To those comparative few paying attention to the Twitter feed of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics on the morning of Nov. 30, it appeared as if @OfficeGovEthics had become unhinged, or been commandeered by hackers.
“.@realDonaldTrump OGE is delighted that you’ve decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!” read the first of nine tweets over three frantic minutes.
The storm ended with: “.@realDonaldTrump OGE applauds the ‘total’ divestiture decision. Bravo!”
Never mind that the president-elect had decided no such thing. The tweet flurry was a brisk change in programming from the feed’s customary bland stream of “updated gift rules,” “ethics dates and deadlines” and “amended supplemental #ethics rules.”
Somewhere in the middle of the storm came a tweet referring @realDonaldTrump to “18 USC 208” — a section of federal law on conflicts of interest — plus a link to an arcane 1983 advisory on the U.S. president’s obligation to uphold the spirit of the conflict law.
This wonkish touch was proof that no hacker was to blame. It was the moment Walter M. Shaub Jr., the low-profile director of the little-known ethics office, found his voice and rocked Washington — a federal-code-spouting avatar of divided times.
You get the sense that, like Bartleby the Scrivener, Shaub would prefer not to. But that, like Don Quixote, he must. Those rogue tweets marked the opening lines of a new Washington fable: The Ballad of Walter Shaub.
Members of the public flooded the ethics office with messages of rage, rapture and confusion. More than 30,000 people had called, written or emailed by mid-March, a precedent-shattering record for the small agency.
“What is wrong with your office?” wrote one. “Who is working there and approving this nonsense?”
“As a taxpayer, I expect federal employees to act like grownups,” wrote another.
On the other hand: “Just a quick note to congratulate you on the wonderful idea of fighting the ‘Trumpster Fire’ with your own fire. Keep up the amazing work!”
The nature of Shaub’s elusive charisma was hotly debated.
Tweeted one: “walter is brad pitt for us smart girls.”
“I see Dir. Shaub as the Neville Longbottom of this whole story,” offered another, referring to a “Harry Potter” character. “The unlikely hero.”
A Walter Shaub Fans Facebook page was created, and his name was lettered on signs at protest marches: “I [heart] Shaub.”
Hunkered down on the fifth floor of a beige brick building in downtown Washington, Shaub, 46, maintained public silence. (His preferred modes of communication are the heavily footnoted letters he writes in response to congressional inquiries about the finer points of financial disclosure form 278e.) Like every faithful and forgotten ethics chief before him, since the office was created as a post-Watergate reform in 1978, Shaub had seemed destined to pass directly from obscurity to oblivion.
Now an image of his face on a T-shirt was ricocheting around the Internet. It resembled the universal visage of a million office ID badges, the frozen smile, the awkward tilt. Beneath his mug shot on the T-shirt was a quote of his that suggested the Shaub equivalent of “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead”:
“I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be president.”
Sounding the alarm brought powerful enemies.
America Rising PAC, a pro-Republican research outfit, asked whether Shaub’s ethics office had become an “arm of the Senate Democrats’ campaign of obstruction.” It publicized two donations of $250 each that Shaub gave to the reelection campaign of President Barack Obama, who nominated him for the ethics director job in 2012. (Additionally, as Shaub himself disclosed with characteristic precision during his own Senate confirmation, he gave two gifts of $100 each to Obama’s first presidential campaign, and $100 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination against Obama.)
“We’re keeping an eye on him,” said Colin Reed, executive director of America Rising PAC.
“My question is about the head of the Office of Government Ethics: Is he acting ethically?” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in January on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”
“The head of the government ethics office ought to be careful because that person is becoming extremely political,” Reince Priebus, then the incoming White House chief of staff, said on the same program.
It was somehow fitting that neither of those TV hits mentioned Shaub’s name.
The ethics office is dedicated to promoting ethical standards for 2.7 million employees in the executive branch, including the White House. In normal times, when a new president assumes control, its role includes quietly and efficiently advising Cabinet nominees on what to disclose and how to avoid conflicts.
The day after the election, Shaub emailed a Trump lawyer: “We’re looking forward to getting down to work on this Presidential transition — which we’re going to make the best one in history!”
