For decades, Walter Shaub advised presidential candidates about transparency, ethics and how to avoid conflicts of interest. We talk to Shaub about how he ran the Office of Government Ethics and the future of ethics in government.
Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics. (@waltshaub)
Walter Shaub Wants You To Fight For An Ethical Democracy
In July 2017, Walter Shaub resigned as director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics after more than a year of conflict with the Trump administration. Shaub had sparred with the White House over the President’s reticence to divest from his businesses, and his administration’s general lack of compliance with ethical guidelines on conflicts of interest and transparency.
Shortly after resigning, Shaub told NPR’s Robert Siegel that as far as government ethics go, the Trump administration was “a disappointment.” When he talked to Siegel again on Tuesday, his criticism was more passionate.
“I thought it was one of the worst things I'd ever seen in 2017, when the ethical problems in this administration were more than the Office of Government Ethics could handle and I had to leave in protest,” said Shaub, who now serves as a senior advisor to the legal nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. “Things have continued to get worse since.”
Shaub is referring in part to President Trump’s decision to retain ownership and control of his sprawling, international business empire after entering the Oval Office. But he’s also referring to what he sees as a general lack of concern among congressional Republicans for Trump’s rejection of standard ethical procedures.
Shaub’s perspective on ethical oversight has evolved since his resignation. In 2017, despite his disappointment with the Trump administration, Shaub opposed giving the Office of Government Ethics the power to investigate ethical violations. Now he thinks it may be necessary.
“I thought Congress would conduct its constitutional responsibility of oversight,” he says. “But two years later, I was convinced that they were never going to do that. And somebody had to do it.”
Looking to the future, Shaub fears that unlike issues with previous administrations, the volume of ethical problems within the Trump administration will remain overwhelming.
“On a daily basis [the Trump administration] are virtually committing the kinds of acts that would have ended or at least jeopardized any past administration,” he said. “It's now coming at us through a firehose, and it's hard to keep up.”
Shaub joined On Point’s guest host Robert Siegel to talk about the present and future of ethics in government, and why we should care about precedents set by the Trump administration.
On the purpose of the Office of Government Ethics
"The Office of Government Ethics was part of a sweeping wave of reforms that came in 1978 and the post-Watergate era, and it was designed to help increase the ethical culture of government. Nothing that they created or empowered OGE to do would have directly stopped the Watergate crisis. But what it was intended to do was create a stronger ethical culture in government through financial disclosure and through monitoring conflicts of interest and regular ethics training. And, you know, the funny thing about ethics training is it's more important that you do it than what is actually said while you're doing it, because it forces government officials to sit down and focus on the importance of remembering that public service is a public trust and they're serving the people. And it worked pretty well for about four decades."
On “nepotism” in the White House
"In terms of the nepotism in the White House, the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel cleared the way for that by issuing an opinion on January 20, 2017, saying that Jared Kushner could be hired in the White House. But to do that, it had to reverse at least four prior opinions that we know of over the half-century of life for that statute. So I think we're already in a zone where the Department of Justice and the White House are twisting notions of what types of controls there already are in place and just kicking down obstacles to any kind of corruption that they want. We've seen, in the case of Jared Kushner, that an individual who's had trouble getting ahold of security clearance, and has had trouble filing accurate disclosures with the government, was retained in an extremely sensitive position."
On the ethical case for campaign finance reform
"An important function of government is to protect the weak from the strong. And when the government is populated by elected officials who depend on the wealthy and the corporations to put them in their offices and keep them there, they become beholden to the strong in a way that undermines their effectiveness in protecting the rest of us. And I think that's sort of a breach of the social compact that needs to be addressed. The idea somehow that it's free speech to give gobs of money to candidates and influence them directly or indirectly is, I think, naive in the sense that it overlooks that the speech of the well-funded is drowning out everyone else's speech. And there is no marketplace of ideas where everybody's ideas gets heard when the people with the most powerful voices are drowning out everyone else. And so I do tend to think of our campaign finance situation in this country as a threat to democracy."
On the importance of public oversight
"I think transparency is an important piece of it, but it's not the end-all, be-all. In the executive branch you actually have to also divest the financial interests. In Congress, on the other hand, they merely disclose, on the theory that voters might be upset and vote their member of Congress out for a conflict of interest. I don't think that's a very realistic perception, but at least in the executive branch they go further than mere disclosure and require divestiture. But even in the cases where divestiture isn't required, I think disclosure is important because good government groups like CREW, the one I work for, or other good government groups out there, get ahold of these reports and reporters get ahold of these reports and they call these individuals out on potential conflicts of interest that maybe are technically legal, but are wrong and are troubling to people. And in some cases that produces divestiture. We saw that with Elaine Chao, who decided to keep stock in an asphalt company while she was secretary of transportation. And the agency insisted she wasn't going to work on anything that would affect that. But the public outcry forced her to follow through on an earlier commitment to divest it."
Liam Knox wrote, transcribed and adapted this interview for the web.
From The Reading List
The Hill: "Ex-White House ethics chief rips reversal on Stone sentencing" — "Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, on Wednesday lambasted President Trump and the Department of Justice after the agency made an extraordinary reversal in its sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump ally Roger Stone.
"'A corrupt authoritarian and his henchmen are wielding the Justice Department as a shield for friends and a sword for political rivals,' Shaub, who resigned from his post in July 2017, tweeted. 'It is impossible to overstate the danger.'
"The statement from Shaub came just moments after Trump said on Twitter that Attorney General William Barr intervened in the case to recommend a lighter sentence for Stone. Thanking Barr for his actions, Trump tweeted that the case was 'totally out of control' and suggested that it should have never been brought."
Huffington Post: "Ex-Ethics Chief: This Is Just The Start Of Donald Trump’s Authoritarianism" — "Walter Shaub late Thursday said 'we’re in the heads-on-pikes phase of burgeoning authoritarianism' following the GOP-controlled Senate’s vote to acquit President Donald Trump on impeachment charges.
"The former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics tweeted a list of the moves that Trump and his allies are now making, and the people they are attacking, such as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the lone Senate Republican who voted to convict the president over the Ukraine scandal.
"Shaub warned: 'This is just the start.'"
The New York Times: "Departing Ethics Chief: U.S. Is ‘Close to a Laughingstock’" — "Actions by President Trump and his administration have created a historic ethics crisis, the departing head of the Office of Government Ethics said. He called for major changes in federal law to expand the power and reach of the oversight office and combat the threat.
"Walter M. Shaub Jr., who is resigning as the federal government’s top ethics watchdog on Tuesday, said the Trump administration had flouted or directly challenged long-accepted norms in a way that threatened to undermine the United States’ ethical standards, which have been admired around the world.
"'It’s hard for the United States to pursue international anticorruption and ethics initiatives when we’re not even keeping our own side of the street clean. It affects our credibility,' Mr. Shaub said in a two-hour interview this past weekend — a weekend Mr. Trump let the world know he was spending at a family-owned golf club that was being paid to host the U.S. Women’s Open tournament. 'I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point.'
"Mr. Shaub called for nearly a dozen legal changes to strengthen the federal ethics system: changes that, in many cases, he had not considered necessary before Mr. Trump’s election. Every other president since the 1970s, Republican or Democrat, worked closely with the ethics office, he said."
This program aired on February 18, 2020.