Photograph by Caitlin Abrams
Richard W. Painter
What’s a conservative, these days? A few years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a more conservative conservative than Richard W. Painter. He was George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, teaches classes such as “Federal Securities Regulation” at the University of Minnesota, and writes books with titles like Better Bankers, Better Banks: Promoting Good Business through Contractual Commitment. In the evenings he walks his labradoodle, Goalie, through the streets near his suburban home in Mendota Heights, and he ferries his kids to soccer, basketball, and music lessons, before returning home to his wife of 30 years. Conservative, right?
Not this year. Today, Painter’s Twitter feed floods with critics calling him a RINO (Republican in name only) and far, far worse. That’s because he’s suing President Donald Trump for ethics violations, and he’s not shy about explaining why—doing so frequently on CNN and PBS NewsHour, and in The New York Times, The Hill, and other publications. At the core of Painter’s lawsuit is Trump’s refusal to completely withdraw from his business empire, which puts him in violation of the “emoluments clause” that forbids a president from receiving money or gifts from any foreign government or entity controlled by a foreign government. Why bring ethics into a world that seems to have thrown the usual norms out with the baby, the bathwater, and the whole baby bathtub? Because, says Painter, you either defend ethics or you invite disaster.
I meet Painter for coffee one morning between a television appearance and a business lecture. He wears the glove-thin leather shoes and silk club tie of a well-bred gentleman, and speaks in the sort of seamless arguments that make you feel like the republic could be saved—even though his warnings were dire.
“With Trump’s people, some are willing to sell what they need to sell [to avoid conflicts], some are not. appearances count, not just the letter of the law.” —Richard W. Painter
Painter first learned of the disaster-bringing side of unethical behavior when he was a boy visiting his beloved grandfather in New York City. During the trip, his grandfather, who had been a partner at the venerable New York brokerage Salomon Brothers, explained the engine of business to young Painter: You tried to support your partners, your clients, and your customers, and you made your money on your good reputation. It was never about making lots of money. But after Reagan-era deregulation in the 1980s, [Salomon] went from a partnership to a corporation. “All of a sudden it was a greed-is-good, everybody-in-it-for-themselves place,” says Painter, whose grandpa retired long before this transformation took place and viewed the change as a serious ethics problem.
After inspiring Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a scandal-ridden Salomon Brothers flamed out and eventually merged into Citigroup. “Once you turned them into public corporations instead of partnerships, they’re all just playing for their bonus,” explains Painter. “They don’t own the firm anymore, so if they go bust, who ends up paying? They aren’t personally liable, like they were in the old days.”
While attending Yale Law School, Painter discovered the diary of an ancestor of his, the Revolutionary War–era senator William Maclay, who served as a Pennsylvania senator from 1789 to 1791. In that diary Maclay worried about the conflicts of interest inherent in that first version of American governance, and was particularly disturbed by the unethical decisions made by slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. “They were using slave labor on these massive plantations,” says Painter. “It was a serious problem. The entire economy of half of our country was driven by slavery, which was about race but also about financial conflict of interest.”
Could we have avoided the hundreds of thousands of Civil War casualties and all of the racial injustices of the years since if we’d been more vigilant about ethics and conflicts of interest from the get-go? That’s an unanswerable question, of course, but Painter is not going to let the country lose sight of the dire price conflicts of interest impose. He explains that the reason we have the emoluments clause is because “you could have just had England say, ‘OK, we didn’t win the Revolutionary War, but we’ll just make sure Washington, or whoever’s the president, gets a lot of money, and he’ll end up being like the duke of the United States.’”
Is Trump like the duke of the United States, driven by profits and not the interest of the citizens? “With Trump’s people, some are willing to sell what they need to sell [to avoid conflicts], some are not. Appearances count, not just the letter of the law.” Painter’s lawsuit—filed with the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (of which he’s vice chairman)—may not succeed. One of the big questions is whether the group specifically suffered injury if Trump indeed violated the emoluments clause. If they succeed, it would make history—Trump could be impeached or ordered to detach from his businesses. If they don’t succeed they’ll try to bring other legal challenges to the many conflicts they see in Trump’s White House.
Through it all, Painter will continue his conservative Minnesota life. “We love it here,” says Painter of his home of the past 10 years, adding that it allows him to follow his own path. “People want to be themselves here a little more than in other parts of the country.” Being a conservative conservative may be a lonely pursuit these days, but it just might be a little easier in Minnesota.