Team Trump Steps Up Intimidation of Government Ethics Officer
Policy + Politics

Team Trump Steps Up Intimidation of Government Ethics Officer

© Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The government ethics officer who last week criticized President-elect Donald Trump for his decision not to divest himself of his assets before taking office is now under fire from both Trump’s transition team and the chairman of a committee in the House of Representatives that could stand in the way of his agency’s legislative reauthorization.

Without presenting any evidence, Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, on Sunday accused Walter Shaub, the head of the Office of Government Ethics, of being ethically compromised himself. Not long afterward House Oversight and Investigations Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) declared that he believes Shaub, in criticizing Trump, has been “unethical.”

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The anger at Shaub arose primarily from remarks he delivered at the Brookings Institution last week, in which he declared Trump’s plan to hand over management of his company to his sons while retaining ownership a “meaningless” gesture that does nothing to ameliorate the conflicts of interest he will face as president. Like many ethics experts, Shaub had said that only total divestiture would insulate Trump from potential accusations of self-dealing.

“It's important to understand that the president is now entering a world of public service. He's going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices,” he said. “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.”

Priebus, in an appearance on ABC’s This Week, sounded a vaguely threatening note, saying, “The head of the government ethics ought to be careful because that person is becoming extremely political. Apparently, may have made a -- publicly supported Hillary Clinton as calling out the president with information on Twitter about our disentangling of the business over a month ago.

“So I'm not so sure what this person at Government Ethics, what sort of standing he has anymore in giving these opinions.”

Related: 4 Ways Trump’s Conflicts of Interest Could Actually Hurt the US

Chaffetz, appearing on the same program, called attention to a series of tweets from the OGE Twitter account from Nov. 30, which Shaub had written. They praised Trump for his “decision” to divest his assets, despite the fact that the president-elect had made no such announcement. Shaub later said that he was trying to nudge Trump in the right direction using “the vernacular of the president-elect’s favorite social media platform.

“My question is about the head of the Office of Government Ethics. Is he acting ethically when he sent out nine tweets praising Donald Trump saying that his plan was brilliant?” Chaffetz asked. “How did he come to that conclusion? And how does he come to his current conclusions having never done an investigation and never looked at the paperwork in the point where he can actually come to a reasonable conclusion? I think that's unethical.”

Chaffetz last week released a letter he had sent Shaub demanding that he present himself to staff members of his committee for a “transcribed interview” and left no doubt that the funding of his agency -- and his job -- would hang on whether or not Chaffetz approved of his answers.

He also said that he was not inclined to request information on Trump’s businesses once he is sworn in. Multiple ethics experts have warned that as both president and owner of the Trump Organization, Trump will immediately be in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars elected officials from accepting payments from foreign governments. Chaffetz said investigating Trump’s ties to foreign governments would be a “fishing expedition.”

Indeed, the emoluments clause is not as black and white as some have alleged. Two different articles by constitutional scholars highlight the ambiguity. A piece in The New York Times by Seth Barrett Tillman argues that the Foreign Gifts Clause in the constitution does not apply to the President. Whether or not Donald Trump is violating the letter or spirit of the emoluments law is argued in The Washington Post by Jonathan H. Adler who says:

“Whether or not one concludes that Trump’s business dealings violate the letter or the spirit of the Emoluments Clause, the underlying controversy is almost certainly non-justiciable. It is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which someone would have standing to challenge Trump’s arrangements and even harder to think what sort of remedy could be ordered by a court. In other words, if there are concerns about how President Trump handles his various investments, the only remedies will be political.”

Related: Trump’s Health Secretary Invested in a Company Linked to the Opioid Epidemic

The pressure being put on Shaub, and the disinterest in Trump’s potential conflicts has infuriated longtime ethics experts.

Ambassador Norman Eisen, the former chief ethics officer for the Obama administration, said, “I think that is terrible. Walt Shaub is a dedicated public servant, has come up through the ranks under both Democrats and Republicans...Walt Shaub is a true ethics hero for speaking out.”

“The Office of Government Ethics has taken the right position on this, one consistent with many Republicans and Democrats,” said Richard Painter, the former chief ethics officer for the George W. Bush administration.

“I believe yes, if he doesn't make sure that all the foreign government payments -- and this includes banks and other corporations owned by foreign governments and sovereign wealth funds, that all of that money is not out of the Trump organization by Friday, when he takes the oath, he will be in violation of the Constitution," Painter said.

Eisen went on to criticize Chaffetz for placing his focus on a bureaucrat rather than the incoming president. “Why is Congressman Chaffetz investigating Walter Shaub for doing his job...for speaking so courageously? It was one of the most extraordinary acts of courage that I've seen from a career public official. Instead of investigating the fact that the president-elect is going to be violating the Constitution?”