Trump Administration Responds To New Ethic Concerns

Originally published on September 15, 2017 8:14 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Trump administration has had to respond to some ethics concerns this week. First, the Treasury secretary's honeymoon. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin requested a military jet to fly him and his new bride to their European honeymoon this past summer. Mnuchin says he was just trying to make sure he had access to secure communications. And then there was the reversal of an old ethics policy.

The U.S. Office of Government Ethics may now allow presidential aides to take money from anonymous donors to help with legal funds. To discuss this and more, we're joined now by Walter Shaub. He's the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, who resigned in July, after he was at odds with the Trump administration. Mr. Shaub, thanks so much for coming in.

WALTER SHAUB: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let's start with Steve Mnuchin, treasury secretary. News broke that he had asked - he'd put in this request in writing to use a military plane for his honeymoon. He says he needed that kind of plane because of the secure communications that come with it, so it would allow him to be in touch and be able to review classified information while he was on his honeymoon. So that sounds reasonable.

SHAUB: Well, it does until you think it through. He's going to his honeymoon, where they're going to travel around the countryside. And are they really going to take that plane like an RV down the highways of Scotland? The reality is there are a lot of different ways to establish secure communications. And, in fact, they found a different way.

But his idea that he wanted to take this government plane, which is fantastically, improbably expensive to us, the taxpayers, is incredible. And every career person anywhere in the room around him probably sounded the alarm the second the idea was even floated. So the fact that it got all the way to the point where it got put in writing, he may be downplaying it right now, but he had to have ignored warnings that this is crazy when he started to do it.

MARTIN: And he's done this before. Last month, he went on this trip that involved a government plane. And it became apparent that perhaps it was an effort to get a better view of the eclipse.

SHAUB: Right.

MARTIN: So was - is he just not getting the optics of this?

SHAUB: He must not be because there's a photograph out there on the Internet of him standing next to a senator who's holding in his hand eclipse-viewing glasses, and he's telling us he didn't go there to see the eclipse. We're starting to see something of a pattern with Steve Mnuchin because this is the guy who also told America to go see his movie, "Lego Batman." Oh, I shouldn't have given him free advertising there.

And his explanation for why he had to travel on that flight during the eclipse was even weirder than his explanation to Scotland because he said he needed to check on the gold at Fort Knox. And in a speech, he said he was the first secretary since 1974 to go do that, which should have been a warning signal to him that that's a strange thing to do.

He says he had to certify that the gold is there. Well, he certainly didn't go there and count each gold bar, so the idea that he had to eyeball it when he could have had one of his staff send him a cellphone pic if he needed to see it with his own eyes is really strange and implausible.

MARTIN: I want to touch on actually two other issues. One we mentioned in the introduction, the office you used to work for, the Office of Government Ethics, was at least thinking about making this change to a rule. And this is something that bothered you, so I'm going to ask you to explain what the change was going to be here.

SHAUB: Right. So this is a problem of their own making. They are now claiming that they're not changing it, which is a good outcome. Who knows if that was their view a week ago? But thank goodness with all the media pressure they've gotten, they've been forced to acknowledge that the approach they were apparently taking is inappropriate.

MARTIN: What was going to change?

SHAUB: So what happened is a long time ago, OGE issued an opinion in 1993, saying that you can accept anonymous donations for legal defense funds. And within months, OGE realized that was a mistake and changed the approach. Now, they didn't change the opinion on the books. But the approach now was, you can't except anonymous donations.

MARTIN: And this is for federal employees who need a legal defense fund?

SHAUB: Right. Right. Which is not an unreasonable thing. I'm not opposed to legal defense funds, but you have to do it right to comply with the rules. And for a variety of reasons which might take too long to explain, they never got around to changing the opinion. I was pushing for them to issue a new opinion, but when it started dragging on, I had them put a note on the opinion that said parts of this opinion are no longer valid.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SHAUB: Now, the intent there was to not give a reader enough tools to be able to run off and set up their own legal defense fund. The effect I successfully produced was you'd have to call OGE and say, what should I do? And that's exactly what we want because you should be working with OGE. We discovered this past weekend that they changed the note. And the only thing the note says now is the primary points of this opinion is valid. And it's fact-specific, so feel free to call us.

MARTIN: All right. I want to get to one other issue, this one having to do with former national security adviser Mike Flynn. Two top House Democrats say Flynn may have lobbied for a business deal in the Middle East while he was at the White House. Just briefly, what's the problem here?

SHAUB: Well, the serious problem, first of all, is that he failed to disclose a trip on his national security form related to this from before he came into government. And while he's in government, there are members of Congress who are concerned that his advocacy for this overseas deal may have been on behalf of outside parties. We don't know if that's true, but if it was, it could be a felony.

MARTIN: Walter Shaub. He resigned from his position as director of the Office of Government Ethics this past July. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us this morning.

SHAUB: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.