Head of Office of Government Ethics: Trump's new business trust is "meaningless" in resolving conflicts of interest

An unusual public statement from the head of OGE, Walter Shaub, delivered last night after Trump announced the disposition of his business holdings at that press conference. If you want to discount Shaub’s criticism, know that he’s an Obama appointee. The agency itself is nonpartisan, though, and he makes a point of praising Rex Tillerson up front here for disposing of his Exxon assets in an ethical and judicious way. It’s worth watching a bit of this if only to familiarize yourself a bit with Shaub, as you’re destined to see more of him soon one way or another: Unlike most presidential appointees, his term runs for five years and isn’t scheduled to end until next January. That means either he’s going to spend the next 12 months hounding Trump about his conflicts at OGE or, since he serves at the pleasure of the president, he’s going to be summarily fired soon and replaced with someone much more compliant. This short address yesterday was, I assume, his attempt to raise his public profile in case Trump is thinking of dropping the axe. Now if Trump fires him, it’ll look like retaliation against a critic who’s standing up for ethics. And lots of media outlets will want to talk to Shaub about that.

He hits several main themes here — divestiture is the only ethical option; the tone Trump sets on this will drive behavior across the executive branch and the broader federal government; and while it may be true that the law requires recusal in matters involving conflicts of interest only for lower-ranking federal employees, “Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?” If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, though, the key bit comes between 2:20 and 5:20. In particular, Shaub notes that it was news to him to hear that Team Trump expects OGE to give its seal of approval to the portfolio of assets in Trump’s new trust. The only way OGE can legally sign off on a federal official’s asset disposition, he notes, is if that official works with the agency from the beginning to develop a plan. It sounds like Trump is expecting the agency to rubber-stamp whatever he hands them, and Shaub’s warning him frankly that that won’t happen. That’s another reason for speaking up now, presumably. He’s laying out his reasoning in advance for why the office will end up rejecting Trump’s arrangement.