GOP senator who defended Giuliani's 'shadow foreign policy' will chair ethics committee

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Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) will reportedly replace the current chair, who is resigning from Congress at the end of the month.  

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) has reportedly been tapped to become the new chair of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics next month. The committee's primary role is to investigate allegations of misconduct by senators and senate employees and to recommend disciplinary action.

Lankford was selected by Republicans after staunchly defending Donald Trump and those around him, even as their ethical scandals have mounted. Recently, Lankford dismissed concerns about Trump's personal lawyer and "de facto Secretary of State" Rudy Giuliani.

"Part of the challenge is not a shadow foreign policy. It is doing political work for the president, as well as legal work. Obviously, Rudy Giuliani has been very engaged, trying to defend the president on all these accusations with Russia," he told WBUR's On Point in late September.

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Lankford also minimized Trump's effort to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on political opponents, falsely claiming that Zelenskiy was "actually the one who brought the issue up — about Rudy Giuliani, and about the Hunter Biden topic — up to President Trump, first. And, then, President Trump actually responded back to him." The call summary released by the White House shows it was Trump who brought up the Bidens and Crowdstrike.

In January, he excused former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort — who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and was convicted of financial fraud charges in 2018 — for having shared information a Russian associate. "This is an ongoing relationship that Paul Manafort had with Ukraine," he argued. "He was a representative of Ukraine, worked for the Ukrainian government, and was trying to be able to work for a peace proposal." One of the charges against Manafort was that he failed to register as a Ukrainian foreign agent.

In May 2018, when it came out that Donald Trump Jr. and others from the 2016 Trump campaign had taken a meeting with Russian operatives offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, Lankford quickly tried to explain it away, telling Fox News that it was just "a rabbit hole."

"I know Democrats are trying to be able to make something of this," he said. "They're constantly trying to ... say there must be something here that we can stir up, or at least just create an accusation that has the appearance of it."

And when Trump's then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's abuse of power scandal became public in early 2018, Lankford loyally defended his fellow Oklahoman and said he should not resign from his position. Asked about Pruitt's sweetheart rental deal that let him pay just $50 per night to stay in a lobbyist's Washington condo (less than half of what it costs the District of Columbia to house homeless people each night), Lankford argued that it "would seem normal for most Oklahomans to say, 'If I know somebody in town, I'm trying to get a place, and in the meantime to be able to stay there.' Now, there's all kinds of challenges about it and it becomes a big issue... In a normal world, this would seem very normal. But in a political world, everything gets dialed up, as far as the volume."

Watchdog groups are expressing concerns about the selection. "The Senate Ethics committee has a powerful responsibility to ensure the Senate works in the best interests of the American people," Molly Claflin, chief oversight counsel at American Oversight, a nonprofit group monitoring misconduct from the Trump administration, said in an email. "The American people deserve to have confidence that their representatives are working for them — and not for special interests or personal gain."

Daniel Stevens, executive director for the nonpartisan Campaign for Accountability, said in a phone interview that Lankford is unlikely to improve an already problematic committee. "The Senate Ethics Committee isn't exactly an active body," he observed. "For many years, lots of us in the watchdog community have been complaining there's a lack of accountability. If they're gonna appoint someone who isn't interested in ethics, that's more of the same."

He pointed to the House of Representatives, which created an independent Office of Congressional Ethics to review ethics allegations, saying "maybe [Lankford's appointment] is a good indication why the Senate needs a similar body, so that complaints can be taken seriously and investigated."

According to its own report from 2018, the select committee has not taken much action in recent years. Of the 138 allegations the committee received, just 16 were deemed to merit a preliminary inquiry and just one resulted in a letter of admonition. None resulted in disciplinary sanction. The last time the committee recommended expulsion of a senator was then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) in 1995.

Lankford's selection will need to be officially approved by the Senate Republican Conference, reportedly set to happen next week.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who has chaired the panel since 2015, is resigning from Congress at the end of December due to "mounting health problems" stemming from Parkinson's disease.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Updated on 12/12/19.