Ethics chief thrust into spotlight by Trump battle

Ethics chief thrust into spotlight by Trump battle

Walter Shaub Jr. never expected to find himself in this position. 

The top government ethics watchdog was just another obscure Washington bureaucrat until six weeks ago, when he entered into an explosive public fight over President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE's business conflicts.  

That battle escalated on Wednesday when Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), offered an unusually blunt critique of Trump’s plan to separate himself from his business empire as president.

Shaub dismissed Trump’s decision to hand control of his businesses to his two adult sons as “meaningless” in eliminating possible conflicts. 

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The move broke with the agency’s longstanding practice of not commenting on its talks with public officials. 

“Walt tried and tried and once the plan was announced, he had no choice but to speak out publicly,” said Norm Eisen, President Obama’s former White House ethics czar. “Our government is made of up quiet heroes. These are like the citizen soldiers of World War II and to me, Walt is an ethics hero.” 

Democrats and Republicans in the close-knit world of government ethics describe Shaub as a wonk who has worked well with officials of both political parties. He was also content staying behind the scenes, they say.

"It's not his M.O. to be noticed, which is why these past couple of weeks — I don't think he's relished," said Stephanie Martz, who worked with Shaub while she served in the White House counsel’s office under Obama. 

People who have worked with Shaub were surprised when the buttoned-down OGE issued a string of strangely worded tweets in late November praising Trump for deciding to divest in his businesses, even though he had not announced such a step.  

"Brilliant! Divestiture is good for you, very good for America!" read one of the tweets.

Emails later obtained by media organizations showed Shaub himself was responsible for the tweet storm. 

The director’s decision to go public and confront the president-elect has come with a price, sparking accusations of political bias.

Trump's incoming White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, on Sunday issued a warning to Shaub to “be careful.”

"The head of the government ethics ought to be careful, because that person is becoming extremely political," Priebus said on ABC's "This Week."

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

The OGE did not respond to multiple interview requests for Shaub. 

The Virginia native first joined the office in 2006, working his way up to deputy general counsel two years later and then director. 

The OGE was created by the post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act of 1978 and is tasked with preventing government corruption by overseeing agreements for federal employees designed to eliminate conflicts of interest.  

Former federal officials praised him for his ability to work with nominees who often find that process slow moving, intrusive and cumbersome.

“He gets things done and he was very helpful to the Bush White House,” said Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer. “He was friendly with the nominees; they get frustrated with the bureaucracy.”

The OGE is independent but still has ties to the president, who appoints its director to a five-year term. Obama picked Shaub to lead the agency in 2013.   

Shaub’s speech on Wednesday was the culmination of weeks of tension between the OGE and Trump’s team. 

He said his office has “been left out” of the process of formulating Trump’s business plan, which involves the creation of a trust to hold Trump’s assets, to which he will have limited access.

“It’s plain to see that none of this reflects any partisan motivation,” he said during a speech at the Brookings Institution. “All you have to do is imagine what will happen if the President-elect takes this advice and divests. He’ll be stronger.”

Republicans have grown increasingly frustrated with Shaub’s public critiques and are now putting him on the hot seat.  

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records MORE (R-Utah) said he might subpoena the director if he doesn’t appear for a closed-door interview. 

"I will move to compel if we have to but it shouldn't come to that," Chaffetz told The Hill on Friday.  

Republican senators expressed frustration with a letter Shaub sent to Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerGroup of GOP senators back more money for airlines to pay workers GOP super PAC launching August ad blitz Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBill from Warren, Gillibrand and Waters would make Fed fight economic racial inequalities The other reason Democrats want Biden to shun debates The Memo: Biden faces balancing act MORE (D-Mass.), which accused Republicans of rushing through the confirmation process for Trump’s Cabinet picks. 

Schumer made the letter public last week. 

America Rising, an opposition research group that backs Republicans, has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records of communication between Shaub and leading Democratic senators. 

Colin Reed, the group’s executive director, said the aim is to explore whether OGE has “been turned into a political arm of Senate Democrats’ efforts to obstruct these nominees.”

Shaub’s critics also point out that he donated $500 to Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. 

Veteran GOP election lawyer Charlie Spies called him a “Democratic publicity hound who is inappropriately tweeting and grandstanding with the press about ethics issues.”

“If I were the Trump team, I would avoid dealing with him since he has proven to be a publicity hound who can’t have confidential discussions,” said Spies, who counts some incoming Trump officials as clients. 

No president has ever removed an OGE director before his or her term is up, but there is nothing that would prevent Trump from doing so. Shaub has one year left in his term. 

Shaub’s defenders say the criticism of him is off base. 

In addition to his past record, they note that Shaub praised Trump’s secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, during his Wednesday speech for agreeing to fully divest from Exxon Mobil Corp., where he was the chief executive prior to being tapped for the nation's top diplomat, and forgo any future bonus payments.  

“I have no reason to believe he is doing this out of partisan animus,” said Trevor Potter, a Republican former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

“I think he is doing this out of a professional animus — he sees that what’s being done is out of character with what has been done before.”  

Megan R. Wilson contributed to this report, which was updated at 6:57 a.m.