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U.S. Ethics Chief Was Behind Those Tweets About Trump, Records Show

Walter Shaub Jr. is the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, which tweeted last month about President-elect Donald Trump's conflicts of interest.
U.S. Office of Government Ethics
Walter Shaub Jr. is the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, which tweeted last month about President-elect Donald Trump's conflicts of interest.

In November, the typically straitlaced Office of Government Ethics surprised observers with a series of tweets mimicking Donald Trump's bombastic style, exclamation points and all: "Brilliant! Divestiture is good for you, good for America!"

The controversy was two-fold: (1) The OGE doesn't typically air its positions publicly, advising White House transition teams behind the scenes. (2) Trump hadn't promised the total divestitures of business interests implied by the tweets.

New records shared with NPR on Friday show that behind the curious tweets was the head of the OGE himself, Director Walter Shaub Jr.

In two emails, dated Nov. 30, just several minutes apart, Shaub sent to OGE Chief of Staff Shelley Finlayson the nine tweets that took the Internet by storm that day. He then followed up with a link to a legal document referenced in one of the tweets and writes: "Get all of these tweets posted as soon as humanly possible."

The emails were part of a 365-page document shared with NPR in response to disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

OGE is generally tasked with overseeing ethics in the executive branch of the government, and so it's one of the agencies looking into Trump's wide-reaching business interests and the conflicts of interest they create for the president-elect as he takes over the reins of the country in January. As NPR's Jim Zarroli has reported:

"With his vast network of licensing deals, golf courses and commercial real estate, Trump and his family stand to profit from his presidency to an unprecedented degree. Virtually any decision Trump makes could affect part of his domestic or international business empire."

Several OGE officials did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. It's still unclear why — if Shaub's tweets were deliberate — they were temporarily deleted on the day they were posted. At the time, an OGE spokesman said the agency was enthused by Trump's indicated interest (on Twitter) in avoiding conflicts of interest.

Despite the stylistic peculiarity of OGE's tweets, Shaub's position on Trump's conflicts of interest is not secret. He appears to be on a campaign to get Trump to divest, as shown by his lengthy letter released earlier this month.

"I think that there's a uniform consensus among everybody who does government ethics for a living ... that Donald Trump must divest — he's got to sell his holdings or use a blind trust or the equivalent, as every president has done for 40 years," says Norm Eisen, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"So I took the tweets as an expression of that common-sensical view," says Eisen, who has served as special counsel for ethics and government reform in the Obama White House. "This is an undebatable position in our profession."

NPR had requested, under FOIA, that the agency share all emails related to the Twitter postings on Nov. 30 and related to Donald Trump. Only one exchange appeared to involve a member of the Trump team.

On the day of the tweetstorm, Shaub emailed "D. McGahn" — presumably Donald McGahn, the former chief of the Federal Election Commission whom Trump picked to be White House counsel — to notify him of the press inquiries and the OGE's response.

OGE redacted about 15 pages among a week's worth of emails, describing them as "draft" or "internal notes" or "draft communications plan."

The vast majority of the disclosures were media inquiries from the month of November — but also troves of messages from members of the public received around the time of the tweets.

A copy of the postcard received by the OGE.
/ U.S. Office of Government Ethics/Screenshot by NPR
U.S. Office of Government Ethics/Screenshot by NPR
A copy of the postcard received by the OGE.

There are dozens and dozens of emails, letters and even a postcard (of Alexander Hamilton with a black eye?), expressing concerns about Trump's business holdings and conflicts of interest. Many writers criticized OGE's tweetstorm; others welcomed its candid commentary. Most writers encouraged OGE to hold up the ethics law and standards.

NPR's Jim Zarroli contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.