Ethics aren’t supposed to be partisan; either you have them or you don’t. But with the resignation of Walter M. Shaub Jr. as director of the Office of Government Ethics, there is reason to fear politics may color how that agency does its work.
Ever since President Trump assumed office, Shaub and the usually low-profile agency he heads have seemed to be in constant combat with the administration. Shaub resigned last week, nearly 6 months shy of completing his 5-year term.
Before Trump became president, Shaub questioned the validity of the blind trust the businessman said he would create to avoid conflicts of interest. In April, Shaub raised red flags about the secret waivers Trump issued to former lobbyists to qualify them for jobs in the administration. Raising such concerns to a sitting president isn’t a routine matter and the administration has largely ignored them, adding to Shaub’s frustration.
In a speech to the Brookings Institute, Shaub outlined how the law bars federal employees from participating in matters that affect their financial interests. However, a president can’t recuse himself from acting on certain matters without depriving the public of the services of their leader. That dilemma has allowed Trump to circumvent the law.
“There isn’t much more I could accomplish at the Office of Government Ethics, given the current situation,” Shaub said in resigning. “OGE’s recent experiences have made it clear that the ethics program needs to be strengthened.”
The symbolism of Shaub’s resignation is palpable. His departure leaves vacant a position of authority that has consistently refused to turn a blind eye when ethics rules seem to be twisted.
Shelley K. Finlayson, the office’s chief of staff, is in line to become the acting ethics director, but the White House could make a different interim appointment before filling the position for a full term. If history is any indication, Trump’s nominee is unlikely to be someone he would have to worry about questioning his actions.
If America has learned anything about Trump, even if it’s from watching reruns of The Apprentice, it is that he values loyalty above everything else. Shaub’s early departure allows Trump to act now to find a replacement. Who knows? It might be someone who uses Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, to interpret ethics laws for government officials.
All joking aside, with both houses of Congress controlled by fellow Republicans and a Supreme Court that has tilted further to the right with the appointment of Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, Americans have to be concerned about the remaining bulwarks need to restrain Trump’s tendency to act like a boss accustomed to getting his way.
No one is above the law, not even a president. The next ethics director should not be someone afraid to remind Trump of that fact.