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The top federal ethics official who criticized Trump just announced he’s quitting

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.

Walter Shaub, the head of the federal Office of Government Ethics who sharply criticized President Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest earlier this year, is resigning, choosing to become an ethics watchdog outside government rather than in it.

The office is charged with ensuring members of the executive branch follow federal ethics laws and regulations. Typically low-profile, it’s clashed several times with the Trump administration over conflicts of interest — Trump’s reluctance to financially separate himself from his hotels business and other ventures — but the office is ultimately almost powerless when it comes to forcing the president’s staff to follow the rules.

Shaub, who is joining the Campaign Legal Center, a group that works on campaign finance and ethics in government, posted his letter of resignation on Twitter. In it, he wrote he was proud to have served with the “dedicated and patriotic assembly of public servants” who “are committed to protecting the principle that public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain.”

The Office of Government Ethics stood up to Trump — but ultimately couldn’t do much

Several times during Trump’s presidency, Shaub and his office pointed out when the administration fell short of that standard. In a series of over-the-top tweets in December, the office congratulated the incoming president for fully divesting from his businesses — which he had not done.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution in January, shortly before Inauguration Day, Shaub suggested Trump’s ongoing conflicts of interest put democracy at risk:

“The president is now entering a world of public service,” Shaub said at the time. “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.”

But Trump didn’t divest. And after he took office, the limits of Shaub’s power quickly became clear.

When Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the president, said on Fox & Friends that viewers should “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” after Nordstrom announced it would stop carrying the president’s daughter’s fashion line, complaints poured into the Office of Government Ethics. But the office can only investigate complaints and suggest disciplinary measures — it can’t require that the White House actually force its staff to adhere to conflict of interest regulations.

Working with the Trump administration convinced Shaub that “we need improvements to the existing ethics program,” he said in a press release from the Campaign Legal Center. And he’s apparently decided that the only way to improve them is by working outside the Trump administration entirely.