The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has called for more scrutiny of the Office of Government Ethics for its critical stance on President-elect Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest prior to taking office.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), in a letter sent Thursday, accused OGE’s Director Walter Shaub of “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance,” and requested that he appear before the committee in a closed-door meeting for questioning about the agency’s oversight role.
Chaffetz’s letter to the federal ethics watchdog takes issue with a series of exchanges between OGE and the President-elect on Twitter.
“It was not clear whether the tweets constituted official OGE guidance or something less formal. It is clear, however, the tweets publicized discussions with the President-elect’s counsel,” Chaffetz said in his letter to Shaub.
Chaffetz also mentioned that his committee holds the authority to reauthorize OGE or conduct an investigation of the agency at “any time.”
“OGE’s statutory authorization lapsed at the end of fiscal year 2007 and the committee has jurisdiction in the House of Representatives for reauthorizing the office,” he wrote.
During a Wednesday press conference at the Brookings Institution, Shaub explained that the Nov. 30 tweets were meant to get the attention of Trump and his transition team, which had not been responding to OGE’s phone calls and emails.
“I was trying to use the vernacular of the President-elect’s favorite social media platform to encourage him to divest. My thinking was that more pointed language would have been too strong at a time when he was still making up his mind,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member, fired back at Chaffetz for investigating the federal ethics watchdog but refusing to hold hearings to determine whether President-elect Trump’s financial stake in his business empire would serve as a conflict of interest once he assumes office.
“The Oversight Committee has not held one hearing, conducted one interview, or obtained one document about President-Elect Donald Trump’s massive global entanglements, yet it is now apparently rushing to launch an investigation of the key government official for warning against the risks caused by President-Elect Donald Trump’s current plans,” Cummings said in a statement.
Chaffetz’s letter to OGE comes one week after House Republicans voted to limit the authority of the Office of Congressional Ethics, but quickly scrapped those plans after receiving significant blowback from congressional Democrats, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Ohio), and President-elect Trump.
On Wednesday, after Trump announced he would hand control of the Trump Organization over to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, Shaub told reporters that the incoming president should be held to the same ethical standards as his Cabinet picks, many of whom began the Senate confirmation process this week.
“The signals a president sends set the tone for ethics across the executive branch. Tone from the top matters,” Shaub said.
The federal ethics watchdog specifically praised Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, for “making a clean break” from his prior role as chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil.
“His ethics agreement serves as a sterling model of what we’d like to see with other nominees. He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost. The greater the authority entrusted in a government official, the greater the potential for conflicts of interest. That’s why the cost is often greater the higher up you go,” Shaub said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution.
To be clear, the president and vice president are not legally bound by the financial conflict of interest law that applies to all federal employees. However, Shaub said Trump’s refusal to put his assets in a blind trust “does not comport with the tradition of our Presidents over the past 40 years.”
“Common sense dictates that a President can, of course, have very real conflicts of interest … for this reason, it’s been the consistent policy of the executive branch that the President should act as though the financial conflict of interest law applied,” he said.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the House Judiciary and Budget committees, also fired back at the Chaffetz letter.
“The actions by the Republican leadership on the Oversight Committee are outrageous. They are clearly dragging the head of the independent ethics office up to Capitol Hill as a form of intimidation given the fact that the office has rebuked President-elect Trump on several fronts,” Lieu said in a statement on Friday.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, warned lawmakers against probing OGE for doings its job.
“The independent, nonpartisan OGE is just that: independent and nonpartisan. We need everyone there, especially Director Shaub, to keep doing their jobs without implicit or explicit threats from Congress,” Carper said in a statement Friday.
In the letter, Chaffetz requests that Shaub meets with the House Oversight Committee before the end of January. OGE did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.