Ethics Chief's Early Departure Lets Trump Name Own Watchdog

  • Shaub called Trump’s conflict-of-interest plan ‘meaningless’
  • OGE director to join Washington money-and-politics group

Walter Shaub, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, arrives for a meeting on Capitol Hill in January.

Photographer: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Walter Shaub, the director of the federal ethics agency who challenged President Donald Trump over his plans for dealing with potential conflicts of interest, said Thursday that he will step down this month.

Shaub’s resignation from the Office of Government Ethics comes about six months before his term is set to expire in January. It sets the stage for Trump to name Shaub’s successor to a five-year term, subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Ethics specialists said that Shaub’s departure could weaken the agency, which establishes standards of conduct for executive-branch workers.

"His resignation places the integrity of the OGE in doubt," Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at public-interest group Public Citizen, said in a statement. "This is yet another chance for Trump to fulfill his pledge to drain the swamp, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we have very little confidence that he will do so."

Shaub said in a news release that he would be joining the staff of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based group that advocates for stronger campaign finance disclosure laws and expanded voting rights. The resignation will be effective July 19, he said in a letter to Trump.

“In working with the current administration, it has become clear to me that we need improvements to the existing ethics program,” Shaub said in a CLC news release. He said he looks forward to “working on ethics reforms at all levels of government” in his new position.

Shortly before Trump took office, Shaub had called his plan for addressing potential business conflicts “meaningless.” Unlike predecessors, Trump has retained his ownership interest in his businesses and is not using a blind trust. His assets are held by a trust that is managed by family members and a longtime employee.

Trump will nominate a successor "in short order," White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Thursday. OGE didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on who would helm the agency after Shaub’s departure.

‘Made Miserable’

"It’s a big hit for democracy to have one of the only effective watchdogs of the Trump administration’s ethics within government now leaving," said Paul S. Ryan, a vice president at the public-interest group Common Cause.

"My perspective is that his professional life has been made miserable by the Trump administration," said Ryan. "I have little faith that his replacement will do as good a job as he has done against all odds."

Shaub has spent about 13 years at OGE and was appointed as the agency’s director by then-President Barack Obama in 2013. Described by some associates as a quiet bureaucrat, he broke from the the agency’s typical protocols when he began taking public stances before Trump had even been sworn in.

On Nov. 30, when Trump said on Twitter that he would exit his business operations without specifying whether he would maintain ownership, Shaub replied with congratulations through the official OGE Twitter account for what he seemed to conclude was a full divestiture.

‘Draining the Swamp’

Shaub pushed the administration on what he viewed as pressure to rush conflict-of-interest reviews of the complex financial portfolios held by some Cabinet officials, improper praise for Ivanka Trump’s business by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, work by lobbyists in the administration and concerns about ethics enforcement at the White House.

Shaub’s work sometimes rankled the administration and his actions often brought him into a charged political arena despite what was supposed to be the non-partisan nature of his work.

His request for documentation of waivers for lobbyists working in the administration, for instance, prompted Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to ask Shaub to stop the probe, a request Shaub denied.

Democratic members of Congress, frustrated by limited investigative powers as the minority party, frequently tried to lean on Shaub to question the administration over ethics. At one point, a for-profit company set up to do opposition research on Democrats also told Bloomberg it was seeking details on Shaub’s correspondence with Congress to see if he had politicized his role.

Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, on Thursday called for the Republican chairman of the panel to invite Shaub’s testimony on "the lessons he has learned while leading OGE, including the need to implement substantive reforms to ensure government officials can never put private gain above the public that they serve."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats will thoroughly examine Trump’s nominee to head the ethics agency.

“The next director of the Office of Government Ethics must demonstrate that they are committed to actually draining the swamp and ensuring administration officials are not using their positions for personal gain,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in an emailed statement.

— With assistance by Jennifer Epstein

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