Outgoing federal ethics chief: ‘We are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point’

The federal government’s top ethics chief is resigning on Wednesday. And he’s torching the Trump administration on his way out.

Walter M. Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, told the New York Times that President Trump’s apparent disdain for long-established ethical norms has undermined the credibility of the United States around the world.

“It’s hard for the United States to pursue international anticorruption and ethics initiatives when we’re not even keeping our own side of the street clean,” Shaub told the Times in an article published Monday. “I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point.”

Shaub — who has been a vocal critic of Trump’s since his election — said the president’s frequent trips to his family-owned golf clubs are a microcosm of just how blurry the line between the White House and Trump brand has become.

“It creates the appearance of profiting from the presidency,” Shaub said. “Misuse of position is really the heart of the ethics program, and the internationally accepted definition of corruption is abuse of entrusted power. It undermines the government ethics program by casting doubt on the integrity of government decision making.”

Trump spent last weekend at another one of his golf courses, and repeatedly promoted the U.S. Women’s Open Championship held there.

In a statement to the Times, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters dismissed the criticism: “Mr. Schaub’s penchant for raising concerns on matters well outside his scope with the media before ever raising them with the White House — which happens to be his actual day job — is rather telling.”

Walters added: “The truth is, [he] is not interested in advising the executive branch on ethics. He’s interested in grandstanding and lobbying for more expansive powers in the office he holds.”

Shaub is calling for numerous changes to expand the power of the ethics office. He believes that the agency should have clear ethics oversight authority over all parts of the White House, limited subpoena authority and new conflict of interest standards for the president. (Shaub also wants Congress to pass legislation requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, which Trump has refused to do.)

Before leaving office, Shaub is expected to meet with Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to discuss those proposed reforms.

In a statement, Cummings said he is receptive to taking steps to strengthen the ethics office.

“The Office of Government Ethics has an impossible job under this administration because President Trump has ignored its advice, undermined its authority and openly flouted ethics rules,” Cummings said. “Now more than ever, it is important for Congress to act to strengthen OGE and protect its independence.”

Earlier this month, Shaub announced his forthcoming resignation, saying he had accepted a job with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization of election-law experts.

“The current situation has made it clear that the ethics program needs to be stronger than it is,” Shaub told NPR. “At the Campaign Legal Center, I’ll have more freedom to push for reform. I’ll also be broadening my focus to include ethics issues at all levels of government.”

In February, Shaub called on the White House to investigate Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top advisers, for comments she made promoting Ivanka Trump’s brand.

In an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” Conway urged viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” after Nordstrom decided to drop Ivanka Trump products from its stores.

“This is just a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway said from the James S. Brady Briefing Room, with the official White House seal in full view. “I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

“Executive branch officials should use the authority entrusted in them for the benefit of the American public and not for private profit,” Shaub wrote in a letter to Trump’s deputy counsel. “I recommend that the White House investigate Ms. Conway’s actions and consider taking disciplinary action against her.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer later said Conway had been “counseled” about her potential ethics violation after the interview.

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