White House, ethics office feud escalates
An escalating feud between the White House and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has boiled over, with the Trump administration refusing to produce waivers it has granted to lobbyists that allow them to work in government agencies.
Walter Shaub, the office’s director, wants to review the waivers and make them public to ensure the Trump administration is adhering to publicly stated policies and an executive order signed by the president.
That would bring the Trump administration in line with practices followed under former President Barack Obama, who appointed Shaub to his current role.
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney is refusing to turn over the waivers. He wants time to consult with the Justice Department about the scope of Shaub’s authority.
In a letter to Shaub, which Mulvaney distributed widely throughout the government, the budget director called the request burdensome and questioned whether the OGE had the power to obtain the waivers. Republicans have in the past bristled at Shaub’s tactics and believe he is politicizing his office.
Shaub went public on Monday with the administration’s refusal to turn the waivers over.
In a blistering 10-page letter sent to Congress and Mulvaney — and subsequently tweeted out through the official OGE account — Shaub told Mulvaney that he has the authority to “institute corrective action proceedings” against individuals who “improperly prevent” ethics officials from doing their jobs.
“OGE declines your request to suspend its ethics inquiry and reiterates its expectation that agencies will fully comply with its directive by June 1, 2017,” Shaub wrote. “Public confidence in the integrity of government decision-making demands no less.”
It’s just the latest fight between the Trump administration and Shaub, whose five-year term will end early next year if he is not fired or doesn’t resign first.
Shortly after the election, Shaub used his office’s Twitter account to urge then-President-elect Donald Trump to divest himself from his business holdings. The tweets were written in Trump’s vernacular and viewed as mocking by many Republicans.
In January, after Trump announced he would hand his business empire over to his adult sons, Shaub publicly rebuked the president at a Washington forum for not putting his assets in a blind trust.
And in February, Shaub recommended disciplinary action for White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway after she urged viewers to buy first daughter Ivanka Trump’s products during a television interview from the briefing room.
Republicans say Shaub is politicizing his position to make a name for himself as part of the Trump “resistance.”
“Walter Shaub has acted like a partisan candidate for office and not like the director of a government ethics office,” said conservative lawyer Charlie Spies. “He’s brought discredit to what the office does through totally inappropriate tweets and press conferences and clear bias against the Trump administration.
“There may be legitimate issues that need to be addressed, but those are totally overshadowed by Shaub’s grandstanding.”
Trump signed an executive order in January that indicated the new administration would follow practices established during the Obama administration. Lobbyists hired into the government would be prohibited from working with former clients or on issues they had been involved with unless they received a waiver.
The Trump administration’s refusal to comply with the request has raised suspicions among government watchdogs over how many waivers the Trump administration is handing out and to whom.
Democrats in Congress have said they’ll seek the waivers directly if the Trump administration doesn’t turn them over. Government watchdog groups are suing for the records.
Legal and ethics experts interviewed by The Hill were flabbergasted that the administration would break with precedent by refusing to comply with the request for the documents.
“The Trump administration is going to lose this fight,” said Richard Painter, the White House ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush. “The Office of Government Ethics is not a political agency and Walter Shaub is not a political guy. Picking a fight with the OGE is the dumbest thing the administration can do at this juncture. Just give them the stupid waivers.”
Even some of Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill are standing with Shaub.
In 2009, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote a letter to the OGE asking the Obama administration to “live up to its word” by being “open, transparent and accountable” about the government employees that received waivers.
“Senator Grassley stands by his letter from 2009 calling for greater government transparency of ethics waivers, and is grateful to see that, eight years later, the Office of Government Ethics now explicitly agrees with his assessment of its authority,” a Grassley spokesperson told The Hill. “He’s also been exploring the matter with Democrat colleagues in the last few weeks, and welcomes their newfound interest in improving this transparency.”
The controversy has raised questions about Shaub’s future eight months before his term ends.
The administration is frustrated by what it views as lifelong bureaucrats within the government that refuse to accept the legitimacy of the new regime.
Trump has already fired FBI Director James Comey and acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
And in a television appearance earlier this year, Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, warned Shaub to “be careful.”
Still, firing an ethics watchdog who is ostensibly fighting for greater transparency could backfire at a time when Trump is dealing with blowback for firing Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
“The outcry would be tremendous, and it would only raise further questions about what they’re hiding,” said Larry Noble, senior director at the Campaign Legal Center. “You can’t just keep firing everyone for looking into what you’re doing.”