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.