Exiting Ethics Chief Walter Shaub Calls Trump White House 'A Disappointment'

Jul 7, 2017
Originally published on July 7, 2017 8:18 pm

Walter Shaub Jr., outgoing director of the Office of Government Ethics, says there's a new normal for ethics in the Trump administration.

"Even when we're not talking strictly about violations, we're talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now," Shaub told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

Shaub, who had been OGE director since 2013, resigned Thursday, effective later this month. A White House spokeswoman said, "The White House accepts Mr. Shaub's resignation and appreciates his service. The President will be nominating a successor in short order."

OGE chief of staff Shelley Finlayson will serve as acting director when Shaub leaves, the agency said. Trump's nominee for permanent director will require Senate confirmation.

Shaub's advice for the White House: "Pick somebody who's got experience in the government ethics program, who's shown respect for the ethical norms and traditions, and is independent, and not someone who's going to be a partisan who will simply agree with everything they do."

Defenders of federal ethics standards say OGE, and the ethics laws themselves, may be at a turning point.

"Previous administrations have sort of cared a lot about trying to do something about a violation of those conflicts of interest standards, and we have an administration now that honestly doesn't care," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, or POGO.

She said she used to assume existing laws were "good enough" in revealing whether a president had conflicts of interest, but added: "It turns out that the laws don't do that. And Shaub I think made a valiant effort in trying to at least let the public understand what it is that we actually don't know."

Shaub expressed concerns, too. He said the strong ethics policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama "proved that ethics is not a partisan issue."

His word for the Trump administration: disappointment.

"I can only describe my experience with the way they've run their ethics program in the White House right now as one of disappointment," he told NPR, citing especially the ethics waivers for White House staffers. "That's just no way to run an ethics program."

OGE, with just 70 employees under Shaub's leadership, faced off with the administration repeatedly over the past eight months. Shaub failed to make President Trump divest himself of his business interests — a move taken by most recent presidents, even though the chief executive is not covered by conflict-of-interest law.

But Shaub and his staff did negotiate tough divestiture agreements with several Cabinet appointees, plus Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. A bureaucratic maneuver by OGE compelled the White House to disclose the ethics waivers given to White House aides to circumvent conflict-of-interest restrictions.

"OGE held the president accountable, and I think Walt gets a lot of credit for that," said Norm Eisen, former ethics counsel in the Obama administration.

Eisen is now among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that Trump has violated the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, a provision that bars federal officials from accepting gifts or payments from foreign officials.

When Shaub leaves OGE later this month, he moves immediately to the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit legal group that works on redistricting, voting rights, campaign finance and similar issues. Shaub will lead an ethics practice.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week, the director of the Office of Government Ethics resigned. Walter Shaub Jr., who has tangled with the Trump administration over potential conflicts of interest, said, there isn't more I could accomplish. And he took a job with the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. He joins us now. Mr. Shaub, welcome to the program.

WALTER SHAUB JR.: Thank you.

SIEGEL: When you say there isn't more you could accomplish, do you mean you've gained as much compliance with ethics rules as the law guarantees, or the Trump administration just won't comply with the law no matter what you do?

SHAUB JR.: I've made as much of a difference as I can in this job. I don't think there's more that I can do. And I've done what I can to call attention to the things that concern me...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SHAUB JR.: ...And have used the only resource available to me, which is to just be very public about those concerns.

SIEGEL: Do you wish you could do more?

SHAUB JR.: Yeah, I do, and I think the laws need to be changed, to be strengthened.

SIEGEL: Is Donald Trump or his family profiting from his position as president?

SHAUB JR.: Well, I think the real problem is that there's no way to know. There's no way to know what decisions he's making. Are they motivated by his own financial interests? Are they motivated by his policy goals? And in the past, presidents have resolved conflicts of interest by getting rid of their assets. The mere fact that he holds them means there's a question mark over almost everything he does, including the decision to frequently go to his own properties, which gives them free advertisements. So...

SIEGEL: You would find those visits violations of government ethics.

SHAUB JR.: No, and this is sort of a nuanced point that I need to make, and that's that the laws don't apply to the president. The decision by Congress to exclude the president from the primary conflict of interest law was one of necessity because we can't have the president recusing, not participating in matters where we need a president to participate.

But it wasn't a decision that the president's above the law and shouldn't do the same things that the people who work for him have to do. It's a decision of pragmatic necessity. We need him available. And all of our past presidents for the past four decades have understood that it's not a free pass, that it's a matter of necessity. And so they need to do what they can to act as though the laws apply.

SIEGEL: The General Services Administration ruled that Donald Trump's stake in a hotel that's a few blocks from the White House did not violate a lease that expressly excludes elected officials. Did the GSA in that case fail to enforce an obvious ethics violation?

SHAUB JR.: So I am not an expert in government contracting law. To me, I think the language is concerning. It says an elected official shall not partake in the contract. What my point is, though, is we wouldn't even have to be asking that question if he had divested his interest in that hotel.

SIEGEL: Yeah, yeah. But it's a reminder as well that the office you directed, the Office of Government Ethics, has a fairly narrow - pretty narrow brief. That is, a case like that, we don't go to your office to appeal the decision of the General Services Administration.

SHAUB JR.: That's right. We don't have enforcement power. One of the features of the existing ethics program that has worked for the past four decades - and I don't believe it's working now - is that there's a compliance structure where we have a limited set of rules that set the bare minimum. And if you violate them, you're either a rule violator or a criminal depending on the nature of the rule you violated.

But we ought to be able to hold government officials to a higher standard than saying, well, at least they're not criminals. And in that vein, the ethics program has always had a set of traditions and norms as to what people are going to do even when we're not talking strictly about violations. We're talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now.

SIEGEL: Well, given that you had experience with the George W. Bush administration and then the Obama administration when you became director, is the behavior of this White House dramatically different from those two White Houses?

SHAUB JR.: I have only good things to say about the ethics program that President Bush ran as well as the ethics program that President Obama ran in the past two administrations. Both were incredibly supportive of the ethics program, and they proved that ethics is not a partisan issue.

I can only describe my experience with the way they've run their ethics program in the White House right now as one of disappointment, which pretty much reached its peak when I finally got my hands on the waivers they've been issuing and discovered that they were unsigned, undated. One was explicitly retroactive. Most of the rest of the ones are implicitly retroactive. And that's just no way to run an ethics program.

SIEGEL: I mean these are waivers to presidential appointees saying, you don't have to file, or you don't have to comply with ethics rules.

SHAUB JR.: Not file but comply, yes.

SIEGEL: Comply - when Donald Trump was elected, you famously unfurnished your office, ready to vacate it at a moment's notice. Did you ever feel deterred by the threat of being dismissed?

SHAUB JR.: No. And in fact the reason I took things out of my office was to remind myself not to be attached to that office and not to be afraid to take stands that I needed to take.

SIEGEL: Walter Shaub, outgoing director of the Office of Government Ethics, thanks for talking with us.

SHAUB JR.: Thanks. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.