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A federal ethics office is sarcastically "congratulating" Trump over his conflict-of-interest plan

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

It’s probably been a tough month for the Office of Government Ethics, a federal agency that since 1978 has been devoted to preventing conflicts of interests within the executive branch. After all, the new head of the executive branch — President-elect Donald Trump — is essentially a massive walking conflict of interest, with his business interests all over the world presenting unprecedented complications and opportunities for corruption.

Trump tweeted this morning that he’ll announce his plan to step away from his businesses on December 15, at a press conference with his children. He’s likely to announce he’s handing control of the Trump Organization to them, something he’s said before during the campaign, which would not eliminate conflicts of interest. To do that, Trump would have to sell his businesses and put the proceeds into a blind trust, where he doesn’t know what assets he holds or how his policies might affect his personal wealth.

Trump has given no indication that selling his businesses is part of the plan. But the official Twitter account of the Office of Government Ethics responded to Trump by congratulating him for something he didn’t say he’d do — divest completely.

The series of tweets continued until it was clear that this was tongue-in-cheek, or trolling, or maybe a desperate attempt at positive reinforcement. Either the author was trying to bait Trump into admitting he’s not divesting or was hoping that enough public praise would force him to actually do it. (The tweets also suggest there may have been a fraught meeting or two between the agency and Trump’s lawyers.)

The agency’s spokesperson, Seth Jaffe, followed up with a statement along the same lines:

It’s worth being very clear here: There is absolutely no evidence that Trump plans to divest from his businesses, and quite a bit of evidence that he does not, including the presence of his adult children at the press conference and the fact that Republican National Committee spokesperson Sean Spicer told reporters Wednesday morning that Trump has always planned to hand his business over to them.

So the fact that the Office of Government Ethics, a federal agency, is pretending on its official Twitter account that Trump is doing something he’s not, perhaps as a way to pressure him into doing it after all, is a little weird. (And judging from the replies, the agency’s tweets appear to have confused quite a few people.)

But nothing about this situation is usual, especially the fact that the future president — a man with a long history of using his power to enrich himself — sees no real conflict between his business interests and his new job as the most powerful man in the world.

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