Until Donald Trump’s election as president, the Office of Government Ethics had been a fairly obscure agency that supervised conflict of interest standards within the federal government. It is no longer fairly obscure, and when its director resigns, as Walter M. Shaub Jr., did last week, it is cause for major concern.
Shaub, 46, has sparred ceaselessly, but politely, with Trump about his casual disregard of ethical standards. His letter of resignation was polite but pointed, as he praised government ethics officers as “committed to protecting the principle that public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain.” He could have said outright that the president is setting an awful example for the nation; that ethical behavior is not a partisan issue; and that the public has every right to know whose interests their government officials are serving. Shaub could have said that the president, with his Republican enablers in the congressional leadership, has ushered in a disturbing new norm in ethical standards.
Trump’s brazen disregard of standards adhered to by every president in memory — and Congress’ unwillingness to call him out on it — is a national disgrace.
On Friday last week, Shaub was a little more forthcoming about his reasons for resigning. “Even when we’re not talking strictly about violations, we’re talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now,” he told National Public Radio. On Sunday, he said on ABC, “I really always thought that the ethics rules were strong enough to protect the integrity of the government’s operations. My recent experiences have convinced me that they need strengthening.”
The Office of Government Ethics was created in 1978, in the post-Watergate era when Congress was scrambling to assure the public that not everyone in Washington shared the Nixon administration’s ethics. Unfortunately, it was given no enforcement powers. Its job is merely to advise government officials on how to comply with existing ethics policies and communicate to the public how those policies are being followed. Public complaints, calls and inquiries increased by more than 5,000 percent after Trump’s election.
His refusal to divest his business assets — as his own Cabinet members had to do — was particularly galling. Daily he violates the Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause” as foreign governments do business with Trump entities.
“I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States of America,” Shaub said in January.
It now falls to Trump to name Shaub’s successor. Trump can do himself and the country a favor by naming a true watchdog. Unfortunately, the smart money is on a lapdog.