In Trump's First 100 Days, A Resistance Network Digs In

Apr 25, 2017

Donald Trump won the presidency back in November, but for many liberal organizations, the battle continues. A loose network of lawyers and watchdogs has dug in to scrutinize issues involving the Trump administration's ethics and transparency.

Key topics include: the conflicts between Trump's business interests and his presidential duties; the constitutional questions raised by his foreign profits; and the performance of his appointees, many of whom now run agencies overseeing the industries they themselves came from.

The groups feel their work is essential, given that Trump's Republican Party controls both the House and Senate. So far, Republican lawmakers have made oversight of the executive branch's ethics a low priority. A central figure in the opposition network is Fred Wertheimer, of the research and strategy group Democracy 21. He says: "The common understanding in the watchdog community is that we're going to have to hold the Trump administration responsible, because no one else is going to do it."

Below is a list of some of the most active groups.


ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)

What They're Doing

Filed Freedom of Information Act requests for records on possible conflicts of interest and emoluments (gifts or payments from foreign, state or local governments or officials). Seeking perjury investigation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he failed to disclose meetings with a Russian official during confirmation hearing to be attorney general.

What They Bring

The ACLU brings legal savvy and grass-roots clout to the ethics coalition. But it's busy battling Trump on other fronts as well, such as the travel and refugee bans and deportation of unauthorized immigrants.


American Oversight

What They're Doing

Files FOIA requests at federal agencies so it can monitor their activities. The Audit The Wall project intends to examine plans, contracts and construction of the Southern border wall. With the Environmental Working Group, examining FOIA'd records on EPA administrator's decision to reverse a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos.

What They Bring

A new group of lawyers, including some who worked at agencies in the Obama administration.


Brennan Center For Justice

What They're Doing

Analyzes laws and standards that keep a president or appointee from profiting on the presidency. Research expected to lead to FOIAs, possibly litigation.

What They Bring

Named for progressive Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. and based at NYU Law School, this legal think tank digs into issues ranging from campaign finance and voter ID to mass incarceration in American prisons and the constitutional rights of detainees held at Guantánamo Bay.


Campaign for Accountability

What They're Doing

Petitioned to unseal divorce records of Trump's first nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, who later withdrew. Filed ethics complaint against Republican congressional aides who worked for the Trump transition team.

What They Bring

A small D.C. nonprofit working to "expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life," focusing mainly on state governments.


Campaign Legal Center

What They're Doing

Analyzes and challenges administration actions on ethics, conflict of interest issues; researches long-term solutions.

What They Bring

Legal and advocacy group specializing in ethics and election laws: ballot access, campaign finance, political advertising, voting rights, redistricting and related issues. President is former Federal Election Commission Chair (and Stephen Colbert lawyer) Trevor Potter.


Center for American Progress

What They're Doing

Monitors U.S. enforcement of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which controls overseas conduct of American corporations. Tracks lawmakers' letters to White House concerning ethics issues, and administration responses. Researches and publishes reports on Trump conflicts of interest.

What They Bring

The think tank most closely aligned with the Democratic Party establishment; it has expertise in a vast array of issues from governmental to social, plus media, grass-roots and social media operations.


Center for Media and Democracy

What They're Doing

Litigating to uncover EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's email traffic with energy companies, from his time as Oklahoma attorney general. Examining disclosures of Trump agency appointees for potential ethics concerns.

What They Bring

Progressive watchdog group in Madison, Wis.; used leaked documents in high-profile investigations of Koch political network and corporate legislative group American Legislative Exchange Council.


Common Cause

What They're Doing

Called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign over untruthful answers in his confirmation hearing. Urged Senate to delay confirmation of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, saying he withheld documents revealing corporate influence in his decisions as Oklahoma attorney general.

What They Bring

"Good government" lobbying and grass-roots group with a record reaching back to 1970. Active on voting rights, gerrymandering, other democracy issues. Was a key force in passage of 2002 McCain-Feingold law, other campaign finance and ethics laws.


Constitutional Accountability Center

What They're Doing

Researching U.S. Constitution provisions on foreign and domestic emoluments, to shape legal action by other groups.

What They Bring

Primary mission is to promote progressive "textualist" interpretations of the Constitution, versus conservative "originalism."


CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington)

What They're Doing

One of several hubs of the network. Sued President Trump on his first full workday, alleging that Trump profited by taking payments from foreign diplomats and others at his hotels and golf courses, violating the Constitution's emoluments clause.

What They Bring

If the Trump ethics network has stars, they are CREW's Norm Eisen, former ethics counsel for Obama's White House, and Richard Painter, who did that job under President George W. Bush.


Demand Progress

What They're Doing

Tracking White House activities, including disclosure reports of presidential appointees, nondisclosure of visitor logs, lobbying at Office of Management and Budget.

What They Bring

A digital-democracy group that claims 2 million grass-roots supporters.


Democracy 21

What They're Doing

Another hub of the network. Works with CREW on emoluments. Urged New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate the Trump Organization as a possible conduit of foreign emoluments. In letters to administration officials, lays out arguments to comply with ethics laws — e.g., why Ivanka Trump couldn't do her White House job as a volunteer.

What They Bring

Headed by Fred Wertheimer, one of the progressive movement's leading strategists on ethics and campaign finance laws since the 1980s.


Every Voice

What They're Doing

Uses email, social media to mobilize a large grass-roots base to sign petitions, call lawmakers, go to demonstrations on Trump ethics issues and accountability.

What They Bring

Advocacy group for tougher campaign finance laws, now has branched out to support challenges on Trump ethics. Also active on state issues.


Free Speech For People

What They're Doing

Called on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to revoke the state's corporate charter for the Trump Organization, alleging the company has long engaged in illegal conduct.

What They Bring

FSFP, based in Amherst, Mass., began as a vehicle to fight the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Unlike most groups battling the Trump administration, it explicitly calls for Trump's impeachment.


Government Accountability Project

What They're Doing

"Know Your Rights" campaign aims to raise federal employees' awareness of legal protections against reprisals from superiors, celebrate "the role of truth and truth-telling" and encourage potential possible whistleblowers.

What They Bring

Since 1977, helping governmental and corporate whistleblowers with strategic support and high-profile litigation.


Issue One

What They're Doing

Renewed a push for stronger ethics laws, including more power for the Office of Government Ethics, which oversees compliance with disclosure and conflict of interest laws in the executive branch. Would protect OGE director from being dismissed without cause.

What They Bring

Issue One's primary goal is a reform package that includes more transparency of political money, increased political participation, stronger ethics enforcement. Emphasizes bipartisanship.


People for the American Way

What They're Doing

Looks into possible implications of ethics problems and conflicts of interest. Steers its grass-roots supporters to activities held by allied groups.

What They Bring

Founded in 1981 to counter the emerging religious right; has diversified in its mission while maintaining one of the progressive movement's largest grass-roots networks.


POGO (Project on Government Oversight)

What They're Doing

Another hub. Works with Capitol Hill oversight committees and agency inspectors general and conducts its own investigations. Advises federal employees on legal rights, job protections and whistleblowing. Updating its handbook for federal workers, The Art of Anonymous Activism.

What They Bring

Not your usual Washington nonprofit, POGO works down in the gears of governing. Has ties to Republican and Democratic investigators on Capitol Hill, trains Hill staff in how to do oversight of executive branch. Founded in 1981 as a watchdog on Pentagon spending.


Public Citizen

What They're Doing

Also a hub. Has taken action on White House counselor Kellyanne Conway's violation of ethics rules, presidential adviser Carl Icahn's potential conflicts of interest. Sued Trump over executive order to undo existing regulations. Chronicles corporate influence with website corporatecabinet.org.

What They Bring

The network's most diversified group with its own litigation team, grass-roots network, plus staff experts in the hot-button issues: ethics, financial policy, environment, trade, health care. Founded in 1971 by consumer activist Ralph Nader.


Sunlight Foundation

What They're Doing

Monitors government websites to detect and catalog information that is deleted. Tracks open-government practices and FOIA compliance in Trump administration.

What They Bring

Created in 2006 to increase disclosure of governmental and political records and make government more transparent. Pushed for enactment of FOIA Improvement Act, which establishes a presumption of openness for data.


United To Protect Democracy

What They're Doing

Examines constitutional and legal concerns stemming from White House and agency actions — e.g., legal justification for Syria missile strikes, political hiring for attorney positions in DOJ civil rights division.

What They Bring

New group created by lawyers from the Obama White House.

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