Speed Reads

Trump v Ethics

Federal ethics chief cites Donald Trump's favorite Supreme Court justice to urge him to divest

"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