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The government official in charge of ethics just harshly condemned Trump’s 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.

The nonpartisan director of the federal Office of Government Ethics ripped into President-elect Donald Trump’s plans for his businesses in an unusually public and blisteringly critical speech Wednesday afternoon. Walter Shaub went so far as to say that Trump’s conflicts of interest put democracy at risk, break with decades of tradition, and call into doubt whether Trump’s own patriotism stands up to history.

Trump’s plan to step back from his businesses day to day is “meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective,” Shaub said in his remarks at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Every president in modern times has taken the strong medicine of divestiture,” Shaub said. Trump’s plan “does not comport with the traditions of the presidency over the past 40 years.”

The president-elect announced Wednesday morning that he would hand management of the Trump Organization over to his adult sons and the company’s chief financial officer. He promised to insulate himself from his businesses by donating the profits from foreign stays at his hotel to the federal government and limiting the information he received about his profits and losses. Shaub called the structure “perplexing.”

Trump will still know where his business interests lie. He made clear that he plans to return to his company after his presidency. Ethics experts have long contended that the only real solution is a blind trust: Trump should sell his properties and allow someone else to invest the proceeds from the sale so that he doesn’t know what he owns. Trump’s lawyer said a blind trust would, essentially, be too difficult and expensive, since it would require Trump to sell large amounts of real estate.

“The president is now entering a world of public service,” Shaub said. “He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be president of the United States of America.”

The Office of Government Ethics has hammered out hundreds, if not thousands, of divestiture agreements involving federal officials. They have had to “divest assets, break open trusts, and dissolve businesses,” Shaub said, and taking those steps can be expensive and painful.

But, Shaub said, “their basic patriotism usually prevails as they agree to set aside their personal interests to serve their country’s interests.” When officials were reluctant to take the required steps, the ethics office’s demands were backed up by “the unwavering example of presidents who resolved their own conflicts of interest.”

Presidents in the past didn’t just set an example for the rest of their administration, Shaub said. They helped the American system of government set an example for the world on avoiding corruption.

Trump is asking his Cabinet members to meet higher standards than he is

The Office of Government Ethics is charged with ensuring there are no conflicts of interest. Its employees search through thousands of pages of financial disclosures and reach agreements with would-be Cabinet nominees, as well as lower-level officials, stating the steps they’ll take to make sure their private investments and public duties don’t conflict.

It’s a relatively obscure, generally apolitical agency, and Shaub — who was a career public servant in the office before being appointed by President Obama in 2013 to his first five-year term as director — is far from a public figure.

His decision to make a public speech criticizing the incoming president-elect was highly unusual. But emails between the Trump transition team and the ethics office showed that Trump has had little regard for the office’s work since he came into office. For 10 days after the election, offers of assistance and guidance on ensuring an ethical transition were rebuffed.

Nor did Trump’s lawyers run their plans past Shaub. If they had, he said, he would have told them it was very possible for the president to sell his real estate assets, and that other officials in the past have done so.

As for Trump’s other justification — that the president “can’t have a conflict of interest” — that’s nonsense, Shaub said.

“A conflict of interest is anything that creates an incentive to put your own interest before the interests of the people you serve,” Shaub said, quoting a Supreme Court decision from 1961 that called conflicts of interest “an evil which endangers the very fabric of democratic society.”

If anything, Shaub said, it’s more important for presidents to avoid conflicts of interest: “The potential for corruption only grows with the increase in power.”

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