In U.S. Ethics Chief, An Unlikely Gadfly To Trump Next week, leaders of the House Oversight Committee are expected to meet with the director of the Office of Government Ethics, who has been under fire for admonishing Trump to divest his businesses.

In U.S. Ethics Chief, An Unlikely Gadfly To Trump

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One of the most unlikely figures to capture the spotlight since the election is the lawyer who runs the Office of Government Ethics. Walter Shaub openly criticized Trump's moves to separate the presidency from his businesses as inadequate, and he tweaked the president-elect on social media. As NPR's Alina Selyukh reports, that has made him a lightning rod in the nation's capital.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: When the Watergate scandal blew up in the 1970s, one of the things to emerge from its shadow was the Office of Government Ethics. And OGE usually works quietly behind the scenes to make sure that people who run the country have no financial ties that could influence their work.


WALTER SHAUB: We can't risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for personal profit.

SELYUKH: That's director Walter Shaub, and he's been a lawyer at OGE for a decade. And when you ask people about him, he's described as careful, even-keeled, kind of boring, which made it all the more surprising that he was the man who orchestrated a bizarre Trump-style tweet storm from OGE, saying things like bravo and brilliant. Divestiture is good for you, very good for America. Except Trump had promised no such thing.


SHAUB: I was trying to use the vernacular of the president-elect's favorite social media platform to encourage him to divest.

SELYUKH: This was another unlikely move by Shaub - an unexpected speech at a think tank last week.


SHAUB: I need to talk about ethics today because the plan the president has announced doesn't meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting.

SELYUKH: This was a direct public response to Trump finally revealing his financial plan - that as president, he will keep his business empire but shift the management to his sons. Trump's team says by law, presidents can't have conflicts of interest.


DONALD TRUMP: So I could actually run my business. I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.

SELYUKH: And that's true. While presidents have bans on bribes, foreign gifts and insider trading, they are exempt from conflict of interest rules that apply to Cabinet members. Still, historically, presidents have voluntarily met the same standards as their nominees. Shaub's push for Trump to divest has put him in Republican crosshairs.


JASON CHAFFETZ: All I really want is I want the person who heads up the Office of Government Ethics to be ethical. And right now, I don't see that.

SELYUKH: That's Representative Jason Chaffetz on Fox News. He has accused Shaub of partisanship and has summoned him to a meeting, pointing out that the committee he chairs oversees OGE's budget.

RICHARD PAINTER: The worst thing is for Congress to start going after OGE on the behalf of the president. It makes the president look terrible.

SELYUKH: That's Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush. And he says OGE has no enforcement power. Potential conflicts of interest would likely fall to Congress, the Justice Department, to courts. So getting in a spat with OGE sends the wrong message, and any effort to push Shaub out of his job would be worse.

PAINTER: Firing the head of the Office of Government Ethics is about the dumbest thing I think a president could do if he wants the public to have confidence in his ethics.

SELYUKH: Shaub's term as OGE director runs into 2018, and the next time Trump will have to deal with him is when the president submits his financial disclosures. Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Washington.


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