Which is why Trump reacted to House Republicans’ attempted takeover of the ethics enforcement process with a critique, though not a condemnation. Facing a fierce backlash, House leaders abruptly withdrew the changes on Tuesday. But they could likely reappear in a different form later this year, making the question of Trump's stance still relevant.
The president-elect offered his tweak via a pair of tweets, saying Congress should focus on things other than “the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it ... may be.”
“Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!” Trump suggested, adding the hashtag #DTS -- “drain the swamp.”
The surprise move to try to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics would have undone a central feature of the reforms put in place after the Abramoff era of GOP control ending in prison sentences and a loss of the majority. House members, via the Ethics Committee, would have had once again complete control over scrutinizing their colleagues, with the independent office no longer able to take whistleblower complaints or even communicate its findings with the public.
Trump took a stand against that move on Twitter -- sort of. He left unsaid whether he thought the proposed changes were a good idea, leaving open the possibility that he’s siding with members of House GOP leadership, who objected more to the timing than the substance.
“I didn't think it was the right time to do it,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, said on Tuesday. “I thought we should take it by itself in a bipartisan manner. People on both sides [of the political aisle] support the reform.”
Earlier in the day, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway signaled a general agreement with that sentiment. She said on “Good Morning America” that there would still be ethics oversight with the proposed changes, and also that “there’s also been an overzealousness in some of the processes over the years.”
“We don’t want people wrongly accused,” Conway said.
The accusations were aimed at the rank-and-file Republicans who insisted that watering down their own ethics rules was a pressing matter for the start of the Congress.
The president-elect chose this issue to break the uneasy peace that’s prevailed inside his party since his election. But Trump did so tentatively and gently -- two words seldom associated with his style -- and thus offered only hints of the potential schisms to come.