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Trump Made Stars Out Of Ethics Experts. Can Richard Painter Turn That Into a Senate Seat?

President Donald Trump’s time in office has turned a small group of former government ethics officials critical of the president into minor celebrities and regular guests on cable news shows. Now, one of those experts, longtime Republican and former George W. Bush administration ethics chief Richard Painter, has announced he is running for the Senate as a Minnesota Democrat.

“We’ve given the House and Senate a chance to investigate the administration and exercise oversight. They won’t do it,” Painter told Newsweek on Tuesday, the day after his announcement. “The question is, What do we want to do about our democracy? Do we want it to function as a democracy, or do we want to move toward authoritarian rule and kleptocracy, with very rich people using the government to get richer?”

Painter, a University of Minnesota Law School professor, is a vocal Trump critic. He’s sued the president over payments to Trump hotels from foreign governments and has called Trump’s defenders “scumbags.” He’s now challenging recently appointed Senator Tina Smith in August’s open Democratic primary, which allows independents and Republicans to cross party lines and vote.

Whether they do that will be determined by how attracted they are to Painter’s central message, the one that’s made him a mainstay on cable news since Trump took office: The president of the United States is corrupt, awash in ethical conflicts and a grave threat to the republic. And congressional Republicans let Trump get away with it, Painter says.

At the press conference Monday kicking off his campaign, Painter explained his choice to run as a Democrat by explaining that there was no place for an anti-Trumper like himself in the Republican Party, and that he was worried an independent run might split the electorate and send a pro-Trump Republican to Washington. To establish his Democratic bona fides, he then laid out liberal policy positions he has advocated for years: banking regulation, gun control and campaign finance reform, to name a few. (Painter said his campaign will refuse to take money from PACs or “dark money” groups.)

Despite calling single-payer health care “the ideal plan,” Painter has been a Republican for decades, and he said Tuesday he wanted to “salvage” the Republican Party. But he’s determined it’s simply not possible on the national level in the age of Trump.

“In 2018, we only have one party that wants to function on the national level within the democratic system, because the Republican Party has made it clear you can’t run for national office without being loyal to Donald Trump,” Painter said. “In that environment, I don't think the Republican Party is willing to participate in a democratic system, given Trump’s authoritarian direction that he wants to take our country in.”

It’s that kind of dire warning about creeping authoritarianism, delivered by a conservative with the stern authority of a professor who wouldn’t hesitate to lock his doors after class begins, that has made Painter a go-to guest for cable news hosts in the Trump era. Painter said that before Trump, he “very rarely” went on television to talk about ethics issues. But since the election, he said, he’s been in TV studios “a couple of times a week” on average and has had weeks when he did 10 TV appearances across a variety of networks.

A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, Painter worked at New York-area law firms in the early 1990s before he went into academia. From 2005 to 2007, he served as the chief ethics lawyer in the Bush White House. And although he returned to academia at the University of Minnesota after his stint in government, he remained a go-to ethics expert in Washington, D.C., testifying before House committees multiple times during the Obama administration.

But Trump’s victory and his business entanglements created a unique need for ethics experts in the public space. Shortly after Trump’s victory, Painter joined the leadership of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, alongside former Obama administration ethics chief Norm Eisen.

That a little-known law professor and ethics expert has a large enough platform to run for the U.S. Senate is testament to the renewed interest in government ethics that Trump’s administration, and its conduct, has caused.

“As someone who has worked on these issues for decades, I have never seen such a public interest,” Karen Hobert Flynn, president of nonpartisan government watchdog Common Cause, told Newsweek. She credits ethics experts like Painter for contributing to that interest.

“Having attorneys who specialize in this, that can explain what the law says and what the administration was doing, and could do it in ways that were accessible and understandable, I think people become hungry for it,” Hobert Flynn said. She added that her group has added 40,000 small donors since Trump took office and that fundraising is up 175 percent year over year.

But a regular presence on television and nearly a half a million Twitter followers do not win elections, and some recent Democratic polling has suggested voters aren’t too concerned about the ethics of the president’s refusal to divest from his businesses. To win the seat, occupied until recently by Al Franken, Painter needs political capital that he currently doesn’t have, according to University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs.

“His colleagues and legal community in the Twin Cities think highly of him,” Jacobs said. “But as far as a loyal base of support among party activists, the people who turn out during the endorsing process and during the primaries, he’s a man without an army.”

And there lies Painter’s biggest obstacle in this era of stark political polarization: He doesn't wholly fit in with either Democrats or Republicans.

“This whole thing seems a little opportunistic to me,” James Schultz, who served as Trump’s ethics chief until last November, told Newsweek. Schultz, now a partner at Cozen O’Connor, said that Painter criticized the administration’s ethics when “it was not warranted.” He added that Painter’s current Senate bid demonstrates that his criticism of the administration was “pushing a partisan agenda, given now we see that he’s using it to propel himself into office.”

By running as a Democrat, Painter also risks undermining the very thing that made him such a powerful voice in the first place: his independence.

“From now on, any time he has a critique of Trump’s ethics, he has to be identified as a candidate, or someone who wants to be a candidate,” Jacobs said. “His cachet, which was as a truly independent voice bucking his own party, is now gone. I think it’s a big sacrifice.”

But Painter said his new ambitions result from the fact that criticizing the president on cable news hasn't persuaded Congress to act. 

“At a certain point, we got to stop watching TV and do something about it,” he said. “Politics isn’t a spectator sport.”

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