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Time Is Running Out For White House To Turn Over Ethics Documents

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A deadline arrives next week for the White House. A federal ethics office has given the Trump administration until June 1 to turn over documents.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

They're documents concerning industry lobbyists in government. Two straight administrations have imposed restrictions on lobbyists. They're not supposed to regulate the industries they once served unless they get a waiver. The Office of Government Ethics has asked the Trump administration to show those waivers.

INSKEEP: This is all a little complicated, so we brought in Don Fox to help us figure it out. He once was a top ethics official appointed by a Republican to what's called the Office of Government Ethics, which gives oversight over the lobbying rules.

DON FOX: So, for example, if you were a lobbyist and your issue were tax credits for solar panels, once you came in to the government for a period of two years, that's an issue that you couldn't work on.

INSKEEP: So here's what's happened in recent months. The ethics office asked the White House and agencies across government to name former lobbyists they'd hired and state what ethics waivers had been granted. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney instead told ethics officials to hold off on that.

Ethics office head Walter Shaub replied no, we're not going to hold off. And he set this deadline, June 1. Don Fox says the law does require the White House to comply but does not provide any way to compel that.

FOX: So to the extent he can compel, it would be by virtue of the fact that everyone in the executive branch has taken an oath to observe the Constitution and the laws enacted thereunder and this would be one.

INSKEEP: When you were in the Office of Government Ethics, were you asking White House officials for documents like the ones that the OGE is asking for now?

FOX: We never had to do that because we always had a very good partnership with the White House, and that didn't really depend upon party. That was true of the Bush administration. It was true of the Obama administration as well.

INSKEEP: Wait. You never had to fight them for documents, they just sent them over?

FOX: Yes. And the only issues that we would ever have would be with, you know, some agencies and perhaps officials who are not as familiar with the authority of OGE or the importance of Government Ethics. And so occasionally, you would have to call the White House counsel's office and say, can you help us? The White House counsel's office would always intervene actually to help OGE do its job.

INSKEEP: Now, in this case, Mick Mulvaney has sent around a letter that is now public in which he tells a variety of officials around the government don't comply with these requests from the Office of Government Ethics for documents because they are unique and raise potential legal questions that need to be answered. Let's pursue that. Is this a unique request that the Office of Government Ethics is making of the Trump administration?

FOX: Well, it's unique in that under no prior administration has OGE ever had to take this step. So that much is true, but I can't imagine what would be in those waivers that they would not - that we should not know about. You know, Mulvaney complains about how arduous it would be. Well, you know, one, that suggests, well, for God's sake, how many waivers are there?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

FOX: And two, aren't they all loaded someplace in the same file on the computer and you can just hit send? So I just don't buy that.

INSKEEP: He also says there are potential legal issues that are raised here, doesn't specify what they might be. Can you imagine any potential legal concern about turning over these documents to the Office of Government Ethics?

FOX: Well, I've tried to put myself in that position. And no, I really can't conceive of what potential issue that would be in a waiver or what we would want a new official to work on that should not be available to the public.

INSKEEP: Why does all of this matter?

FOX: I think it matters in terms of the credibility, really, of our government. And can we trust both our elected and our appointed officials? And it matters because every federal official takes an oath, and that oath is to observe the Constitution and all the laws enacted thereunder whether we agree with them or not.

INSKEEP: What concerns do you have about this White House, given the reluctance to turn over these documents?

FOX: My concerns as a former federal ethics official are what it may do to the ethics program, and I think in some ways how it may create the impression that the Office of Government Ethics is partisan or political, which it's not. And if that perception exists, I think it's because the White House has created it and not because OGE has.

INSKEEP: One other thing. When I flip to the end of Walter Shaub's letter that I've got here - the one to the White House from the Office of Government Ethics - he says, I want these documents by June 1, 2017, which is coming right up. What if the White House doesn't comply?

FOX: Well, I don't know what the options will be at that point. I think that OGE's avenues from there - because again, it's not like Director Shaub can subpoena these documents - would be to make his case on the Hill and with the media and with the public.

INSKEEP: And so he says that sets up a possible public confrontation between Walter Schwab, the head of the ethics office, and President Trump's White House. And the former ethics official, Don Fox, told us he thinks Shaub may be risking his job to get the documents.

FOX: I don't see this ending well in terms of Walt.

INSKEEP: In terms of Walter Shaub?

FOX: Yeah. I don't think it ends well for him. But I also, you know, knowing him as well as I do, I think he knew that when he started down this path.

INSKEEP: Don Fox was general counsel, deputy director and acting director of the Office of Government Ethics between 2008 and 2013. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.