New emails reveal that the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) reportedly “lost contact” with President-elect Donald Trump’s team during the ongoing transition to power, despite efforts to warn officials about ethical issues posed by nominees and “blind trusts.”
According to emails uncovered by MSNBC, OGE director Director Walter Shaub contacted Trump aides in November expressing deep frustration with the lack of cooperation between his organization and the president-elect’s team. Shaub reportedly cautioned Trump against creating a blind trust of his business holdings without speaking to the OGE first, noting that the ethics office only considers something a blind trust if its assets have “been sold off”—a very different standard that the “half-blind” trust floated by Trump’s own team. (To date, Trump has not suggested that he will sell off his assets.)
MSNBC noted that the emails, which it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, included few details regarding any efforts by the president-elect to divest from assets that could result in potential conflicts of interest during his presidency.
“If we don’t get involved early to prevent problems, we won’t be able to help them after the fact.”
Shaub also argued that Trump’s staff was risking “embarrassment” by refusing to allow the ethics office to review the financial records of potential cabinet selections before they were announced, saying some could potentially violate federal law.
“They run the risk of having inadvertently violated the criminal conflicts of interest restriction at 18 USC 208,” Shaub wrote. “If we don’t get involved early to prevent problems, we won’t be able to help them after the fact.”
The tension may explain the OGE’s effort to troll Trump on Twitter in late November.
The news angered many progressive lawmakers and pundits, especially given the fast-approaching Senate hearings recently scheduled to confirm the nominees. Shaub expressed his own apparent exasperation with the situation in a letter sent to senators on Friday.
“As the OGE’s Director, the announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me,” he wrote. “More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings. I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since the OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process.”
— Tamara Keith (@tamarakeithNPR) January 7, 2017
Conservatives such as Norman Ornstein of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute appear to be equally appalled. On Saturday, he called efforts to confirm appointees who were not vetted by the OGE “unprecedented.”
Unprecedented and deeply dangerous if McConnell jams through Cabinet nominees who have not been vetted by the Office of Government Ethics
— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) January 7, 2017
For his part, Trump initially scheduled a press conference for December 15 to detail how he intends to handle his business dealings. But he later postponed the press gathering until late January, saying only that he planned to leave his business to two his children “plus executives” before January 20. Legal experts believe that if he does not adequately remove himself from his various businesses, he could risk violating the U.S. Constitution on his first day in office.