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Thursday, May 25, 2017

The White House’s Aversion to Ethical Scrutiny - The New York Times

By The Editorial Board,

"It takes a serious commitment to incompetence and deception to spawn as many ethical and legal concerns as the Trump administration has in just four months. The misbehavior by White House officials in the past few days has been impressive even by Trumpian standards. They’ve tried to raise doubts about the independence of the special counsel investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. And they’ve stonewalled efforts by the Office of Government Ethics to identify conflicts of interest in the administration.

Take first the ethics issue. In January, Mr. Trump signed an executive order banning appointees who had been lobbyists or lawyers from working on policy or regulatory issues they were once paid to influence, for two years. Unfortunately, that order allowed the president or a designee to secretly waive these restrictions. In the Obama administration, any such waivers were made public, with a detailed explanation. Otherwise, it would be impossible for the public to know who was violating the lobbying rules, and who received permission to ignore them.

Confronted with multiple examples of former lobbyists working on the exact issues they once lobbied on, the ethics office last month directed the White House and federal agencies to provide, by June 1, copies of any waivers.

In a letter to Walter Shaub Jr., who directs the office, and to ethics officers in federal agencies, the White House challenged Mr. Shaub’s legal authority to make the request. The letter came from Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, which has no jurisdiction over the government ethics program. His effort centers on whether the White House is a “federal agency,” subject to ethics rules. But Mr. Mulvaney went further, maintaining, contrary to the Ethics in Government Act, that the ethics office has no authority to demand information on waivers from federal agencies. Since his office helps control the agencies’ funding, some interpreted that as an effort to intimidate them into keeping their waivers secret, too.

The ethics office was created after Watergate. A White House has never actively worked against it in this way. Mr. Shaub, whose five-year term ends in January, refuses to back down. He told agency ethics officers that contrary to what the White House says, they are legally required to provide details of the waivers to his office. Late on Monday, he sent a rocket of a letter to Mr. Mulvaney. His office’s job, he wrote, is “to lead the executive branch ethics program with independence, free from political pressure. Accordingly, OGE declines your request to suspend its ethics inquiry and reiterates its expectation that agencies will fully comply with its directive by June 1, 2017. Public confidence in the integrity of government decision-making demands no less.”

So will the White House bend? Or will Mr. Trump fire another independent official for excess loyalty to the law?"

The White House’s Aversion to Ethical Scrutiny - The New York Times

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