After a monumentally messy start to their relationship, Donald Trump’s incoming presidential administration has reached a détente — more or less — with an independent government agency in charge of preventing executive branch conflicts of interest.
In the weeks leading up to inauguration, White House Counsel Don McGahn — then leading the legal efforts of Trump’s presidential transition team — met several times prior with officials from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, according to emails and calendar entries obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The meetings began only after ethics office director Walter Shaub Jr. in November warned McGahn of imminent danger to Trump and his cabinet nominees, writing: “I am not sure whether you are aware that announcing the cabinet without first coordinating with OGE is unprecedented and creates unnecessary risk for both the President-elect and the prospective nominees … [M]y goal here is to protect the President-elect, the prospective nominees and the executive branch ethics program by preventing real and apparent ethics issues.
Then-President Barack Obama nominated Shaub in 2012, and the U.S. Senate, after a confirmation hearing, confirmed him on a voice vote in January 2013. Shaub, a veteran private sector and government lawyer who contributed $500 to Obama’s re-election campaign, is in the final year of a five-year term.
The Trump transition-Office of Government Ethics meetings — mostly by phone — took place in December and January and were scheduled for “every Monday and Thursday for 45 minutes” during the presidential transition period, an email from Matthew Marinec, confidential assistant to Shaub, indicates.
Office of Government Ethics officials confirmed that four meetings with McGahn ultimately materialized, including one in person. In addition to McGahn, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who is now Trump’s top lawyer, Jones Day attorney Ann Donaldson took part. Jones Day, a private law firm where McGahn was a partner before going to the White House, provided Trump with legal counsel during his campaign.
In a statement, the White House described the meetings as “routine.”
The Office of Government Ethics and Trump, whose high-level political nominees often face significant ethics and financial divestment challenges, at first had no contact at all, routine or otherwise.
After Trump won the White House, Trump’s transition team all but ignored the Office of Government Ethics’ attempts at communication. Shaub at one point lamented that his office had “lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition” and that reaching McGahn was “proving to be difficult.”
Then the ethics office — a small, independent agency charged with preventing conflicts of interest in the executive branch — went Twitter-ballistic in a decidedly Trumpian fashion. Armed with interjections and exclamation points, the typically straitlaced @OfficeGovEthics account mock-praised the incoming president for divesting his business empire — something Trump didn’t actually do.
Had hackers commandeered the Office of Government Ethics’ accounts?
No. The tweets proved authentic, ordered up in late November by Shaub himself in hopes of steering Trump toward divestment.
The Office of Government Ethics meetings with the Trump transition team began soon after.
Throughout the presidential transition period, Shaub remained skeptical of Trump’s commitment to avoiding conflicts of interest. On Jan. 11, Shaub called the president’s plans to step back from — but not divest of — his sprawling business empire a “meaningless” act “from a conflict of interest perspective.”
The next day, U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, sent Shaub a letter informing him that his agency was under review, citing its November tweets. “Your agency’s mission is to provide clear ethics guidance, not engage in public relations,” Chaffetz wrote. Shaub met with Chaffetz’s committee on Jan. 23 in what Shaub described as a “candid” and “extremely useful” gathering.
Officials at both the Office of Government Ethics and White House confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity that they’ve remained in regular contact since Trump’s inauguration.
But some of those exchanges haven’t been friendly.
In a March 9 letter to Trump’s Deputy Counsel Stefan Passantino, Shaub wrote that he remains concerned about White House Special Counsel Kellyanne Conway’s “misuse of position” stemming from Conway asking people to buy merchandise made by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. The White House had earlier declined to discipline Conway.
Shaub also rejected what he says is a White House assertion that “White House employees are outside OGE’s purview.”
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