In a transparent attempt at intimidation, the director of the federal Office of Government Ethics has been summoned by House Republicans to a closed-door interrogation session to explain his criticism of President-elect Donald Trump's conflict-of-interest plans as "meaningless." Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, accused the director of "blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance."
If anyone is blurring that line, it has been Mr. Trump, not Walter Shaub, whose independent office is responsible for making sure that federal officials observe conflict-of-interest laws. While Mr. Trump notes that the presidential office has greater freedom under these laws, Mr. Shaub has repeatedly warned that Mr. Trump's plans are "wholly inadequate" and would leave him susceptible to "suspicions of corruption."
With the inauguration approaching and this pivotal issue far from satisfactorily resolved, Mr. Shaub deserves commendation, not criticism, for maintaining pressure on Mr. Trump on behalf of the public interest. Mr. Chaffetz noted that his committee has the power to decide whether to reauthorize the ethics office — a pointed threat to punish the office for the director doing his job.
"They are strong-arming them," said Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. "It is political retaliation," he said, aimed at the ethics office because it is "not willing to jam through" Trump nominees.
The plans Mr. Trump announced this week fall well short of ending his business conflicts. As president, he would retain his stake in his brand-name business empire while allowing his adult sons to manage the operation, supposedly without interference from him. But that won't prevent businesses from trying to curry favor with Mr. Trump through his family or dispel suspicions that his policies were made with an eye toward enhancing his family's wealth.
It is alarming to see so blatant a threat of reprisal before the administration even takes office. The nation needs better than that. Mr. Chaffetz's responsibility is to maintain high ethical standards by all who serve in government, not to engage in naked partisanship. Previously, he criticized Mr. Shaub during the presidential campaign for not being aggressive enough in investigating Hillary Clinton's speaking fees.
The salient fact here is that Mr. Trump has repeatedly refused to comply with the norms and guidelines that previous presidents have met, including releasing his tax returns. Mr. Shaub is properly carrying out his duty in keeping these ethical questions front and center.
This editorial appeared in the New York Times on January 13, 2017
January 13, 2017