President Trump's White House has been operating so far outside of this country's traditional ethical "norms" that it's been "a shock to the system," Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, said Friday.
"We are truly in an ethics crisis, and something needs to be done about it," he said at a news conference at the National Press Club.
Shaub, who resigned from the government earlier this month, proposed a series of legislative reforms that he says could ensure the agency can remain effective — even during the Trump administration, with which it has had a combative relationship.
He says the administration is hiring staffers who "are pushing back on literally everything" suggested by OGE to minimize conflicts of interest, although all have ultimately complied.
The White House nominees are not merely quibbling about details of the law, but are challenging "even some of the basic assumptions of the ethical norms," said Shaub, who now works for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group.
And the president himself sets a bad example, Shaub said. "You see the president flying around giving free advertisement to his properties, and foreign governments, businesses and charities and even political officials holding events at his properties," he said. "It is just inextricable — the conflicts of interest."
Trump has refused to release his tax returns, and has failed to fully divest from his business empire.
To raise ethical standards, Shaub is urging Congress to pass legislation that would, among other reforms, create a central inspector general for the executive branch. Then instead of merely providing guidance to the White House on ethical matters, the OGE could refer cases to an inspector for investigation.
In addition, OGE should be able to initiate civil penalties in court and talk directly to Congress without going through the Office of Management and Budget first. And, he wants to crack down on "revolving doors" in government, where senior officials currently are allowed to leave government and after one year become lobbyists for clients trying to influence their old agencies.
Shaub also wants to amend the Ethics in Government Act to prohibit officials from receiving compensation for the use of their names and their family names while in office — a matter particularly relevant to the Trumps, who hold extensive trademarks and make money from placing their name on properties, such as hotels.
Shaub said the changes he proposes transcend partisan politics.
"Both major political parties have always been incredibly supportive of the government ethics program and neither can claim sole credit for having built it," Shaub said.
He has already found support for his efforts from Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.
If OGE is not strengthened, Shaub said, Americans risk long-standing ethical norms changing, for the worse.
"Norms are the glue that hold society together," he said.