But ethics have proved to be a flash point for President Trump’s administration, with Shaub pulled into the fray. There were controversies over the pace at which nominees were being scheduled for hearings, and over White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s touting of Trump’s daughter Ivanka’s fashion products on television.
“He’s not a grandstander; he’s a back-row kind of guy,” said Richard Painter, a former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. “He’s not looking for attention; he’s looking for getting things done and keeping people out of trouble. ... He’s not a partisan advocate at all.”
“He’s very nonconfrontational,” said Amy Comstock Rick, a former director of the ethics office. “Which is different from avoiding confrontation. He will certainly do what he needs to do or stand up for something he believes in.”
Some who agree with Shaub’s perspective on Trump’s business conflicts wonder about his decision to opine publicly.
The ethics office “has to be led by people who are very, very cautious with their public messages but very aggressive privately,” said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “I think keeping a low profile and grinding away on the work is what’s important. ... I’m glad he put OGE on the map. You’ve just got to be very careful about who’s looking at that map.”
In January there was a rare and important Shaub sighting.
At a morning news conference, Trump, then president-elect, announced that he would no longer manage his business empire, but he would still own it. Trump has pointed out correctly that the conflict-of-interest law does not apply to the president. So it must be okay.
That afternoon Shaub appeared unexpectedly at a roundtable at the Brookings Institution.
“I wish circumstances were different and I didn’t feel the need to make public remarks today,” he said. “You don’t hear about ethics when things are going well.”
Reading aloud in a mild voice for 13 minutes, Shaub cited the Bible, Antonin Scalia and other authorities to make the case that presidents should act as if the conflict-of-interest law did apply to them. Previous presidents have done so, he said.
“Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?” he asked. Then, without taking questions, Shaub gathered up his papers and disappeared again.
“No one would have expected the good guy we all knew Walt to be to be the one called upon to step forward in a moment of ethical heroism,” said Josh Rosenthal Bartok, a high school classmate.
Shaub graduated from South Lakes High School in Reston and earned a degree in history at James Madison University. In the college yearbook, most men wore coats and ties for their senior portraits. Shaub is pictured in a Hawaiian shirt with a couple of buttons undone — a hint of his Parrothead phase as a serious Jimmy Buffett fan.
He started at the University of Puget Sound School of Law, then switched to the Washington College of Law at American University. According to his own federal financial disclosure form 278e, he is still paying off a student loan.
He joined the ethics office in 2001 and became director in 2013.
In a brief email exchange for this story, Shaub spoke generally about his sense of mission as a public servant: “I feel like I’m working for the good guys.”
“OGE’s role is to help the public understand the government ethics program,” he wrote, slipping naturally into the muted key of Shaub. “When I think that communicating publicly will help advance that goal I do it. However, I don’t really want to be the story myself. I want OGE to be the story.”
As for the Facebook fan page, the Twitter love, the marchers’ signs?
“I’m not really comfortable with the level of attention I’m getting.”
Obama’s former chief ethics lawyer Norman Eisen sees something Shakespearean in the Shaub saga.
“There’s been a fourth act and a fifth act, like in a good Shakespeare play,” said Eisen, counting Shaub-related flaps with Trump from the tweets through Conway’s endorsement of Ivanka products. “But just like ‘Henry IV’ has Part 1 and Part 2, I don’t doubt there will be another five acts — ‘Walt I, Part 1’ and Walt I, Part 2’ — because of Trump’s failure to do what is normal.”
Another act could come in May. That’s when President Trump has the option to file a financial disclosure report, following one he submitted during the campaign.
Presidents have traditionally filed disclosures in their first year in office. But Trump is not required to file one until May 2018.
By then, Shaub could be gone. His five-year term ends in January.
It all feels like one giant civics lesson. At least now we are paying attention, said Deanna Kreisel, an English professor who created the Facebook fan page.
“All these things are invisible when they’re working properly,” Kreisel said. “We haven’t really treated our country like a participatory democracy. We’ve been sitting here and thinking that people like Walter Shaub will do our work for us.”
Maybe that was Shaub’s message all along.
David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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