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Richard Painter: The Ethicist in Chief

Richard Painter

Richard Painter Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Richard Painter’s career sounds like the setup for a joke: What’s the difference between a Republican, a lawyer, and an ethicist?

You’ll have to ask someone else. Painter takes this stuff seriously. Few Americans know it better.

After graduating from Harvard, then Yale law school, Painter practiced corporate law in New York and Connecticut. He moved into education, first at the University of Oregon, then the University of Illinois, and published theories that reimagined how lawyers should think of the profession. In one widely cited paper, Painter put forth the idea of “moral interdependence,” encouraging attorneys to think of themselves as representing not just a CEO, but also “shareholders, lenders, employees, and the community.”

In 2005, he took a job as chief ethics attorney in George W. Bush’s White House, where he counseled appointees and staff on divesting business ties to avoid conflicts of interest. Painter can’t recall an instance when they didn’t take his advice. Though “there were a few situations, like with the [2006] firing of U.S. Attorneys, where I wish somebody had come to me before I had to read about it in the New York Times,” he says. 

In 2007, Painter left to teach the law again, this time at the University of Minnesota, where his wife became a professor of music history. It was from this remove that Painter observed, starting in late 2015, the disturbing reappearance of a figure from his early career.

“Donald Trump’s reputation in the business community was not a good one,” he says.

Painter, a lifelong “moderate Republican,” supported Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio, then John Kasich, and finally Hillary Clinton. In fall 2016, Painter and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) prepared to challenge the corporate and nonprofit ties of a Clinton presidency.

Instead, America got President Donald Trump. And Richard Painter got to work. CREW sued Trump almost immediately, arguing his international hotel business violates the Constitution’s clause against “emoluments,” a fancy word for a simple concept.

“It just means profits and benefits. The Founders did not want people holding United States government positions and making profits off dealings with foreign governments.”

Hearing Painter’s Philadelphia accent, rolling cadence, and the firmness in his voice, one is convinced he just got off a conference call with the Founders themselves.

That lawsuit was dismissed in December—CREW says it will appeal—with a judge ruling that policing Trump’s entanglements is the responsibility of Congress. Painter is pressing his case there, too. He’s told Minnesota Congressmen Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer to their faces that Congress owes Americans more oversight of Trump.

Painter has also presented the evidence to the public, appearing frequently on CNN, MSNBC, and other networks. As a guest, he discusses professional ethics, but also appeals to basic morality. After Trump’s defense of white supremacists at the Charlottesville rally, an impassioned Painter demanded the president remove the “neo-fascists in his White House immediately,” or face impeachment.

So, what is the difference between a Republican, a lawyer, and an ethicist? In Richard Painter’s case, there isn’t one. That’s why he should scare Donald Trump about as much as Trump scares the rest of us.

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.