WASHINGTON – Actions by President Donald 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 Shaub, who is resigning as the federal government's top ethics watchdog 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," Shaub said this past weekend — a weekend 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."
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 Trump's election. Every other president since the 1970s, Republican or Democrat, worked closely with the ethics office, he said.
A White House official dismissed the criticism, saying that Shaub was simply promoting himself and had failed to do his job properly.
"Mr. Schaub's penchant for raising concerns on matters well outside his scope with the media before ever raising them with the White House — which happens to be his actual day job — is rather telling," Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement that misspelled Shaub's name.
Trump's repeated trips to his family's business properties — he has visited one of them on at least 54 days since moving into the White House nearly six months ago, including nearly 40 stops at a family golf course — have caused discomfort for Shaub each time.
"It creates the appearance of profiting from the presidency," Shaub said. "Misuse of position is really the heart of the ethics program, and the internationally accepted definition of corruption is abuse of entrusted power. It undermines the government ethics program by casting doubt on the integrity of government decisionmaking."
Shaub recommended giving the ethics office limited power to subpoena records, as well as authority to negotiate prohibitions on presidential conflicts of interest; mandating that presidential candidates release tax returns; and revising financial disclosure rules. But he acknowledged that some of these proposals would be difficult to pass in Congress.
There are signs that lawmakers are open to considering the ideas. Rep. Trey Gowdy, the new Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he was preparing to meet with Shaub. The effort could be a test of what kind of appetite Gowdy has to challenge the Trump administration as the chairman of what is traditionally the most active oversight committee in Congress.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the committee's top-ranking Democrat, also wants to discuss the ethics office and ways to strengthen it.
"I look forward to having a productive conversation with Mr. Shaub and Elijah Cummings before the outgoing director leaves office," Gowdy said. "The discussion will include ways to improve the ethics process and instill confidence in OGE [Office of Government Ethics.]"
Cummings is drafting legislation that will incorporate some of Shaub's proposals, albeit the less contentious provisions that stand a chance of passing in a Republican-controlled Congress, members of his staff said.
"The Office of Government Ethics has an impossible job under this administration because President Trump has ignored its advice, undermined its authority and openly flouted ethics rules," Cummings said. "Now more than ever, it is important for Congress to act to strengthen OGE and protect its independence."
Shaub wants Congress to clarify that the agency has clear ethics oversight authority over all parts of the White House and that its director may only be removed for cause.