When a person is in a position of extreme responsibility and trust, and is no longer, due to situations beyond his control, able to perform his duties to the best of his ability, if he is a person of good conscience, he will resign his position. That is exactly what Walter M. Shaub, Jr., head of the Office of Government Ethics, has done. Although I am distressed by his resignation, I hail him as a man of honour, and quite honestly I would have done the same. This move, however, speaks volumes about the lack of honesty and integrity in the White House, and it opens the door wide for even more abuses of power and greed than we have seen in the past six months.
“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. It affects our credibility. I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point. There isn’t much more I could accomplish at the Office of Government Ethics, given the current situation. O.G.E.’s recent experiences have made it clear that the ethics program needs to be strengthened.”
The Office of Government Ethics (OGE), with a staff of only 70, is an advisory agency only and cannot enforce rules on ethics. Since the November 2016 election, their advice has been largely disregarded. For example, rather than divesting himself of his business interests, or placing them in a blind trust, Donald Trump simply transferred them to a trust run by his two oldest sons. According to Shaub, this “doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met. OGE is nonpartisan and does its work independently. Our goal—our reason for existing—is to guard the executive branch against conflicts of interest. We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit.
The Office of Government Ethics was created in 1978 by the Ethics in Government Act, as a result of the Nixon Watergate scandal and the Saturday Night Massacre. OGE is tasked with:
- Establishing the executive branch standards of conduct;
- Issuing rules and regulations interpreting the criminal conflict of interest restrictions;
- Establishing the framework for the public and confidential financial disclosure systems for executive branch employees;
- Developing training and education programs for use by executive branch ethics officials and employees;
- Ensuring that individual agency ethics programs are functioning properly by setting the requirements for them, supporting them, and reviewing them.
As it is turning out, the scandals within the Trump administration are many, deep-rooted, wide-spread, and I firmly believe will far exceed those of Watergate. And yet now the gatekeeper’s slot is empty and it will be up to Trump to appoint a new one. That reeks of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
Many these days, myself included, have made the comparison between Nixon and Trump, but Elizabeth Drew, author of the definitive Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall, says that comparison is unfair to Nixon. She cites a number of reasons, starting with the fact that Nixon remained in office for five years, during which he had some major accomplishments, as compared to the chaos-engulfed Trump presidency that has not even been able to staff up, has no significant legislative wins to its name and is already, at just six months in as of this week, the most unpopular in seven decades. Nixon was smarter, she argues. He read books and cared about policy.
According to Drew, while Watergate was a “constitutional crisis” that involved “a whole array of abuse of power, where they used the instruments of government against Nixon’s perceived enemies, the Trump investigation could yield even more serious abuse of power or failure to execute the office than the years’ worth of Nixon probes.” In addition, she cites differences in today’s political culture:
- Politics was not as mean.
- Congress still had the capacity to do things in a bipartisan fashion.
- Republican moderates were not an endangered species.
- Twitter hadn’t corrupted the news cycle of the political class—or the attention span of the president himself.
In just six long months, we have entered a new realm … a realm of alternative facts and alternative language. It is a world where ‘no’ may mean ‘yes’, where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are interchangeable, and in this alternative vocabulary, the words ‘ethics’, ‘honesty’, and ‘integrity’ no longer exist. There is, if Congress and the American public do not wake up and demand action be taken against the destruction of the office of presidency, only one path where this decay, this hedonistic administration can lead us, and it is not the path of a democracy where leaders are held accountable for their actions.
Walter Shaub has accepted a position with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization of election-law experts, where he hopes to “have more freedom to push for reform. I’ll also be broadening my focus to include ethics issues at all levels of government.” I wish Mr. Shaub the very best and hope that he is able to make a difference for our nation, working from the outside, since his hands were tied while working from the inside.