The head of the federal Office of Government Ethics on Wednesday denounced President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to separate the presidency from his business empire as “wholly inadequate” and said it does not meet the standards met by the “best of his nominees.”
“The ethics program starts at the top,” Director Walter Shaub said at a Brookings Institution forum in Washington. “We can’t risk creating the perception that government officials will use their positions for personal profit.”
“Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective,” Shaub said. “The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway.”
The unusual and lengthy statement from the government’s top ethics lawyer came hours after Trump outlined plans to shift his assets into a trust managed by his sons and give up management of his private company. Shaub said that Trump should place all of his assets in a blind trust instead to avoid potential conflicts of interest in the White House, echoing arguments that ethics lawyers have made in recent weeks.
“This is not a blind trust,” Shaub said. “It’s not even close.”
Shaub, whose staff is poring over the financial holdings of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet posts, was unusual in his public condemnation of the incoming president. He praised former ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, for putting his vast retirement package into a trust that will be independently managed and cannot invest in the company he headed.
“It’s a sterling model for what we’d like to see with other nominees,” Shaub said. Then he added: “The cost is often greater the higher up you go.”
Shaub said Trump “still has time” to resolve his ethical conflicts properly.
He also spoke for the first time about a tweetstorm from his office a few weeks after the election. The tweets congratulated Trump on divesting himself of his business holdings and were composed, public records requests have revealed, by Shaub himself.
But the president-elect had not, and still has not, agreed to that plan. Shaub said Wednesday that he was “trying to use the vernacular of the president’s favorite social media platform to encourage him to divest” when he sent the tweets.
The ethics office does not have enforcement power, so there is not much Shaub can do to force Trump’s hand on his business conflicts.
“But public outcry can make a difference,” said Norman Eisen, a Brookings fellow who served in the Obama White House from 2009 to 2011 as special counsel and special assistant to the president, helping lead the administration’s ethics policies.
Eisen and Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer for former president George W. Bush, led the Brookings event.