National Press Club

Former head of government ethics office says norms have unraveled under Trump

July 30, 2017 | By Julia Haskins |

Walter Shaub says he is using his post-government service to re-establish ethical norms that have unraveled.

Shaub, who spoke at a National Press Club Headliners Newsmaker July 28, resigned from the Office of Government Ethics months before his five-year term expired, saying he had reached the limits of what he could accomplish at the agency. He is now serving as senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, an advocacy group.

According to Shaub, a historically strong relationship between the ethics office and the White House “went out the window" during Donald Trump's administration.

The past eight months have been “an absolute shock to the system, and I would say we are truly in an ethics crisis right now,” Shaub said.

Shaub and the White House butted heads over Trump's refusal to divest his business holdings and the White House's initial reluctance to publicly release the waivers it granted presidential appointees.

He singled out White House counsel Donald McGahn, a former Federal Election Commission chairman, in his criticism.

“When you have an administration under the leadership of counsel to the president like Don McGahn, you have an attitude of bare minimum compliance in my view,” he said. However, Shaub said he hopes the Trump administration will prove him wrong.

Despite increasing partisanship, Shaub said support for an ethical government should transcend party loyalty. When he was first nominated to run the office, Shaub said it was challenging to get interest from the public, but that has changed as people have taken a greater interest in government ethics.

“People are waking up to the threat that’s being presented to the nation...with the attacks on our institutions, and it should be cause for great alarm,” Shaub said.

Shaub said the press needed to report on departures from government norms and praised reporters' roles in holding public officials accountable.

“You are not the enemy of the people," he said. "You are a valuable institution that’s part of what makes our country great.”

In his new job, he said, he was pushing for more transparency and disclosure, plus the ability of the Office of Government Ethics to bypass the White House and go directly to Congress.