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‘There’s a cloud over all government decision-making’ under Trump, says former ethics chief

July 26, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
As director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub clashed with the Trump administration on a number of issues before resigning in July. Shaub joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the ways in which the current White House has departed from ethical norms and his concerns about the naming of the new acting director at the agency.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier this month, Walter Shaub resigned as director of the federal Office of Government Ethics, a position he’s held since January 2013.

In the final months of his tenure, Shaub clashed with the Trump administration on a number of ethics issues. Currently, he is senior director of ethics for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.

And Mr. Shaub joins me now.

Thank you for being here at the NewsHour.

So, you had been — you were just telling me you had been at the Office of Government Ethics for, what, 15, 16 years?

READ MORE: Ethics director, vocal critic of Trump administration, steps down

WALTER SHAUB, Campaign Legal Center: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Leading up to your decision to resign. You had another six months to go as director of the office. Why leave? Why not stay until the end, next January?

WALTER SHAUB: Well, first of all, thanks for having me.

I started at OGE in 2001 and have served there continuously, except for two years, when I left. I have seen OGE operate under three different presidential administrations right now, including the administrations of President Bush and President Obama, who were incredibly supportive of the ethics program.

Both of those administrations really supported OGE in absolutely every way they could, and our work functioned very smoothly. In the past eight months, we have departed from ethical norms. And the program is under significant pressure from the White House that has set a tone from the top that ethics doesn’t matter.

And so I did all I could, and I reached a point where I thought there wasn’t more I could achieve from inside. But, by leaving, I would actually have more freedom to continue to try to push for the restoration of our ethics program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you have been speaking out since then. Give us an example of the way or ways that this administration, as you say, was putting stress on the ethics procedures.

WALTER SHAUB: Well, in one way, it really began with the president declaring that he’s not going to divest his financial interests.

And that means there is a cloud over all government decision-making that stems from the president, because you can’t know whether his decisions are being made on the basis of policy aims or on the basis of financial interests.

And when he travels to all of his properties on a frequent basis, he’s giving each of them free advertisements, and he speaks freely about those. He could have, instead, divested his interests and told his administration to stay away there his properties, which would have kept some of the foreign governments or charities or businesses that have booked his business — his properties to be closer to the president not to do that.

I think a lot of things happen on a day-to-day basis as well. I fought a battle that took over a month to get them to release some waivers that they had been issuing, and OGE’s collection of waivers…

JUDY WOODRUFF: To individuals.

WALTER SHAUB: To individual appointees.

And OGE’s collection of waivers and other ethics documents has been a routine function of OGE’s program dating all the way back to its beginning. OGE is by statute the supervising Ethics Office.

When I finally got the waivers, I was shocked to see that a number of them, most of them, actually, were unsigned, undated, either explicitly or implicitly retroactive, and two of them were issued by the counselor of the president to a group of people that included himself.

So, that’s about as bad an ethics program as you can run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now you know that — what the White House has been saying since you left your position. They were criticizing you before. They have been criticizing since.

They say you have been talking to the news media. I saw one quote where they said you were “grandstanding,” that you’re trying to give additional powers to the Ethics Office that it never had before.

WALTER SHAUB: Well, I do think that, based on recent experiences, the Ethics Office needs more power than it’s had before, because its functions depended on a White House that wanted to support the ethics program.

So, when they threw roadblocks in the way of the supervising Ethics Office’s ability to again access to routine ethics documents, that was a clear signal that OGE didn’t have enough ability to carry out its mission.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then very recently, Walter Shaub, you have spoken out about the person who has been named the acting director of the Ethics Office since you left. Why the concern there?

WALTER SHAUB: So, you know, I want to make clear that I think that individual, Dave Apol, is a good person and an excellent attorney.

I hired him because he has got a particular viewpoint, which is at odds with the traditional interpretation of the ethics role that OGE has always had, because I wanted diversity of opinion.

And it worked well while I was in charge because I had two see senior officials who had very differing opinions, and we could have robust debate. And Dave was always very respectful when a decision was finally made.

But I am concerned that he has a particular outlook, that he would wind up loosening the ethics rules and OGE’s interpretations.

And, to be clear, I would have no problem if they nominated him, so the Senate could vet these viewpoints. But I think that the administration did an end-run around the natural succession of the chief of staff to appoint one of her subordinates as acting director in order to avoid the Senate confirmation process and have someone in the office who is sympathetic to their views.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just very quickly, in the time that we have left, you are trying now, as we said, to beef up the Office of Government Ethics. You’re working with members of Congress from both political parties to do this.

Just in a quick nutshell, what do you think needs to be done, needs to be added?

WALTER SHAUB: So, there’s a number of measures I’m proposing to try to get OGE a little bit more independence, including the ability to gather records and information, if necessary, by issuing subpoenas.

I also think that there’s a number of tweaks that can be done to the ethics rules. And, ultimately, I would like to see some accountability for resolving presidential conflicts of interest.

That last one might be a tougher sell, but some of the proposals are technical enough that they shouldn’t be controversial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I hope we can stay in touch with you as you work on this.

Walter Shaub, the former director of the office of Government Ethics, thank you very much.

WALTER SHAUB: Thanks for having me.

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