Painter hasn’t followed the usual trajectory of a political candidate: He began his career as a New York-based attorney, entered the world of academia in 2002, and later joined the George W. Bush administration as chief White House ethics lawyer. Like many Americans who’ve found their political calling in the last year, Painter was essentially radicalized by the president: He transformed from a low-profile arbiter of obscure government-ethics issues into a sharp-tongued political activist with a fairly large microphone.
Since the 2016 election season, Painter has been a go-to Republican critic for many media outlets in need of an anti-Trump voice. His criticism has focused mainly on Trump’s conflicts of interest stemming from his family business. For example, Painter co-authored a column with fellow ethics lawyer Norm Eisen back in September 2016 listing six reasons why a Trump presidency would be “ethically compromised.” The two men followed up with an article blasting Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, and another in The Atlantic explaining why Trump’s ascension to the presidency would violate the Constitution’s foreign-emoluments clause. In recent weeks, Painter weighed in on the ethical implications of the Trump sons’ travels, and commented on reports that Trump’s personal lawyer paid off a porn star to keep quiet about an alleged affair.
Painter and Eisen, who was chief ethics lawyer in the Obama administration, are now board chairs at the nonprofit government-watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed multiple lawsuits against Trump in early 2017 for failing to place his assets in a blind trust. (One lawsuit was dismissed in December for lack of standing; CREW is appealing the decision.)* According to E&E News, as a leader of CREW, Painter is “at the center of more than 180 legal challenges” against Trump and his administration.
Painter told me he doesn’t know yet if he’ll run for the GOP nomination for Senate or as an independent. Either way, he suggested, his party is in need of a substantial overhaul. “It’s been several decades that we’ve had erosion of what I’ve called the traditional Republican values of self-government: responsible government, efficient government, budgetary responsibility, and a commitment to racial equality and environmental conservation,” he explained.
“I don’t want to blame Trump for all our difficulties in government,” he added. “But he certainly hasn’t made the situation better.”
Painter could potentially have difficulty appealing to Republican primary voters in Minnesota, where Trump earned nearly 45 percent of the vote in 2016, only 2 percent less than Hillary Clinton. A representative for the Minnesota GOP said it hadn’t been in contact with Painter, but noted that “if he’s looking to run as a Republican, we would be more than happy to welcome him.” A spokesman for Karin Housley, the only Republican candidate to have formally announced a primary run for the seat, said in a statement that Housley, too, welcomes a new opponent.
Painter told me he believes voters could look beyond party affiliation in this election, which could make a run as an independent less risky. “I think the wave everyone should expect is the wave of voters who want to restore integrity in government,” he explained. “I don’t think that is a cause identified with any particular party.”