"I wish circumstances were different and I didn't feel the need to make public remarks today," said Walter Shaub, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE), to begin his address Wednesday at the Brookings Institute about government ethics and why President-elect Donald Trump should take them more seriously. "You don't hear about ethics when things are going well. You've been hearing a lot about ethics lately." Trump had laid out his plan to distance himself from his business interests to avoid conflicts earlier in the day, and Shaub said that plan is "wholly inadequate." "Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts," he explained.
The point of speaking publicly about the fixable ethics shortcomings of the incoming administration, Shaub said, is to defend the post-Watergate ethics structure built to safeguard the public good and to urge Trump to change course. "I've been pursuing this issue because the ethics program starts at the top," he said, and it is hard to persuade other officials to comply if the president does not.
And he's been trying to get his message to Trump, particularly. He started with some tweets, Shaub said, because "I was trying to use the vernacular of the president-elect's favorite social media platform to encourage him to divest." His speech on Wednesday included Biblical scripture, an appeal to patriotism, and the advice of Trump's favorite Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia:
Back when he was working for the Justice Department, the late Antonin Scalia also wrote an opinion declaring that a president should avoid engaging in conduct prohibited by the government's ethics regulations, even if they don't apply. Justice Scalia warned us that there would be consequences if a president ever failed to adhere to the same standards that apply to lower level officials. [Shaub, Brookings Institute]
At Trump's press conference, his conflicts-of-interest lawyer, Sheri Dillon, had noted that "the conflicts of interest laws simply do not apply to the president or the vice president and they are not required to separate themselves from their financial assets." That's true. But as Shaub noted: "The sheer obviousness of Justice Scalia's words becomes apparent if you just ask yourself one question: Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?" The jury is still out. Watch below. Peter Weber
The newest member of President Trump's legal team, Rudy Giuliani, met with Special Counsel Robert Mueller Tuesday in Washington, reopening negotiations for an interview with Trump, three people with knowledge of the matter told The Washington Post.
Giuliani told Mueller Trump and his advisers are wary about an interview, but there's a chance it could happen, the Post reports. He also asked Mueller when he thinks the inquiry will be finished. Mueller reportedly responded by telling Giuliani in order to complete the part of the probe focusing on potential obstruction of justice, he needs to interview Trump to gather more information on the transition and first few months of his presidency. Last month, John Dowd, Trump's lead outside attorney on the case, resigned. Catherine Garcia
Embattled White House physician Ronny Jackson, President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, had a meeting Wednesday night with White House officials amid new allegations against Jackson, including that he crashed a government vehicle while drunk and handed out drugs "like candy," a person with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
NBC News reports that Jackson, who has denied the allegations, has grown annoyed by the process and is talking with officials about pulling his name from consideration for the position; an announcement could be made as early as Thursday. Jackson's confirmation hearing was originally set for Wednesday, but was postponed indefinitely on Monday as allegations of improper conduct started to come out. Catherine Garcia
On Wednesday, President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen told a federal judge he will assert his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself in the Stormy Daniels case, The Washington Post reports.
Daniels, who says she had an extramarital affair with Trump in 2006, was paid $130,000 by Cohen right before the 2016 presidential election, and she's suing to get out of a nondisclosure agreement she signed with him. The FBI raided Cohen's home, hotel room, and office earlier this month, and Cohen, who is requesting to pause proceedings in the case, said the agents seized electronic devices and documents containing information relating to the payment to Daniels.
Lawyers for Cohen, Trump, and the Trump Organization are asking to see the material before it goes to prosecutors, and Trump's attorney said the president would be available "as needed" to review the documents. Catherine Garcia
Why would George R.R. Martin give the people what they want — the next book in the Song of Ice and Fire series — when he can give them something they never even asked for?
The author announced Wednesday on his website that he will be releasing a new book on Nov. 20, and it's not The Winds of Winter. Instead, the new work will be a history of the Targaryen family titled Fire & Blood — and at 989 pages, it's sure to keep readers busy for a long, long time.
The book is the "first half" of the Targaryen family history, Martin wrote, and will cover "all the Targaryen kings from Aegon I (the Conquerer) to the regency of Aegon III (the Dragonbane), along with their wives, wars, siblings, children, friends, rivals, laws, travels, and sundry other matters." But unlike his previous works, this will read as an "imaginary history" book instead of a novel, Martin said, adding that "there are dragons, too. Lots of dragons."
While Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on Song of Ice and Fire, is coming to an end in 2019, there will be a spin-off series. Unfortunately, Martin wrote that he is not allowed to divulge whether it will be based on Fire & Blood.
The news of his project may come as a shock to fans, considering they've been waiting on the release of The Winds of Winter, the next installment in his original series, for seven years now; its prequel, A Dance with Dragons, was released in 2011. Martin has been working on The Winds of Winter since early 2010, but it remains unclear when the book will finally be released.
At least there will be "lots of dragons" in the meantime. Amari Pollard
White House physician Ronny Jackson was apparently not a very popular coworker.
Jackson, whom President Trump has nominated to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, has been the subject of concerning allegations all week, and the Senate has postponed his confirmation hearing indefinitely in light of the rumors. On Wednesday, the situation worsened, as current and former colleagues of Jackson's detailed allegations of serious workplace misconduct in a damning new report gathered by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and published by NBC News.
The allegations, which were previously reported more generally, paint a picture of a "flat-out unethical" leader who created a hostile work environment and engaged in medical malpractice while drinking on the job. In Tester's report, 23 military colleagues say that Jackson would prescribe drugs "like candy" without paperwork or examinations, while also writing himself prescriptions and pressuring others to recklessly hand out sleeping pills. Jackson served in the Navy as a rear admiral.
Additionally, colleagues recall Jackson as being "volatile" and "vindictive," working his way up the food chain with "belittling" and "abusive" behavior. To top it all off, the report says that as presidential physician, Jackson was on one occasion out of reach while on call because he was "passed out drunk in his hotel room," and on another occasion so drunk at a Secret Service party that he "wrecked a government vehicle."
Jackson's confirmation hearing has yet to be rescheduled, and Trump on Tuesday suggested that while he supports Jackson, he wouldn't blame him if he decides to withdraw from consideration. Jackson denied to Reuters that he wrecked a vehicle, and said that he plans to move forward with his nomination. Read Tester's full report here. Summer Meza
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt isn't going down without a fight.
The EPA chief has had a fraught couple of weeks, plagued by numerous ethics scandals that are sure to be a focus when he testifies before Congress on Thursday. But he's ready to tell lawmakers that there's plenty of blame to go around, according to talking points obtained by The New York Times on Wednesday.
Pruitt and his staff have reportedly prepared a list of responses to "hot topics" that may come up during his hearings with a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee and the House Appropriations Committee. If lawmakers ask about his taking lavish first-class flights that racked up massive taxpayer-funded travel bills, for example, Pruitt plans to say that his security team advised him to do so, and point out that he has "been flying coach" more recently. In response to questions about controversial raises to his favorite aides, he'll say that someone else handled staffing logistics, reports the Times.
Pruitt's opening statement focuses on his work on environmental policy and makes no mention of his ethics issues, but he is apparently expecting quite a grilling regarding the 10 investigations he is currently facing by government watchdog groups.
The document's veracity was not disputed by the EPA, the Times reports, but it's possible that Pruitt's answers will change between the time of creating the talking points and his hearing Thursday. Read more at The New York Times. Summer Meza
The Milky Way galaxy contains about 300 billion stars — way more than any one human could possibly hope to see. But the European Space Agency wants to help intrepid stargazers try.
The ESA's Gaia mission has been collecting data on the stars in the Milky Way since 2013, NPR reported. On Wednesday, the group used that information to release the most detailed star map of the galaxy we've ever had.
Over the past five years, the Gaia spacecraft has captured images of the sky roughly every six months, allowing scientists to understand information about some 1.7 billion stars by comparing images when they're at different positions in the sky, Popular Mechanics reported. Now that the database is publicly available, scientists from all across the world can use that information in their research.
Gaia's data barely scratches the surface of what's out there, but "the exact brightness, distances, motions, and colors" of all those stars is valuable information for astronomers, NPR explained. "We're really talking about an immense change to our knowledge about the Milky Way," said David Hogg, an astrophysicist at New York University and the Flatiron Institute.
You can visually explore our galaxy below, or look through the data Gaia has collected on the ESA's website. Shivani Ishwar