WASHINGTON (CN) – The government’s former top ethics chief sounded the alarm Friday, saying the first eight months of the Trump administration have been “an absolute shock to the system” that has plunged the nation into “an ethics crisis.”
Walter Shaub Jr. resigned July 6 after months of clashes with the White House over issues such as President Trump’s refusal to divest his businesses and the administration’s delay in disclosing ethics waivers for appointees.
As he left office he told NPR that “the current situation has made it clear that the ethics program needs to be stronger than it is.”
He did not elaborate at that time on what about the “situation” so troubled him, but he said at the Campaign Legal Center, he would have more freedom “to push for reform” while broadening his focus to ethics issues at all levels of government.
During a talk at the National Press Club Friday morning, Shaub said the president and other administration officials have departed from ethical principles and norms as part of a broader assault on the American representative form of government.
Shaub said he is “extremely concerned” by this.
“The biggest concern is that norms evolve. So if we have a shock to the system, what we’re experiencing now could become the new norm,” Shaub said.
In his new role as director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, Shaub said he is working on proposals to strengthen the government ethics program in an effort to prevent that from happening.
Of course, there are federal ethics rules and regulations, but their weakness lies in absence of any enforcement mechanism to deal with departures from ethical principles and norms that fall short of criminality.
In short, Shaub contends, the government’s ethics program is only effective if an administration respects time-honored traditions and for the most part, they have.
It’s different now, Shaub said.
He pointed to recent promises made by incoming White House communications direction Anthony Scaramucci to clamp down on leakers.
“You have the administration calling things leaks that are not at all leaks,” Shaub said.
This week Scaramucci threatened to go to the FBI and Department of Justice after Politico published a copy of his financial disclosure form that showed he has assets worth as much as $85 million.
He took to Twitter to call it a “felony.”
However, under federal law anyone can request a copy of the report 30 days after it’s received.
Shaub called Scaramucci’s claim “outrageous” and said going too far in cracking down on leaks could dissuade whistleblowers from coming forward.
On Thursday White House counselor Kellyanne Conway complained on Fox News that filling out ethics forms was hindering the administration’s hiring efforts.
“There are so many qualified men and women who wanted to serve this administration and their country who have been completely demoralized and completely disinclined to do so based on the paperwork we have to put forward, divesting assets,” Conway said.
Those statements worry Shaub, who said the attitudes they reveal are as much a threat to the ethical culture of the federal government as violations of specific rules.
Shaub said most modern presidents have voluntarily divested their conflicts of interest and released their tax returns.
“When you don’t do that, you run into problems,” he said.
But President Trump has refused to release his tax returns and has failed to fully divest from his business empire.
Shaub said he would like to see a reworking of the ethics program’s blind trust requirements to strengthen protections against conflicts of interest.
Shaub called the trust President Trump established, which his two sons are in charge of, meaningless.
“What needs to be done is he needs to divest, he needs to sell those assets,” Shaub said.
He also said he’d like to see the rules strengthened to require the disclosure of business loans. Right now, government employees are only required to list financial holdings.
While stating that he prefers to avoid speculating on the intent of individuals, the disclosure of the president’s business loans would make it easier to understand whether he has any financial interests that could potentially influence Russia sanctions.
“We shouldn’t have that level of uncertainty because it casts a cloud over all government decision-making,” Shaub said.
Shaub also expressed deep concerns about the possibility that Trump might fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed to oversee the FBI’s Russia probe after the president fired former FBI director James Comey.
If something like that were to happen, Shaub said it “will be an extraordinary crisis for our country.”
“I don’t even have the words for it yet, and I’m sad to say I’m trying to get the words together so I’ll know what to say when it happens,” he said. “But it shouldn’t happen, and it will be destructive to our society in ways we can’t even begin to fathom right now.”