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Will President Trump be conflicter-in-chief?

Bill Coffin | January 13, 2017

It has been a busy month for the federal Office of Government Ethics, a small governmental agency not typically thrust into the limelight. But in the earliest days of the Trump administration, it has suddenly come front and center as part of a larger discussion regarding governmental ethics and the divestiture of private business interests before entering public service.

It began on January 2, when Republicans approved a party measure to strip the federal Office of Government Ethics—an independent, non-partisan office meant to prevent conflicts of interest within the federal government—of much of its power. It would be unable to act upon anonymous whistleblowing and would be under control of Congress, essentially putting it under the watch of those it is meant to watch itself. The public backlash to this was swift and severe, and then-President-Elect Trump tweeted his displeasure over the move. The Republicans withdrew it, but that was just the start of things.

The GOP had gone after the OGE presumably because it had been too aggressive in pursuing its mandate, but the OGE would argue that it had only done so because the incoming Trump administration had given it so much to work with. Trump himself had done very little to satisfy even the most basic ethical requirements to remove any potential conflicts of interest between his role as President and his personal business dealings. At Trump’s first press conference following the election, he pointed to a stack of presumed legal documents to show his work at divesting his businesses into a blind trust, but OGE chief Walter Shaub fired back that Trump’s divestiture plan was wholly inadequate, misinformed, and holding itself to a lower set of standards than those already being satisfied by some proposed members of his cabinet.

The OGE, through Shaub, had already criticized what it saw as a rushed confirmation process for Trump’s various cabinet picks, many of whom, by the time of their hearings, had still not fully satisfied rote divestitures to prevent even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

But things heated up on January 11. Following Trump’s first press conference in six months, in which he referred to his business plan to place his business holdings into a blind trust, Shaub responded with prepared remarks that what Trump was proposing was essentially worthless and that he had a lot further to go before he satisfied the expected ethics requirement of an incoming President.

Put simply: Every President for the last four decades followed a pretty standard tradition of disclosure and divestiture that Trump has refused to do. What’s more, there are already fine examples to follow. Shaub pointed to Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, and Trump’s pick for secretary of defense. Tillerson, Shaub noted, had been a perfect example of ethical behavior, making a clean break from his role at Exxon before heading into his confirmation hearing. Tillerson, who is already wealthy, forgave even more wealth to take his role as Defense Secretary, underscoring a point Shaub made repeatedly: This is public service. It is not for personal enrichment. And it often requires sacrifice.

Congressional Republicans responded by summoning Shaub to testify in a closed-door session before House lawmakers, with the possibility of testifying publicly before Congress. Critics have already labeled this as a veiled threat against Shaub and the OGE itself, which is up for Congressional re-authorization in another year. Congress could very easily pull the plug on this, and it’s looking that it might very well do that.

Shaub’s critics note that he is an Obama appointee. Prior to his appointment, he donated to Obama’s re-election campaign ($500), and that he missed opportunities to call out Hillary Clinton when she was acting Secretary of State. Be that as it may, as late as a week before his inauguration, Trump still hadn’t satisfied the most basic of his ethical requirements to assume the Presidency. If anything, he’s doubling down, vowing to bring in members of his family as special advisers, violating clear anti-nepotism lines in the sand.

As Shaub said in his Brookings remarks, ethics matter. Tone from the top matters. Especially when it’s from the very top of Washington.