In the last post I quoted Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, who criticized Donald Trump’s so-called “plan” to plop a fig leaf over obvious conflicts of interest by allegedly separating himself from his businesses without actually separating himself from his businesses. Such criticism would seem to be to be part of Shaub’s job; he’d be remiss if he said nothing. My understanding is that most people who knows stuff about government ethics agree with Shaub.
Republicans might have reacted to this criticism in many ways. They might have disagreed with it; they might have offered counter-arguments. But here’s what they did, courtesy of Jason Chaffetz, the head of the House Oversight Committee.
On Thursday, Chaffetz opted to go full Salem on the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, attacking Shaub for having done his job. The Republican threatened to subpoena Shaub if he refuses to participate in an official transcribed behind-closed doors interview. The calculus here seems to be that if nobody sees this crooked behavior by supposed ethics guardians like Chaffetz, then it didn’t happen.
OGE, set up post-Watergate, is nonpartisan and advises executive branch officials on avoiding conflicts. Shaub’s five-year term expires in January 2018.
Chaffetz demanded in a letter that he appear before lawmakers in the aforementioned closed-door, transcribed interview, to answer questions in a deposition-style setting. Richard Painter, who served as the ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, told the New York Times that this was “political retaliation” by Republicans against nonpartisan ethics officers for doing their basic duty.
Using threats of subpoenas and hearings to intimidate and silence political opponents is an old tactic for the American Right. Sen. Joe McCarthy was infamous for it back in the day, as was the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.
But why do I claim that what Chaffetz tried to do is worse? Because he had no excuse. At least HUAC and McCarthy were ostensibly trying to investigate espionage and subversion in the United States, even though they were mostly just using said investigations as partisan political tools. But Chaffetz didn’t even bother to concoct some reason to harass Shaub that served some greater good. Back to Dahlia Lithwick in Slate:
In an interview with me on Friday, Norm Eisen—who led ethics initiatives during President Obama’s first term—agreed with Painter’s assessment that this is simply retaliation:
Democrats and Republicans alike, Richard Painter and myself included, are outraged by the chairman’s demand for a closed, Star Chamber–style interrogation of Director Shaub simply because he said exactly what bipartisan experts agree upon: that Trump’s proposed conflicts solution is woefully inadequate. An even more chilling aspect of the chairman’s letter is the not-so-veiled threat to cut OGE’s funding. All of this is merely the latest salvo in all-out attack on ethics oversight. The effort to shut down OCE, the four [Cabinet] nominees who had no ethics vetting who the majority tried to ram through confirmation hearings, Trump’s flouting precedent and the Constitution in his own [conflicts of interest] plan, and now this bullying of Shaub and threat to close OGE.
“It’s open season on ethics in D.C.,” Eisen added.
In the old days the enemy was Communism; now the enemy is ethics. See also “Earnest: ‘Outrageous’ For Chaffetz To Threaten To Subpoena Ethics Chief” by Matt Shuham at Talking Points Memo.
In other news, Trump has now taken to tweeting insults about Rep. John Lewis. The creature has no shame at all.