The emperor may not have any clothes on, but don’t try to tell that to congressional Republicans or you may get subpoenaed.
The majority party seems dead set on protecting President-Elect Donald Trump at every turn, and that has Democrats worried that the White House and cabinet secretaries will be given a pass for glaring conflicts of interest and even outright wrongdoing.
During the first week of the 115th Congress rank and file Republicans unsuccessfully tried to strip the independent Office of Congressional Ethics of many of its powers to police lawmakers, this week a House member called on CNN to fire Jim Acosta for questioning Trump during his first press conference in months, and now the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee is going after the head of an independent government watchdog for being critical of president-elect Donald Trump’s refusal to divest his business interests.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is known for his dogged pursuit of Hillary Clinton and for leading other partisan witch hunts from his perch as the top Republican investigator in Congress, but without a Democrat to pursue the conservative firebrand is taking aim at a government official.
With Trump readying to move into the White House, Chaffetz has called on Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, to come in for a private deposition before Republican staffers on his committee.
Shaub publicly criticized Trump this week over his newly unveiled plan to put his sons in charge of his business empire while he runs the free world—a scheme the ethics watchdog called “meaningless.” But Chaffetz blames Shaub for publicly airing his grievances with the incoming president.
“His requirement under the law is to do financial disclosures—to that extent it seems he’s done that,” Chaffetz told The Daily Beast. “If somebody thinks that there’s been a violation of law, they should share that with us. But mostly it’s just been a lot of fluttering about something that’s not required by law. The president has broad exemptions.”
Democrats argue Chaffetz is setting a dangerous precedent by trying to silence and intimidate an independent ethics watchdog whose agency is up for reauthorization this year.
“That’s hogwash,” Chaffetz added. “It’s silly. They’re trying to make it highly political. I just want to simply talk to him about what is his role and responsibility. I worry that he’s offering ethical conclusions for material he’s never looked at.”
Chaffetz said he’s hoping he doesn’t have to subpoena Shaub, but said he’s willing to if the director refuses to come in for questioning on his own. Democrats are ringing their hands at the thought of getting a chance to publicly question Shaub about Trump’s vast web of potential conflicts of interest.
“Go ahead and subpoena him. Let’s have that hearing. I’m all for it. We’ve been asking for hearings on conflicts,” Rep. Gerry Connolly told The Daily Beast, before adding that the pass Trump is getting from the GOP is unprecedented. “If you want to now call ethical vetting a partisan issue, then we’re really at a new low.”
Connolly argued it’s better for Trump and the GOP to listen to Shaub rather than attack him for doing his job, because Democrats are promising to keep Trump’s vast holding in the public eye until the 2018 midterm elections.
“He can trumpet it all he wants right now and his Republican enablers up here can sycophantically rationalize it away, but it can only get you in trouble,” Connolly added. “What it risks is tainting the legitimacy of almost every decision he makes because we’re going to find a conflict in almost everything he does and says,”
With Chaffetz going after the government watchdog, Democrats on the Oversight Committee are trying to go around him and look for sympathetic Republicans to help them hold Trump to account.
This week Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the Democratic leader on the oversight panel, and the top Democrats on every House committee sent a letter to Speaker Ryan, effectively going over Chaffetz’s head, requesting that the GOP leader help Democrats investigate any potential conflicts of interests with the incoming president’s global business holdings, especially any ties he has to Russia.
“We don’t know what he owns. We don’t know who he owes money to,” Cummings said after Trump’s press conference this week. “We need his tax returns, which he promised a long time ago. We need to know about his business investments, and his income streams—wherever they may be coming from.”
Some of Trump’s cabinet nominees have been slowed down in the Senate for not filling out all the material required by the Office of Government Ethics, which Democrats argue should serve as a warning to the new administration.
“This is the blind spot that the incoming president and his administration seem to have,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) told reporters at the Capitol. And he said he fears the president may have divided loyalties if he doesn’t completely divest his business interests.
“If he continues to retain ownership, which he does according to this so called plan, the danger persists that when he goes to make a decision, instead of making it with the interests of the public and the country in mind, somewhere in his brain, he may be affected by the potential that that decision could enhance or harm his business interests,” Sarbanes argued. “So he’s operating with divided loyalties.”