Jon Tevlin
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In the past couple of weeks, University of Minnesota law Prof. Richard Painter appeared on umpteen newscasts and in the Huffington Post, ripping the never-ending waste of taxpayer money by Trump administration officials. Then he appeared on a government ethics panel in Austin, Texas.

On his Twitter feed, which has more than 205,000 followers, Painter blasted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for trying to secure a private jet for his honeymoon, called U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions a “hack” who should be fired for obstruction of justice, and suggested that Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services, should be “sent home on the next Greyhound bus” for spending $300,000 on at least 24 trips on private charters.

He also said the storm of ethics violations should result in a “GOP housecleaning” in 2018 that “could save the party,” and he told me Trump should resign.

In other words, it was a pretty typical couple of weeks for Painter, who was George W. Bush’s White House ethics chief and who considers himself a loyal Republican.

You should see how he treats his enemies.

Painter said government ethics has been a rather obscure field for much of his career, so he didn’t foresee ever becoming one of the nation’s go-to experts on the topic. Then Trump became president, and he’s been a busy man ever since.

As a board member and vice chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Painter is part of a lawsuit against Trump, alleging the president is violating the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause by his refusal to sell assets or put them in a blind trust. The group is also seeking access to the guest list at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago to see who is trying to influence him.

Painter has been called a RINO (Republican in name only) many times, but he sees his role as a watchdog on democracy and the once commonly held notion that those who hold the highest offices in the land should not be profiting from their public jobs. Some of that has always happened, he said, but it’s out of control under Trump.

“You can’t just stand by and let this stuff happen,” he said. “We need Republicans in the House and Senate who are willing to uphold the law.”

Painter said he believes a small percentage of the religious right is holding his party hostage by controlling primaries, going after moderate Republicans who “don’t toe the line.”

“They can control one of the two parties,” Painter said. “This is not a good, stable situation.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s aggressive investigation, including a late-night raid of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and the search warrant to obtain Facebook data on Russian ads to assist Trump, shows that the Russia investigation is “obviously not a hoax.”

Painter, who has a history degree from Harvard along with his Yale law degree, is very troubled by Trump’s reckless and angry rhetoric. After Trump’s speech in Alabama last week, Painter took to Twitter.

“Who are these people he’s talking to? Is this happening in Huntsville in 2017 or Nuremberg in 1933?” he wrote.

Asked to predict what will happen to the Trump presidency, Painter said, “I have no idea because Trump is so unpredictable. He could end up pandering to a bunch of people to maintain his power.

“If he tries to fire Mueller it would lead to a major, major uproar.”

Would that be the line that finally pushes his elected party members to act?

“We just don’t know,” Painter said. “Mueller is just kind of circling people now. We will see if he drops the hammer at some point.”

As Painter told the Huffington Post: “There’s obviously collaboration. They’ve got to stop denying that. The only question is whether it was illegal collaboration.

“But the obstruction of justice and the lying ultimately may be what puts an end to this White House. They are in serious trouble on this.”

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702 @jontevlin