Walter M. Shaub Jr., the recently departed director of the Office of Government Ethics, offered a startling revelation on CNN this morning. He recounted that a few months into President Trump’s term, the president’s lawyer asked Shaub if Trump could file his federal financial disclosure forms without signing them. The signature certifies that the list of financial holdings, assets and liabilities disclosed in the form is “true, complete and correct to the best of my knowledge,” and Trump’s lawyer apparently sought to find out whether Trump could avoid certifying that.
Shaub said he was “horrified,” as the lawyer’s request demonstrated “how far we’ve departed from the ethical norms that the American people are entitled to expect their leaders to live up to.” It was, he said, “truly the weirdest moment of my entire career.” Until his resignation this week, Shaub, a veteran government ethics official before joining OGE, had worked at the ethics watchdog office since 2001 and had served as its director since 2013.
The incident he recounted demonstrates the Trump White House’s willingness to brazenly skirt the ethics standards that his predecessors in both parties have adhered to for decades. “I pointed out to her that millions of financial disclosure reports have been filed in the past four decades and every one of them has been certified as true,” Shaub told CNN. “I think we could ask that of our President.”
Trump ultimately ended up signing the 98-page disclosure he filed on June 14. But the episode should now be seen in light of the Trump White House’s short but remarkably blatant history of circumventing disclosure, both in statements to the public and in forms required by the federal government. The fact that Trump’s lawyer would even ask such a question suggests that Trump has surrounded himself with with advisers who share his disdain for standards of ethics and transparency, or at least are willing to employ aggressive efforts to circumvent them.
Trump’s ongoing efforts to evade disclosure have recently been in the news in other ways, such as in the bombshell report just yesterday revealing that Trump failed to disclose a second meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. Meanwhile, his trashing of ethics and norms has set a new, low standard for his advisers and senior staffers. And we’re starting to see some of them follow Trump’s lead.
For instance, we recently learned that presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has amended his application for a security clearance three times after initially failing to disclose 100 contacts with foreign officials. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. has offered a series of ever-shifting explanations for, and descriptions of, his June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, lobbyist, and businessman.
As Shaub has warned in an op-ed in the New York Times, it’s Trump, as president, who sets the tone for his aides and advisers. And there hasn’t been a moment in his presidency when he modeled, in any way, the need to follow basic standards of government ethics.
Instead, Trump himself has steadily and openly scoffed at ethics norms. Just after getting elected, he made the highly questionable claim that a president can’t by definition have conflicts of interest — and therefore that his vast business holdings will pose no ethics issues for his presidency. In January, as president-elect, he claimed that a blind trust, the mechanism used by presidents since the 1970s to avoid conflicts of interest, would be impossible for holdings as extensive as his. He would instead place his assets, still owned by him, in a trust to be run by his sons. That arrangement, ethics experts promptly charged, would do nothing to alleviate Trump’s conflicts of interest.
Shaub, too, was an immediate and visible critic of Trump’s subversion of long-standing ethics norms while still serving as OGE director. “The plan does not comport with the tradition of our Presidents over the past 40 years,” Shaub said just after Trump’s lawyer announced the arrangement. Since Watergate, Shaub said, presidents have “all either established blind trusts or limited their investments to non-conflicting assets like diversified mutual funds.”
Trump’s refusal to divest from his holdings or create a blind trust has become even more flagrant, as he has used the Trump International Hotel in Washington for a political fundraiser and often spends weekends golfing at his own clubs. He is “effectively advertising [his businesses] through frequent visits to his properties,” thereby creating “the appearance of profiting from the presidency,” Shaub wrote in the Times.
But Trump’s gallivanting to his Trump-branded properties may be just the tip of the iceberg — and Trump, Kushner and Trump Jr.’s recent transparency failures show why. Just yesterday, well over a week after the Times first broke the story of the Trump Tower meeting to get anti-Clinton research from a Kremlin-linked lawyer, we learned that there was an eighth person in the room whom Trump Jr. had concealed from the public. That person was Ike Kaveladze, a representative of the Agalarov family, who are business associates of Trump. The closeness of Kaveladze to the Agalarovs makes it even more damning that Trump Jr. would have omitted identifying him as an attendee of the now-highly scrutinized meeting.
Shaub’s revelation about Trump’s lawyer’s request that Trump not sign his disclosure form may seem like a small thing. But in retrospect, it’s not hard to see that as a foreshadowing of much of the flouting of transparency we’ve seen since. And the consequences of it extend beyond Trump’s profiting off his golf courses or hotels. We can now see that there is a web of secrets about the growing Russia scandal. On this matter, Trump wants the public to take his statements that it’s “fake news” or a “hoax” at face value. His own conduct makes that impossible, and there’s no telling how bad it could get from here.