A Fight Over Ethics in the Age of Trump

Republican Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight Committee, has taken aim at a federal watchdog.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

The 2016 presidential election and its aftermath have highlighted the extent to which a deeply divided American public interprets events and information through a partisan lens. After all, Oxford Dictionaries even picked “post-truth” as its Word of the Year. Under Donald Trump’s administration, even basic ethical standards in government appear poised to become a subject of political controversy.

On Wednesday, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, an independent agency, publicly denounced Trump’s plans to turn control of his business empire over to his sons—a plan that a lawyer working for Trump characterized as the best approach “from a conflicts and ethics perspective.” By contrast, Walter Shaub, the federal ethics chief, declared the president-elect’s strategy effectively “meaningless” as a proposal to prevent conflicts of interest.

It wasn’t the first time the OGE director had weighed in on the transition process for the incoming presidential administration. He had previously expressed concern over the pace of confirmation hearings for Cabinet nominees who had not yet finished an ethics review process. In November, the office’s Twitter account sent out a series of seemingly inscrutable tweets about Trump’s “total divestiture” from his business assets, which the president-elect hadn’t announced he had done.

Now, Republicans seem to be targeting the ethics watchdog. The New York Times obtained and published a letter sent by Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, to Shaub. Dated Thursday, it warns that the “agency’s mission is to provide clear ethics guidance, not engage in public relations.” Chaffetz requested that Shaub appear “for a transcribed interview with committee staff as soon as possible,” so that the committee can better “understand how you perceive OGE’s role, among other things.” Politico reported on Thursday that Chaffetz “threatened to subpoena” Shaub “if he refuses to participate in an official interview.” (A spokesperson for the committee did not reply to a request for comment and confirmation of the letter’s authenticity. OGE spokespeople also did not return calls asking for comment.)

Democrats quickly condemned the action. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Friday called the episode “outrageous” and accused Chaffetz of “seeking to intimidate a senior executive-branch official.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had harsh words as well: “Mr. Chaffetz’s attempt to bully Mr. Shaub out of doing his job are absolutely despicable.”

But Chaffetz’s apparent instinct to criticize OGE isn’t his alone. America Rising, an opposition-research group that works against Democrats, has raised questions about Shaub’s competence. “In the last few weeks, Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, has not been quiet in his criticism of the incoming administration,” a post on the group’s website reads. “Unsurprisingly, Shaub’s comments have been used by congressional Democrats to try and score points.”

Concerns over Trump’s potential conflicts of interest are not wholly a partisan squabble, though they may be starting to appear that way. The key ethical concerns raised by the OGE director have been echoed by many ethics experts, including George W. Bush’s former chief ethics lawyer Richard Painter. Following Trump’s announcement that he will turn over his company to his sons, Painter released a joint statement along with Norman Eisen, the former ethics czar under President Obama, saying that Trump’s announced conflict-of-interest plan “falls short in every respect.”

Yet the more that Trump’s allies can paint ethical concern over the incoming administration's actions as partisan, the easier it will be for Trump and his supporters to discredit criticism the president-elect faces as solely motivated by political calculation. That puts ethics experts in a seemingly impossible bind as they try to make sure their concerns are heard: the more they speak out, the more Trump loyalists will rush to criticize them as partisan actors. That, in turn, could have a long-term detrimental impact on the perceived credibility of ethics experts.

This challenge does not seem to be lost on the ethics experts attempting to sound the alarm over Trump’s potential conflicts of interest as president. “I hope that President-elect Trump, soon to become President Trump, refuses to support public attacks on the Office of Government Ethics or its director,” Painter said on Wednesday at a Brookings Institution forum. “We are not going to, in this country, tolerate the dismantling of independent ethics agencies.” He added: “Those that are attacking the Office of Congressional Ethics or the Office of Government Ethics should be ashamed of themselves, and have no place in our democracy.” Painter was in part referencing an attempt by House Republicans to gut the independent and nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics behind closed doors earlier this month, a plan lawmakers backed away from amid public backlash.

Trump was part of that public backlash. “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority,” the president-elect tweeted in January. Crucially, though, Trump didn’t actually protest efforts to gut the office on the merits—he only protested lawmakers’ timing. When it comes to the OCE, Trump didn’t have much at stake given that the office acts as a congressional watchdog. By contrast, the Office of Government Ethics conducts oversight of the executive branch. There’s little reason to think Trump would criticize his fellow Republicans for targeting the watchdog that’s watching him.