A day after CNN reported that the Justice Department is investigating whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has broken the law by using his office to personally enrich himself, national security adviser John Bolton told the Alexander Hamilton Society in Washington that ethics rules make it hard for people outside of the government to serve.
Bolton said "things have gotten more bureaucratic, harder to get things done" since he served under President George H.W. Bush in the 1990s and blamed the difficulty, in part, on the "excessive nature of the so-called ethics checks."
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"If you were designing a system to discourage people from coming into government, you would do it this way," Bolton said.
"That risks building up a priestly class" of government employees, he added.
"It's really depressing to see," Bolton said of the bureaucratic red tape.
Application process 'onerous'
The nomination process is widely considered to be a challenge. One Trump administration nominee who had served in a previous Republican administration told CNN that disclosure forms now require so much detail that they take far longer to complete. This person said it took weeks to finish an application process that they described as onerous.
But Norm Eisen, the chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and former White House special counsel for ethics and government reform in the Obama administration who is now a CNN commentator, dismissed Bolton's complaints as "totally false."
"I know," Eisen told CNN, "because I was in charge of vetting people for these jobs in the Obama administration and there are always more qualified people for these jobs than there are jobs."
Ethics standards for government nominees have been in place since the 1970s and the Ethics in Government Act, said Eisen.
"What we have really, truly seen, to an extraordinary extent, is that Trump himself and his Cabinet have stumbled over these rules," Eisen said, pointing to high-profile departures of Trump Cabinet officials, including former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and the investigations into Zinke along with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who both faced Hatch Act violations.
Ethics issues have dogged the administration, and Zinke is only the latest in a long list of Trump administration officials facing scrutiny about their use of government resources.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been cited by the Office of Government Ethics for failing to divest himself of investments as he was required to do and for acquiring new ones. Ross and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, two of the richest members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet, have been criticized for their lack of transparency about their ongoing investments.
Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Price resigned over ethical lapses and violation of government rules. Shulkin used taxpayer dollars to pay for his wife to accompany him to Europe on a business trip and improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament in London.
Haley, Conway and White House social media director Dan Scavino have all been cited for violations of the loosely enforced Hatch Act, a law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in government-funded political activity.
And then there's Trump. His decision not to divest from his family business or release his tax returns has raised questions about the fact that his extensive use of his own properties funnels millions in taxpayer dollars to the Trump family business.
There are also concerns that it gives foreign governments that book large blocks of rooms in Trump hotels an easy way to curry favor. Trump faces several lawsuits over potential violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which forbids members of the government from accepting payments from foreign governments.
On Wednesday, as Bolton argued that the ethics rules would keep government appointees to a select few, he said the "virtue of American society has been fluidity, flexibility ... to the extent you wall government off from the rest of society," the ethics rules do that.
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