A Soft-Spoken Ethics Chief Rips Up the Playbook to Challenge Trump

  • ‘This is truly the situation of the mouse that roared’
  • Walter Shaub goes from seeking compliance to confrontation

Trump to Step Down From Business, Won’t Divest Ownership

Walter Shaub Jr. isn’t known for being outspoken, nor is the agency he leads.

Walter Shaub Jr. Source: U.S. Office of Government Ethics

Walter Shaub Jr. Source: U.S. Office of Government Ethics

That changed Wednesday. Shaub, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, took the unprecedented step of publicly condemning President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to hand over his business empire to a trust run by his two adult sons, calling the move “meaningless.” The agency normally refuses to comment on any individual’s case, let alone that of an incoming president.

“This is truly the situation of the mouse that roared,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at Issue One, a group that seeks to limit the impact of large donors on politicians. “Here is this civil servant who takes his position seriously and sees the president-elect failing to sit down and take his seriously.”

Shaub, who’s described by people who have dealt with him as professorial and soft-spoken, first thrust his low-profile agency into public attention in late November. In a series of Twitter postings, he prematurely -- and incorrectly -- congratulated Trump for agreeing to divest. “Brilliant! Divestiture is good for you, good for America!” read one of the postings -- all of which misinterpreted a Trump statement that, as president, he’d have no conflicts of interest.

Now, in confronting the president-elect -- and raising concerns about the complicated financial-disclosure requirements surrounding his cabinet appointees -- Shaub has stepped into the limelight, and perhaps into political controversy. OGE declined to comment, and phone calls to Shaub weren’t returned.

Shaub has spent roughly 13 years at OGE and was appointed to a five-year term as the agency’s director by President Barack Obama in 2013. In keeping with the office’s reclusive reputation, Shaub generally carries out OGE’s work behind the scenes. For example, he doesn’t speak at conferences. Those who have worked with him say he’s methodical, collegial and accommodating, and that he’s someone who tries to reach palatable solutions in negotiations over ethics agreements.

“The office has a compliance mentality: ‘We’re not going to investigate anything, we’re not going to push the envelope,”’ said McGehee, who in the past has pushed OGE to review allegations of conflicts of interest among high-ranking U.S. officials.

Trump’s announcement Wednesday that he would retain his ownership interest in more than 500 companies with $3.6 billion in assets that reach into more than 20 countries stirred Shaub to push the envelope farther than any director of the agency ever has, perhaps reluctantly.

“I wish circumstances were different and I didn’t feel the need to make public remarks today,” Shaub said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution, just hours after Trump had made his plan public. “We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for personal profits.”

And in contrast to his November tweet-storm, Shaub’s remarks on Wednesday were anything but laudatory. He called Trump’s plan to merely step down from leading his companies while retaining his ownership interests “meaningless from a conflicts-of-interest perspective.”

Criticizing Trump is a gamble for Shaub. The OGE director serves at the pleasure of the president, and if Trump decides he wants a new one, it would be his prerogative to install one. Norm Eisen, Obama’s first ethics counsel and a vocal critic of Trump’s plan, called Shaub’s remarks “the bravest act” he’d seen in 25 years of watching public servants.

“Walter Shaub is really sticking his neck out,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the liberal good government group Public Citizen. “He realizes he serves at the pleasure of the president, but he’s really trying to get Trump to comply with ethics rules.”

Political pressure on Shaub is already taking shape. Scott Sloofman, rapid response director at America Rising, a for-profit company set up to do opposition research on Democrats, said his group has already filed government-information requests, seeking any correspondence between Shaub and Democratic senators.

“The American people deserve to know if Walter Shaub has turned the ethics office into an arm of the Senate Democrats’ Campaign of Obstruction," Sloofman said.

Shaub drew that fire after responding to an inquiry from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren by saying that his office was overwhelmed by the task of sorting through the complex assets of some of Trump’s cabinet appointees. “This schedule has created undue pressure” on the office “to rush through these important reviews,” Shaub wrote.

Schumer made Shaub’s letter public -- and then accused Senate Republicans of trying to “jam through unvetted nominees.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell initially responded that he didn’t plan to slow down the schedule for confirmation hearings. Subsequently, however, Senate committees postponed scheduled hearings for billionaire Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for commerce secretary; for Betsy DeVos, his pick for education secretary; and for Andrew Puzder, his pick for labor secretary. As of Thursday morning, OGE had yet to post required ethics agreements for any of the three.

In his remarks about Trump, Shaub cited as a model the ethics agreement reached with Rex Tillerson, who severed his ties with Exxon Mobil Corp., where he had been chairman and chief executive officer, to pursue his nomination as Trump’s secretary of state.

“The plan the president has announced doesn’t meet the standard that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met,” Shaub said.

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