what’s going with the Russians. Robert Mueller needs to get a hold of this.
Newsweek: Do you believe Donald Trump had no idea any of this was happening? Do you think Republicans and other Americans will accept his word that he had no idea his campaign manager was scheduling private updates with Russian billionaires, and his top-level campaign officials were meeting with Russians in Trump Towers?
RP: He’ll say he was completely unaware, of course, but this is exactly why we have Mueller. Remember, the president is not only vulnerable for his suspected collaboration or for authorizing it, but he’s also vulnerable because of obstruction of justice charges, since he’s been trying to stop the Mueller investigation.
Newsweek: Okay, so what if Mueller comes out with an explosive conclusion and determines that Trump was attempting to obstruct justice during the Russian investigation, or that he was knowingly accepting financial donations from foreign nationals, or that he was in fact coordinating with the Kremlin in order to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy? Do you really think Republicans will ever truly turn on this president?
RP: I think it’s going to depend largely on what’s in that report. And you have to remember, Democrats are part of the equation, too. I think what he’s been doing is testing the waters with Schumer and so forth because he thinks there may be a number of different scenarios. There’s the scenario where he eventually resigns, but there’s also the scenario that he gets impeached and thrown out by the Senate if we have enough votes. So he may want to avoid those situations and he’s going to figure out how to put together a coalition of senators who would let him stay.
We’re going to have to see what he tries to work out, but I noticed he’s certainly testing the waters with the Democrats.
Newsweek: Do you really think that’s part of his intention in working with the Democrats — you believe Trump wants to build a coalition of senators who will vote for him to stay in power during his impeachment?
RP: I think he wants to see what the lay of the land is. A lot of people know that, if you dig down to what he truly believes instead of the things he said to get elected, he’s probably a lot more moderate on the social issues than Mike Pence. I could imagine a scenario where some Democrats say, ‘Well, look, we’re not going to go through the effort of throwing him out if he’s better for us than Pence.’
Newsweek: I find it hard to believe any Democrat would defend Trump from impeachment in the wake of an explosive Mueller report…
RP: Well look at it this way: if you impeach him and throw him out, or if he eventually resigns, I think a whole lot of Americans are going to want to give Mike Pence a shot, and a honeymoon period, too. Pence has a very different personality from Trump, and could have a calming effect for the country. I think he could be quite effective in that regard. But when faced with that option, I think some Democrats will see Pence as far more right-wing than Trump, so I definitely see a scenario where Trump could be more willing to do what the Democrats want if they let him stay.
I recall that with Bill Clinton, and I’ll tell you, he was letting Republicans get quite a bit, including looking at business deregulations. He was looking for some new friends, since he was in trouble then, too.
Newsweek: So you think Trump is essentially taking a page out of Bill Clinton’s Impeachment 101 book?
RP: I think so. Clinton helped himself deal with some of his problems near the end by not being so partisan to the Democrats during his impeachment.
Newsweek: The president has stirred a lot of controversy over his frequent visits to Trump properties. There are also some recent reports about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price taking private jets over 20 times since his swearing-in. Does the Trump administration have a systemic issue with ethics?
RP: [Laughing] It certainly seems that way. In a lot of administrations there are some isolated ethics issues, but this is just getting really bad. And it’s coming from the top-down.
Newsweek: Remember that report from the former director for the Office of Government Ethics that urged the Trump team not to let the president continue visiting his own properties just before the inauguration? Do you think the administration has been listening to any of the warnings it’s been receiving over these potential ethical issues?
RP: I don’t see them listening too much at all. What I see is, every time the Office of Government Ethics says anything to them, they just respond that the ethics rules don’t apply to White House staff.
Newsweek: How do we ever return to a point where ethical concerns are at the forefront of priorities in the White House? In your opinion, will it take an impeachment of this presidency to get back to any level of normalcy?
RP: Honestly, the only ethics lawmakers are interested in is the ethics of the people on the other party. I think Congress is largely at fault, and if voters care they’re going to have to let their representatives know that one way or another.
Newsweek: What could Congress be doing to effect actual change within the ethics of this administration?
RP: Congress could be investigating so many things right now. They could be investigating the emoluments issue. They could get the Trump Organization’s records and find out where it’s getting its money from, and tell the American people whether there’s any Russian money or not. But they don’t want to do that. They could tell the White House to cut all this Mar-A-Lago business out, have hearings and say this is all so unacceptable.