Ethics for the D.C. Ethicists – WSJ

Ethics for the D.C. Ethicists – WSJ.

By Kimberley A. Strassel
July 13, 2017 7:00 p.m. ET
We interrupt this week’s Don Jr. loop to tell a tale of a real ethics scandal. It’s one perpetrated not by the Trump administration, but by the man atop Washington’s ethics-industrial complex: Walter Shaub.

If you’ve never heard of Mr. Shaub, you soon will. He is resigning as director of the Office of Government Ethics—effective next week—so that he can continue more publicly the war he’s been waging against the administration internally since last fall. Unquestioning media outlets are providing him a big podium for his accusations, so it’s worth noting some facts.

Mr. Shaub was already playing the indignant watchdog on Sunday, as he explained his resignation on ABC’s “This Week.” He complained that the White House was consistently “challenging OGE’s authority to carry out its routine and most basic functions.” Understanding those “functions” is critical to realizing the Shaub drama is so much grandstanding.

The OGE isn’t a watchdog or an inspector general’s office. As its own website makes clear, it doesn’t adjudicate complaints, investigate ethics violations, or prosecute misconduct. Rather, it was set up in 1978 to help the White House. Its job is to “advise” and to “assist” the executive branch in navigating complex ethical questions, a job undoubtedly more frustrating and messy under President Trump. Nonetheless, Mr. Shaub’s attempt to act as ethics czar, to ride herd on the Trump operation, is outside his office’s mission. It’s the act of a pious political operator who doesn’t like this president.

Only weeks after the election, as speculation swirled about how Mr. Trump would handle the ethical complexity of his business dealings while president, Mr. Shaub was already trolling, posting a series of sarcastic tweets about divestiture to the Office of Government Ethics’ official account. When Mr. Trump released his plan for his assets, Mr. Shaub blasted it at a public event with press in attendance. So much for the “help” part.

The best insight into Mr. Shaub’s methods can be seen in the long fallout from Kellyanne Conway’s bone-headed February attempt to defend Ivanka Trump by calling on Americans to buy her clothing line. Deputy White House counsel Stefan Passantino, who leads the internal ethics team, reached out within minutes to reassure Mr. Shaub the situation would be reviewed. Mr. Shaub nonetheless waited only four days before dropping a public letter essentially demanding action against Ms. Conway.

In a Feb. 28 response to Mr. Shaub, Mr. Passantino noted that some of the OGE’s ethics regulations do not apply to White House staff. He nonetheless immediately reassured Mr. Shaub that a separate regulation did hold them to some of the same standards and that he had reschooled Ms. Conway in them.

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Mr. Shaub’s response was to ignore this White House reassurance and instead to fan a firestorm over Mr. Passantino’s first point—which he clearly saw as an affront to the OGE’s power. In a March 9 letter he slammed the White House for failing to discipline Ms. Conway, going on to say he remained “more concerned about the extraordinary assertion that ‘many’ of OGE’s regulations are inapplicable.” Democrats and the media fell all over this Shaub claim, never bothering to read Mr. Passantino’s real words.

And Mr. Shaub didn’t let up. In a separate letter in May to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, he blasted the White House for thinking that it was “beyond the reach of basic ethics requirements universally applicable to millions of executive branch employees.” That letter was also sent to hundreds of government ethics officials, every inspector general, and the chairmen and ranking members of numerous congressional committees.

Mr. Shaub also ginned up outrage over a blanket waiver to the Trump ethics pledge—a waiver allowing staffers to communicate more freely with the media. Never mind that Mr. Trump was under no obligation to create the pledge in the first place.

Then Mr. Shaub worked with Democratic senators like Elizabeth Warren to cause a hullabaloo over whether Mr. Passantino violated rules by not recusing himself from ethics questions involving a former client, Carl Icahn. Never mind that Mr. Icahn isn’t an employee of this administration and thus not subject to ethics rules.

None of this is to criticize the OGE’s staff, which has worked diligently on the tough job of getting this particular administration’s nominees compliant with the rules. But wait for the howls when Mr. Trump appoints as the OGE’s acting head someone who isn’t a Shaub-like showboater and who tries to return the office to its core mission. The left and media will skewer him or her as a sellout.

As for Mr. Shaub, he’s taking a job with the liberal Campaign Legal Center to push for greater OGE powers. No word on whether he negotiated that job even as the legal center was interacting with government, or whether he signed the Trump pledge barring officials from “lobbying” for five years after leaving government. (The OGE did not return a call for comment.) Maybe the ethics rules are different for ethics pooh-bahs.

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