A surprisingly low-key exit for a guy whose tenure under Trump looked like it’d be anything but low-key. Walter Shaub, you may remember, delivered an unusual public speech days before the inauguration shredding Trump’s plan to have his sons manage the family business. That’s not an ethical way to resolve business conflicts of interest, he said. It’s more like the opposite of ethical, creating an appearance of relinquishing your assets while doing little more than handing control of them to people who’ll do your bidding. The point of the speech, it seemed, was to signal that the Office of Government Ethics would be a dogged ethics watchdog against the White House during Trump’s first year. (Shaub’s term as head of OGE was up next January.)
And in fairness, he was pretty dogged. But, lacking any power to force compliance with his office’s rulings, it hasn’t seemed to matter. So he gave up.
In an interview, Shaub said he was not leaving under pressure, adding that no one in the White House or the administration pushed him to leave. But the ethics chief said he felt that he had reached the limit of what he could achieve in this administration, within the current ethics framework.
“It’s clear that there isn’t more I could accomplish,” he said.
Shaub is set to take a new job as senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group founded by Trevor Potter, who served as a Republican appointee to the Federal Election Commission. Shaub said he hopes to find bipartisan solutions to strengthening government ethics programs at the federal and state levels.
“In working with the current administration, it has become clear that we need to strengthen the ethics program,” he said.
Trump foes inside the government tend to leave amid political fireworks (Sally Yates, James Comey) but Shaub’s parting shots are pretty modest. Here’s another one singling out Trump’s administration as especially weak on ethics vis-a-vis his predecessors:
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) July 6, 2017
In his resignation letter to Trump, the extent of his criticism is italicizing the phrase “public service is a public trust” for emphasis. As I say, he did try to hold Trump’s feet to the fire: He gave that speech in January about deficiencies in the president’s business trust; his office demanded a reprimand of Kellyanne Conway for hawking Ivanka Trump’s clothing on Fox News; he tangled with Trump’s lawyer about getting the president to swear on penalty of perjury that the information in his financial disclosure forms was true; and most notably he challenged the White House on its practice of freely granting ethics waivers to personnel, including a waiver for Steve Bannon to go on communicating with Breitbart despite his former financial stake in the company. Trump did end up signing the financial disclosure and Conway hasn’t cut any ads for Ivanka lately, but on the big-picture ethics stuff — like Trump using holding presidential fundraisers at his D.C. hotel, drumming up business in the process — he hasn’t slowed the family down at all. And now that he’s out, Trump will be free to handpick a replacement who’s even less of a thorn in his side. If you thought OGE under Shaub was toothless, wait until you see it under new director Roger Stone.
Or maybe I’m wrong and Shaub quit because of the workload. Get a load of this statistic:
The agency reports that during the six months between October 2008 and March 2009, as the Obama presidency was taking shape, it got 733 public contacts, such as calls, letters and emails. During the October 2016 to March 2017 period in the Trump era, it was swamped with 39,105 contacts — an increase of 5,235 percent.
A lot of Americans wanted OGE to ride herd on Trump. It did what it could, but it couldn’t do much so Shaub moved on. The mystery, as I say, is why he didn’t do it with the same fanfare that he used in January to call attention to Trump’s trust. If he believes that the ethics watchdog’s power needs to be strengthened, why not resign with a lengthy indictment of the process? Going out this way feels like more of a surrender than maybe Shaub intended.