Foon Rhee

A new hero for the Trump era

Walter Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, walks on Capitol Hill in January.
Walter Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, walks on Capitol Hill in January. Associated Press

This is shamefully cynical, even for Washington, D.C.:

Make a big deal over signing an executive order limiting lobbyists. But then give free passes to top aides. That’s the bottom line of the latest ethics outrage by the Trump White House.

While it didn’t get nearly as much attention last week as the hubbub over the president’s “covfefe” tweet and decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, the White House posted records showing that Trump’s executive order on lobbyists has been waived at least 11 times for top officials.

Counselor Kellyanne Conway can meet former political clients of her polling firm. Trump’s energy adviser (a former lobbyist for oil and gas companies) can work on energy and environmental policy. And his tax policy adviser (a former mutual fund executive) can handle retirement and financial services issues.

So much for “drain the swamp.”

Even worse, the White House wasn’t going to make these waivers public. It only backed down after Walter Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, raised a stink.

Shaub is my new hero, because he’s on the front lines of trying to hold the Trump regime accountable. It’s a short list of watchdogs that also includes Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has taken Trump to court over the Constitution’s emoluments clause.

Mark Morodomi, who knows a thing or two about ethics, also admires Shaub, though he doesn’t envy the “unprecedented, though not impossible” challenge he’s up against.

“He’s doing his job in an understated way,” and it’s clear that Shaub has the support of his staff, says Morodomi, who was counsel to the Oakland ethics commission from 2001 to 2013 and at the California Fair Political Practices Commission before that.

Ethics officials are used to being unpopular, Morodomi says. Career civil servants such as Shaub remain faceless, most of the time.

He isn’t doing interviews, his office said. He did make headlines in January when he publicly called Trump’s plan to separate himself from his business empire “wholly inadequate” and “meaningless.” To avoid conflicts of interest, Shaub called on Trump to divest and put his assets in a blind trust, as previous presidents had done.

That put Shaub in the crosshairs of some Republicans in Congress, who threatened to drag him in for hearings.

He didn’t back down and defended himself against accusations of partisanship. “Ethics has no party,” Shaub said in a rare extended public speech that’s well worth reading. “Our goal – our reason for existing – is to guard the executive branch against conflicts of interest.”

With Team Trump, Shaub’s tiny 71-worker office has its work cut out.

The waivers that were disclosed could be the tip of the iceberg. We still don’t know if ex-lobbyists in cabinet departments are getting similar dispensation. If David L. Bernhardt, a lawyer-lobbyist whose clients included the giant Westlands Water District in California, is confirmed as deputy secretary of the Interior Department, Californians would sure like to know if he’s looking out for them, or for Westlands.

Then there are at least nine former Trump transition officials who sped through the revolving door to become registered lobbyists in Washington.

And there’s Trump and his own family, with potential financial conflicts galore. As Shaub says, past presidents have set a patriotic example to put the nation’s interests first.

Not Trump, who seems to be making up the rules for his administration. When Conway plugged first daughter Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on Fox News, Shaub called for discipline. The White House refused, saying Conway acted “inadvertently” and “without nefarious intent.”

Ethics violations may be less dramatic than the Russia investigation, and we may not know about any scandals for a while. But if Trump and his top aides are willing to flout these rules, they’ll ignore others – like responding to information requests from Democrats in Congress. Oh wait, they already are, and Democrats are fighting mad.

It’s clear that the Office of Government Ethics has never been more important in safeguarding our republic.

Shaub’s five-year term ends in January. It seems highly doubtful that Trump would keep him. Who knows, the president might be tempted to get rid of him sooner, though he might be gun shy after the uproar over his firing of James Comey, the former FBI director.

Morodomi wonders whether the next ethics director will be less vigilant and look the other way – or might even be asked for a loyalty pledge. The Senate gets to vote on confirming Trump’s pick, or not. It’s the duty of Republicans as well as Democrats to make sure the new director is independent.

If a loyalist is in that job, who knows what the Trump White House would try to get away with – without having to worry about a watchdog’s loud bark.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee