S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
S2: While Trump had us on a highway to authoritarianism at 120 miles an hour, Biden has slowed the car to six or 15 miles an hour, but he has not turned the car around in the other direction.
S1: Hi, and welcome back to Amicus. This is Slate’s podcast about the courts and the law. I’m Dahlia Lithwick, and I cover those things for Slate as we creep on into the holiday season, a fresh wave of COVID threatening to crash among the festivities. A couple of things are going on. Supreme Court has three members who are strongly aligned with religious dissenters refusing their vaccines. Texas women enter their 110th day living with a six week abortion ban. Senator Elizabeth Warren says it is now time to pack the court, and the Biden administration is saying it’s going to prioritize voting rights in 2022. Stay tuned for our Slate Plus members first. Thank you, as always, for your support. Second, I have some good news and some bad news. Mark Joseph Stern is out this week, but he will be back for a New Year’s Day extra special Amicus plus year in review. The topic we wanted to get back to this week is the thing that Amicus kind of minored in during the Trump years, except for the weeks that we majored in it, and that is the topic of accountability. You may recall that we compulsively on this show detailed both impeachment trials. We probed ethics reform. We talked about emoluments and the Hatch Act. We spent weeks talking about January six. And since then, there’s been a slightly dissonant but persistent tendency to kind of keep calm and carry on a trickle down theory of democracy that just assumes that systems held in most things are resolved. So let’s pull up the split screen now. Revelations this week about what was happening on and before January six are either a really big deal or just a hoax. And this feels familiar. If you watched the impeachment, etc. But the central question that just hasn’t gone away, even if we look away, continues to be accountability. So our guest today has been doggedly pursuing government accountability for years now. I think in some ways he’s become the conscience of a country that is just desperate to move past accountability. Walter Shaub is a government ethics expert who has advocated for integrity and accountability in government across a whole career in public service. He leads the project on Government Oversight’s Government Ethics Initiative, which focuses on preventing abuse of government power and resources, reforming government ethics systems and holding government officials accountable to the public they are meant to serve. Before joining Pogo, Walter Shaub served for four years as the Senate confirmed director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, the Ogechi. He served there for nearly 14 years. He has testified before Congress as both a government official and as private citizen, and he has worked closely with government leaders to develop and implement ethics reforms during the Trump years. Walt’s Twitter feed became a kind of must follow for anybody who was clocking ethics violations, self-dealing, things that just felt like they couldn’t happen here. Since then, he continues to do all that and more. So what I’ve wanted to have you on the show for so very long. There was a big built up, but welcome to Amicus.
S2: Yes. Thanks for having me, Dahlia. It’s great to be here.
S1: Let’s just jump in on this split screen of Jan. six, because I think you have been incredibly critical of the slaps on the wrists that have been meted out to the lowest level coup participants, while noting that leadership really from the top down has been almost completely immune, not just from prosecution but even from scrutiny. It seems as though the reporting this week maybe changed all that. We’re getting New York Times reporting that members of the Freedom Caucus were deeply involved in efforts to pressure the Justice Department to pressure state officials to pressure Mike Pence himself to overturn the election. Results were actually seeing texts that were sent to Mark Meadows on the day of Jan. six. That seemed to implicate kind of everybody, as you have noted on Twitter. It now really feels like the calls were quite literally coming from inside that house. And so I guess is a framing question I want to open with. Is this different? Has this changed, or are we just too far gone along the path of normalizing Jan. six to care?
S2: I think what it may change this past week was a sense on the part of the public that something’s happening and maybe, if we’re lucky, a wake up call for the press that puts this back into perspective. I mean, we talk about the Jan. six insurrection or the coup or whatever we want to call it, as though it was a tussle that seems to be the dominant narrative in terms of its tone, that this was just a thing that happened. And if we step back and look at it as though we were reporting on a foreign country, you had the outgoing leader who had just lost an election convene an event on the major parade ground of the nation in its capital after weeks of calling the election a lie and saying things like January six is going to be huge and people bussed in from all over. And then at his rally, a congressman, Mo Brooks, urges people to go and, as he put it, kick some ass and President Trump is screaming and Mo Brooks is telling people on your way home, go pay a visit to the Capitol. And so then they did. Meanwhile, there was a noose hanging from a scaffolding outside. People scaled the walls of Congress. In most countries, you would have expected them to open fire on the crowd, and maybe after a few dozen fell down dead, the others would run away. And I’m not urging that people be killed, but I’m just trying to put it in perspective here that that’s the magnitude of this assault. You had members of Congress hiding one hiding in a closet, hoping she wasn’t going to be murdered by people who talk about killing her, and a fellow member of Congress posted a cartoon video of him killing her. And you had them screaming that they should hang the vice president, and they beat a couple police officers almost to death, and one died on the way to the hospital when the police were cornered and made one final stand and warned people not to come in. A terrorist burst through the glass and the officer had no choice but to shoot her, and then she died. And you’ve got an entire segment of the population supportive of this coup attempt, cheering her on as though she’s some kind of a martyr for her cause. Well, the only cause she’s a martyr for is terrorism and fascism. And you have the military withholding aid and leaving these Capitol Police officers grossly outnumbered fighting for their lives for hours. And in this context, in this moment, we also now know that we had members of Congress putting enormous pressure on the Department of Justice and the vice president to reject the outcome of the election. We came so close to the Republic ending that day, and we talk about it as a minor thing, and I think none of this came as a surprise. We knew it came from the top, both in the executive and the legislative branch. We knew there’s a deep conspiracy. We have the spectacle of members of Congress who participated in the plot and who were texting one of the chief protagonists objecting to these proceedings going forward. We are at an absolute crisis moment. And I think we’ve all been numbed by these light sentences and this targeting of the lowest level officials and what seems like Merrick Garland, our attorney general’s timidity in pursuing any kind of higher level actors in this conspiracy. And now we’re getting a vivid reminder just how high it went. And I saw somebody I respect on TV complaining that maybe the members of Congress should have withheld this information until their final report. And I think that that is a traditional line of thinking that so many people have, and I think they’ve the world has lost perspective that this isn’t that moment. This isn’t some traditional moment where we’re having a sober investigation where both sides are cooperating, like in the 9-11 commission. We are basically facing an ongoing attempt to overthrow the Republic. And I think that this was probably the most encouraging thing that I’ve seen to signal that the the committee is serious and I frankly had been losing a bit of hope in them. But this was encouraging. And as I said, I think if nothing else, it serves as a reminder of just how serious this was. So now somebody who is opposed to the filibuster, I have to apologize for filibustering. So.
S1: No, I mean, I think this is this is the meat of what we’re trying to probe, and I think you as somebody who has really been a crusader for sort of government accountability have, I think, been watching with dismay that the guys in the funny hats and the people who say silly things on Twitter and the guys who are taking selfies, you know, it turns into this kind of Peter Sellers movie, right, where it’s just like these silly kids, you know, running amok. Were they antifa? We don’t know. You know, were they really bad guys? We don’t know. Were they answering the call of their leader? Definitely not. And that there’s been this line, as you say, between the folks who were. As we’re increasingly learning deliberately engineering this in order to create leverage and in order to pressure Congress and in order to pressure Mike Pence and everyone above the line of almost rollicking silliness has been immune from prosecution, has been immune even from scrutiny. And I think what I’m hearing you say is what seems to be filtering up this week, and I really feel it too. And it’s partly, you know, these texts to mark Meadows. It’s partly the revelations about Jim Jordan by name, other members by name. I do want to talk for one minute about congressional oversight because it does feel, you know, having said that. This week felt like an inflection point in terms of public understanding that it was not going to be sufficient to just hold the guys in the funny costumes and the furry vests accountable. It also felt as though the Jan. six committee. Is also taking very, very seriously the idea that we’re going to have to like go up the chain here and Steve Bannon, John Eastman, Mark Meadows, they’ve taken an incredibly aggressive posture. But this week the House voted to hold Meadows in contempt of Congress. Meadows has just been doing, I don’t know, comedy, suing the Jan. six committee, suing Nancy Pelosi, arguing privileges that he doesn’t have and that he’s already waived. Does it feel to you as though as this escalates, that Congress is taking very, very seriously? This question of oversight means we go after the big fish and follow where that leads us.
S2: Yeah, I mean, and it’s been surprisingly successful and I say surprisingly, because what’s not surprising is the opposition Mark Meadows and Steve Bannon had put up, because why would they think any differently? Don McGahn, the former counsel the president, resisted a congressional subpoena and the case went up and down the courts for two years and even got one terrifying appellate court decision that made it sound like congressional oversight is now done forever. Then the White House changed hands, and the Biden administration continued defending Don McGahn and actually struck a devastating blow against Congress. The Biden administration forced the House to do a closed door deposition of McGahn when what they had wanted was an open hearing appearance, and that was crucial to them because the public at large did not read the nearly 400 page Mueller report, and the public afterwards did not read the Don McGahn deposition transcript. But the public would have watched evening news clips of Don McGahn in front of the camera being grilled by members of Congress and the White House prevented that. And people may ask, why would they do that? And the answer simple. The executive branch likes executive branch power and dislikes legislative branch power. And while Trump had us on a highway to authoritarianism at 120 miles an hour, Biden has slowed the car to six or 15 miles an hour, but he has not turned the car around in the other direction. He is continuing the Long March of presidents toward expanding presidential power at the expense of checks and balances. So Mark Meadows and Steve Bannon have this example that they could drag it out for two years. Congress is almost surely going to change hands in a year. And so anything they can do to delay it will be a win for them, and they have nothing to lose because also they have tons of off ramps. They could find themselves prosecuted and deep into the trial, agreed to show up and testify. And then the court will probably moot out the case or if it even pursues it, justice may agree to compromise with them. So what’s amazing is with that incentive and that ability, you have to ask yourself, Well, why did hundreds? I think I read something like 300 witnesses have cooperated with the committee. And I think the answer is because the system was never really built for all out obstruction. And the fact that we’re in uncharted territory is a testament to how rare that has been. That level of non-cooperation and the level of belligerence of Trump appointees when they used to come and testify was astonishing to me. And I think the answer to this lies in the fact that it’s very hard to impose the most serious consequences criminal prosecution. But it is less hard to destroy your reputation and career. And with Trump having lost the election, there’s enough uncertainty. I think that there are people who are potential witnesses who have in the back of their mind, Gee, you know, the Republic may continue, society may continue to exist, and I may be Shaub. I may be untouchable by the big, lucrative lobbying firm or big time law firm or whatever other place I want to work because I’m too controversial a figure. And so I think for some of them, there still are the old fashioned soft reputational consequences that make them cooperate. I think for others, it’s remotely possible. Some of them are patriotic, and for others, some of them may be fearful that this has gone further than they ever thought it would. And some may have. Only joined the Trump team out of opportunism. I mean, even when you have somebody terrible in charge, you have lots of people who see an avenue to have some power to do something they care about, and they’re willing to be tainted by being affiliated with that individual. So I think there are a lot of reasons people have cooperated. And I think the committee has been aggressive and has got an astonishing amount of stuff. I think that report when they’re done is going to be a real, earth shattering thing. Having Mueller, for instance, do his investigation in some ways, I think it was a mistake to have a prosecutor conduct an investigation because they’re looking for provable crimes that you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt when maybe an inspector general type or an oversight commission of some sort that’s just trying to get at the truth would have been more effective. And so I wasn’t surprised that the Mueller report didn’t result in much, but it was really well written and had some amazing findings. And so frankly, it did better than I thought it would. I think this committee is going to come out with a report that will be far more willing to get into things that aren’t necessarily provable beyond a reasonable doubt, but more likely than not happen. And I think that’s the standard normal people use in normal life. We have a higher standard for criminal law because we’re taking away people’s liberty, so we want to be sure. But in life, you make most of your decisions based on this is probably true. This is more likely than not true. And so I think there’s a real chance it will be a better report in many ways than even the Mueller report. And the one other thing I’ll say about that is, you know. Garland could have gotten a lot of this information a lot easier and a lot faster, and people are engaging, I think, in wishful thinking that behind the scenes he’s doing some big investigation of the people at the top. But I tend to believe a lot of the experienced prosecutors who are saying by this stage the witnesses would have been contacted, the defendants would have been notified. Negotiations for information and interviews would be going on with their attorneys and we would know about it. And there is no indication that Garland is doing anything to go after the higher level officials. And I have a very hard time believing there’s even any chance that he is. And so it’s again frustrating that this administration doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge of this very dangerous moment we’re in. And maybe that’s why this week has felt like such a gift after so much slogging through bad news to at least have some sign that somebody is taking this seriously at the higher levels.
S1: So I think you’ve just answered my next question, which was going to be it was really easy for the Justice Department to decide to charge Bannon criminally because his executive privilege claims were laughable. Meadows has legitimate. Claims, even though it’s not been properly invoked. And so it’s going to be really hard for the Garland Justice Department to do with Mark Meadows, what they did with Steve Bannon, and it makes me think this goes into your category of, oh hell no, not going after executive officials because we like the executive branch and we like privilege. That’s where you’re telling me, you think this is headed to, right?
S2: I I’m out of the business of making predictions because I’m always wrong. And maybe what I should do is predict that they won’t prosecute him in the hopes that that will cause them to prosecute them because I’m always wrong with predictions. But I have a sinking feeling that there’s a high risk that they will not pursue meadows. And the problem is, you have to then think, what cascading effect will that have on all the other witnesses? And maybe that’s why we’re only now hearing about Meadows, because maybe the committee realized that and wanted to get as much testimony as possible from as many people as possible before an event would trigger their non-cooperation. And I think Garland refusing to prosecute Meadows will have an immediate effect on the willingness of other witnesses to cooperate because they’ll see that a there’s a really good chance they can get out of it and not be prosecuted. And B, even if they are, they could turn around and negotiate with justice like, Oh, you’re serious. OK, well, now I’ll come in, and if you’ll drop the prosecution, I’ll go and cooperate. So why wouldn’t they resist to that point? And so I think the executive branch has an opportunity to probably achieve what it has been trying to do for a hundred years, which is destroy congressional oversight. And I think interestingly, the decision not to prosecute Meadows may achieve what Trump never was able to achieve on his own. Thanks, Biden. Thanks, Garland.
S1: I just like to cut a searing, searing pain in the middle of my forehead. I do want to ask, I mean, Walt, you’re a lawyer and you’re describing a process that is both plodding, right? We’re going to have Bannon’s been pushed out till July. You’re describing hundreds and hundreds of pages of the Mueller report that nobody read that was easily mischaracterized by the Bill Barr Justice Department. You’re describing a Don McGahn deposition that nobody paid any attention to. I’m trying to think about how you hold the slow, plodding, fact based tedium of the legal processes against the need for accountability. Because I think you’ve just laid out exactly the problem, which is this process, whatever it is, whether it’s the committee or whether it’s the criminal process is just going to take too long. It’s going to take too long. And it is way too boring and methodical and stodgy that the great majority of Americans have moved on. And you are now describing possibly the least exciting legal processes to ensure that by this coming summer, they will be fully bored to death by the idea of accountability. So work through this with me because I know both you and I are big fans of meticulous, scrupulous legal processes. But oh my God, they are not serving us.
S2: Yeah, we’re seeing a very broad based breakdown of our systems, and one of them involves the court system. Ever since about the 1970s, there has been this strategy on the far right to put in not right leaning judges, not even far right judges, but extremist judges, and just pack the court system with people who say things so far out of the mainstream that if it wasn’t for the fact that we had judges saying that they kind of wouldn’t be taken seriously and would be laughed at by their peers as people who are letting their politics cloud their legal analysis. And so now we have a court system that is like Swiss cheese. It has all these holes in it where it breaks down because of a loony tune judge or justice. And that makes the judicial process very unpredictable, and it even makes the more sober minded judge. Just slower and more careful as well, because they know they’re going to be appealed. They know they’re going to be compared to their peers. And so you had written an article a while back about how the courts were taking some of the cases slower than they needed to. They could move these things faster. And the slowness is a choice, and the pacifist approach is saying, Well, we’re going to let the two political branches work it out is a choice. And and it’s a choice to say, OK, that branch with nuclear weapons and soldiers and guns, and all of the information is on an even playing field with a bunch of yahoos who come to town a few weeks out of the year and have tiny little staffs of mostly 20 somethings and Gus, the janitor armed with the mop and the sergeant at arms who maybe has a pistol. And imagine if they were even willing to use their inherent contempt authority in Congress to hold people in contempt without going to courts. You would have Gus the janitor and the sergeant at arms waiting on 23rd Street to stop Mike Pompeo’s caravan coming out in his bulletproof limo and out would jump the diplomatic security force with their machine guns, and it would not be a very long battle. So these are not equal players in terms of raw might, which is why we need to be able to count on the courts and to many in the courts, don’t want to do this. And frankly, our Supreme Court is a lost cause. Now the Supreme Court is so partisan, so political. It’s a mini honor, pointed Congress. But I know we’re staying away from them today because that’s every other day. But it means things are going to move too slowly and also not enough stuff that’s bad is illegal. And so I think we have to think in terms of pursuing all avenues and one is the judicial avenue. And we also need some reforms. Congress has some proposals that are being ignored by the president and others that would create a faster mechanism to enforce congressional subpoenas. In fact, they’re protecting our democracy. Act just passed the House. I can’t remember if it was this past week or the week before, because every day is a century now, but I think it was this week and that has a provision to do that. So we need some reform. We need people willing to show courage, like the committee on Jan. six seems to be doing. But we also need to think in terms of other types of accountability. And as I said, I think the 300 witnesses who have cooperated with the committee, many of them are thinking about other types of accountability. And I also think in the end, people on the one side who are pushing fascism and the people like Biden on the other side and Garland, who seem to think it’s 1991, you know, Trump was president of the red states and Biden as president of 1991. They don’t seem equipped, and that’s where I think the people need to get involved. And I think ultimately, it’s going to take massive protests and massive public outcry and massive public action. Things are going to get much, much worse. And I truly believe our fellow citizens are going to rise to this challenge eventually when they get scared enough, particularly if we can remember that this is a long battle and it took a long time to get the rights that we’re now losing. And it will take a while to get them back in a while longer to move forward. But we are part of that sweep of history. And people before us who faced even greater danger and greater obstacles fought that fight, and we should too.
S1: I feel like this is the question I ask every guest. But there’s a media problem here that is almost more profound than a democracy problem. And as long as you have people on Fox News saying one thing on the camera and then backstage, texting the president to say, Oh my God, stop this. That’s also, I think part of I know the media is outside, you know, your field of expertise. But I do think is one of the revelations this week that’s been really shocking to me is the extent to which the media really, really aided and abetted this.
S2: Yeah. And of course, the media is not monolithic. There are exceptions all over the place. It takes somebody who seems even as staid and traditional a figure as Jim Sciutto over at CNN. His Twitter feed is clearly using the right kind of language to describe this as an attack on democracy. But I don’t see a lot of other mainstream big outlet reporters using that kind of language. There’s a definition of objectivity in play these days that I think doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of like a Martian visiting Earth. You can’t look at what’s happening and think you’re describing politics and you’re describing left center or right. You are watching an open assault on democracy vs. people trying to hold democracy together. And for once, you have some strange bedfellows ranging from people who were slightly right of center all the way to people who were far left of center coalescing against this extremist movement. But there seems to be this desire to describe it as left versus right. And in reality, what we would traditionally think of as right is on the same side as the left in this fight, and we have an extremist movement and then people get cute debating, Well, what is fascism mean? You know, who knows? I don’t know if fascism doesn’t actually seem like an ideology as much as an approach to me, and we certainly have that approach being applied right down to the line coming out of the extremists in this movement. It creates confusion and confusion is the weapon, and the confusion seems to be paralyzing the media. But I think I don’t want to let our elected officials off the hook, either. Imagine if Joe Biden had come into office and after giving, I don’t know. Maybe an inspirational inaugural speech the next day started talking about the coup attempt and the attack on America and was railing about this rising authoritarian movement and talking about the massive assault on voting rights that really represents just a shift in strategy. I don’t think a coup ended at all. I don’t think it failed. I don’t think it ended. I think it added fuel to a movement that has now just shifted strategies and is trying to steal the next couple of elections by suppressing votes. And you don’t have our president out there railing about the fact that there’s this worst voter suppression wave in 50 years. And even now, just this past week, Biden finally agreed to get out of the way. He had been insisting on his infrastructure bill and his build back better bill going first and then we could turn to voting rights. But he even said in a town hall with Anderson Cooper that he can’t talk about filibuster reform right now because they’ll lose some votes for my other priorities, which means voting rights isn’t the highest priority when it’s the absolute most fundamental right in a republic and the one thing you have to have to even be able to be called a republic. He has now agreed that he’ll get out of the way and that members of Congress can pursue voting rights. But he’s made clear that he’ll support them if they succeed. He’s still not promising to use the bully pulpit, and he isn’t out there pursuing any of anti-corruption ethics reforms that he promised and which are a major piece of his platform. He ran on an anti-corruption platform, he said. Trump is corrupt. You need me. All of this is to say we don’t have a president. We don’t have senators, we don’t have congressional representatives for the most part out there talking about all of this with the seriousness it deserves, and that creates a feedback loop with the media. The media tries to sound sober and calm and talk about this as though it’s a political issue. And then the members of Congress don’t want to seem loopy and seem like they’re as extreme as their opponents, so they try to talk and sober, calm terms when in reality, the sky is falling.
S1: Well, before we leave the media, one of the things and I know this goes to this huge umbrella that you’re describing of everybody striving to do normalization and both sides and sort of sober centrism. But one of the things that I do think we need to think about for one second is the revelations that folks in the mainstream press are now kind of caught out. They were texting Mark Meadows, too. They forgot to tell us Mark Meadows was not responding. And there’s a strange way because I know in the end, when you talk about accountability, what you’re really talking about every time is power and access to power. But there’s just something so hinky about, you know, you’ve you’ve just talked about sort of. Right wing news, we can expect no better, but this is mainstream journalists who we we count on right to speak truth to power, and they were part of a kind of what winking acquiescence that this is just how power operates and this is what power demands. I mean, I think because you’re talking about the destabilization of trust in institutions. I feel like the mainstream press really took a punch in the face this week because to be part of that and then to be caught out in revelations about texts doesn’t allow any of us to feel good about even the mainstream media.
S2: I think this is true, and I think that in particular, the White House press has a real problem generally these days. And again, they’re not monolithic, so there are exceptions. But you get the White House press in both the Trump administration and the Biden administration and past administrations doing what they need to do to get access. And unfortunately, that access comes at a price and government officials are very good at exacting that price and they have to walk this fine line. And unfortunately, the nature of competition is whoever gets the story first is going to get the clicks, whoever gets the salacious inside views. But when you see reporters like one in particular for a for the major newspaper in the country tweeting rumors about how unnamed sources say Jared and Ivanka feel this way and unnamed sources, Trump says he feels this way. Really, all you’re doing is serving as an amplifier of White House talking points, and you’re not even injecting critical analysis because if you applied that at all, you would lose your access and these individuals push back and get angry at the public who criticize them for it and say, you’re just mad that we’re being objective. And so I think. As with anything, when you’re too close to a story, sometimes you can lose objectivity. You know, one of the reasons the Office of Government Ethics exist and only has a certain number of people, it has about 75 people, even though there are 4500 agency ethics officials in the government who don’t work for OGE if they are embedded in their agencies. And the reason the Office of Government Ethics exists is to provide some objective perspective. They work very closely with managers. They’re subject to pressure by them. They identify with them and start feeling bad for them when they have to divest things. And having oggi at a distance, you know, we were able to say, Yeah, I’m sorry. The price of public service is what it is, but this is what it is and you need to tell them to divest. And I think sometimes White House press can be like that. And I and I often wish you could take the foreign press and have them rotate through the White House, you know, one month a year to just show them how it’s done, and they cover the United States like a crumbling republic viewed from afar. And I think you would have a very different style of reporting.
