The U.S. Office of Government Ethics, as its name suggests, interprets and advises federal officials on the ethics laws and rules designed to help keep them honest. “When government decisions are made free from conflicts of interest, the public can have greater confidence in the integrity of executive branch programs and operations,” its mission statement admirably declares. Given what likely awaits the agency in less than two months’ time, it understandably had some, um, thoughts on Donald Trump’s vague, predawn Twitter announcement that he will be “leaving his great business” to focus on the presidency.
Remarkably, those exclamation-filled tweets from a normally staid Twitter account don’t appear to be the result of a hack. “Like everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-elect’s twitter feed indicating he wants to be free of conflicts of interest,” agency spokesman Seth Jaffe said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon. He added: “We don’t know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it.”
Don’t expect Trump to take OGE up on its offer. For nearly a year now he has maintained that when he is president, he will place his financial assets in a “blind trust” that will be run by his children. As I’ve explained before, however, Trump’s take on a “blind trust” is conveniently neither inherently blind nor particularly trustworthy. In a real blind trust, an independent trustee—that is, not someone’s own children—takes over a public official’s portfolio, thereby allowing the official to operate without knowledge of where or how his money is invested, so that it can’t influence his decisions. Furthermore, Trump would almost certainly need to divest himself of his interest in his company and its properties since, even in an unlikely world where he and his adult kids could refrain from talking shop, he wouldn’t be able to forget where much of his cash comes from, given that he’s slapped his last name on so many of his projects.
Trump being Trump, however, he has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that reality, and his morning announcement—which was really just an announcement that a future announcement was in the works—doesn’t actually change anything. Barring a significant reversal, the Trump family’s business interests will become intertwined with, and in many ways indistinguishable from, U.S. policy as soon as he is sworn in next January. The OGE isn’t happy about that—quite rightly.
I’ve reached out to the agency to see if it would like to elaborate on its Twitter strategy or on Trump’s announcement in general, but I haven’t yet heard back. I suppose it’s possible that someone at OGE is optimistically taking Trump at his word that he’ll do the right thing, perhaps as a way to entice him to actually do the right thing in the end. Far more likely, however, they’re using sarcasm to point out that Trump is actively refusing to promise to take the necessary steps to avoid obvious conflicts of interest between the Trump administration and the for-profit Trump Organization. Regardless of whether OGE is being willfully naive or slyly sarcastic, it’s striking that a federal agency tasked with steering the White House around ethical problems feels Twitter is the best medium to convey its important advice to the incoming president of the United States of America. Sadly, they may be out of other options.
Update, 4:31 p.m.: More from Jaffe, who sent along this statement concerning the tweets specifically:
The tweets that OGE posted today were responding only to the public statement that the President-elect made on his Twitter feed about his plans regarding conflicts of interest. OGE’s tweets were not based on any information about the President-elect’s plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed. OGE is non-partisan and does not endorse any individual.