July 6, 2017; Atlantic
In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed Walter M. Shaub, Jr., an attorney specializing in government ethics, to a five-year term as the director of the United States Office of Government Ethics (OGE). This office was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Though OGE can recommend punishment, it has no enforcement mechanism. The five-year term is intended to give the office independence by ensuring directors’ terms overlap presidential administrations. According to its website, the OGE today works with 4,500 ethics officials in more than 130 agencies: “When government decisions are made free from conflicts of interest, the public can have greater confidence in the integrity of executive branch programs and operations.”
President-elect Trump told reporters, editors, and opinion columnists in an interview with the New York Times in November, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Trump subsequently invited Shaub to remain in his position. On Friday, July 6, 2017, Shaub submitted his resignation letter (posted on Twitter), effective July 19, 2017, nearly six months before his term was set to end in January 2018.
On Sunday, July 9th, the White House provided ABC’s This Week with this statement:
Mr. Shaub has been outspoken by leaking, tweeting, and writing letters to Democrat members of Congress, but since the president was sworn into office, he never once raised travel, passive holdings, or other ethics issues involving the President in a single discussion with the White House Counsel or Deputy Counsel overseeing ethics and compliance.
Shaub responded to ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in an interview on This Week saying, “That’s just a ridiculous statement.”
Shaub’s concerns with President-elect Trump were immediate. The OGE sent a number of messages on Twitter urging Mr. Trump to limit obvious conflicts of interest. Shaub delivered this speech at the Brookings Institution on January 11, 2017, regarding his concerns with Trump’s plan to move his assets into a so-called blind trust managed by his sons. NPQ reported on this speech at that time.
I need to talk about ethics today because the plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every President in the past four decades has met. My hope is that, if the Office of Government Ethics can provide some constructive feedback on his plan, he may choose to make adjustments that will resolve his conflicts of interest.
The New York Times reported that on April 28, 2017, Shaub issued a data request to see the ethics waivers given to ex-lobbyists in the executive branch—a request that Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, refused. On May 22nd, Shaub sent Mulvaney, in addition to every federal ethics officer, every inspector general, and the six members of Congress responsible for government oversight, this 10-page response reasserting his legal authority to see the ethics waivers. The White House eventually relented.
One waiver, apparently applying to (without naming him) Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, granted retroactive permission to communicate with news organizations where White House staff might have formally worked. Shaub told the New York Times, “If you need a retroactive waiver, you have violated a rule.”
Since its creation in 1978, the public had hardly any awareness of the Office of Government Ethics. Now, it is full of urgency. Writing for the Atlantic, David Graham described Shaub as “an unlikely heartthrob and hero for some of the president’s critics.”
His face appeared on t-shirts and a Facebook fan group, surely a strange reversal for an office accustomed to toiling in dusty obscurity—and for Shaub, a man so self-effacing and austere that he stripped his office of all decorations.
“I wanted to not be so attached to this office that I’d be afraid to lose it,” he told the New York Times.
In his speech at the Brookings Institution, Shaub spoke about Secretary of State Tillerson forfeiting millions of dollars in bonus payments. “He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost. The greater the authority entrusted in a government official, the greater the potential for conflicts of interest. That’s why the cost is often greater the higher up you go.”
Shaub concluded his speech with a message meant for the president’s ears.
It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.
As we all know, one of the things that make America truly great is its system for preventing public corruption. For a long time now, OGE has helped developing countries set up their own systems for detecting and preventing conflicts of interest. Our executive branch ethics program is considered the gold standard internationally and has served as a model for the world. But that program starts with the Office of the President. The President-elect must show those in government—and those coming into government after his inauguration—that ethics matters.
The OGE’s chief of staff, Shelley K. Finlayson, is expected to assume the role of acting director. Trump could appoint someone else to serve temporarily until he chooses a permanent replacement. In any event, Shaub’s departure is likely to cause anxiety among ethics officials and critics of the president.
Shaub plans to work for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of election law experts, as the director of its ethics program. Here, Shaub will join others in working on ethics reforms at all levels of government.—James Schaffer