S1: It’s so funny because I’ve been, you know, covering the Supreme Court for two decades now and so much of those same problems you’re describing of just being beholden to the institution itself, to the idea of the institution and being beholden to this sense that your job is to take dictation and also, you know. And I know we’re going to talk about this. But as the legitimacy of the institution feels like it is in question feeling like you’re beholden to the legitimacy of the institution. And it seems as though I think that devolves into a whole sort of subset of whose interests are advancing here. I think I want to end with a question that is going to strike you as puckish, but I think is true. People always refer to you as a gadfly. You know, somebody who’s sort of like outside the sort of stream of how, you know, we process things because we put such a premium on sober centrism and what cracks me up listening to you, Wald. And one of the reasons I wanted to have you, particularly this week, is that when you’re yelling, What do we want? Transparency and accountability and government oversight, when do we want it now? Like these are not radical things you’re calling for. You’re the most conservative radical I have ever met. And what you are asking for is to have in place ethics reforms, transparency reforms, meaningful accountability. You know, inspectors general that do their job like nothing you are asking for is radical. You are saying people should get on the streets to ensure that they have the right to vote. And so I want you to just reflect with me because I think this is such a through line in so many of the podcasts we’ve had since the Trump era. You know, we have a government that is built on soft norms. As you say, public approbation, things that we thought were the law are not the law. They are. Aggregated centuries long presumptions about what the law should do. But, OK, we’ve learned that that is all incredibly fragile, and yet your project, it seems to me, is to bolster the law is to bolster the whole array of conventions and norms and preferences and kind of normative policies that would allow. This to function, and I guess I want to end on this note of. Do you ever get to the place where you’re just like, this whole freaking thing sucks. It’s broken. It was never good. We were never going to have real oversight. We were never going to have real accountability for all the reasons. You know, when I mentioned sort of winking reporters and access to the powerful, it’s just built to break because money and corruption and fame and the 14 second attention span will all collude to make this thing break. Give me your best case for why this system that is, as you’re pointing out, requires bolstering when Biden violates it or when Trump violates it. Give me your best argument for why this thing is worth fighting for.
S2: We’re all a product of our times. I wanted to spend my entire career not noticed by anybody behind the scenes. You know, if your government ethics official and people hear your name, something has gone terribly wrong. I wanted to stay under the radar, but I also did not want to compromise ethical values. And when the world shifted, I stood still and suddenly standing still was a radical act. You know, these are scary times and people look around and they see we don’t have what we should have. And so then they’re inclined to say, we don’t have what we should have. We’ve never had what we should have, and we’re never going to have what we should have. Only one of those statements is absolutely true. We don’t have what we should have. We know that that’s true. That’s the present for most of the past. We didn’t, although there were these shining pockets where things worked for a while here and they’re not evenly across the board, but here and there and brave people who stood up for it. And no matter how bleak things look to us right now, imagine how much scarier they were for other people in history. Imagine you are a recently freed person in the Reconstruction South, with these terrifying people riding around in hoods and capes and torches and engaging in not just terrorism, but state sponsored terrorism. In that case, literally states as opposed to the federal government and throughout the 20th century. And you can look at heroes like John Lewis and say, Wow, now there was some courage and maybe you say, Well, I don’t have the kind of courage that guy did. Well, you know what, a lot of the people around had didn’t have the courage that guy did. Maybe if we can get lucky and find a few people who are willing to risk getting their heads cracked, the rest of us can a little less bravely stand by them. But. The future isn’t written, and the truth is they tell soldiers, if you’re captured by the enemy, your best chance to escape is right away, and the longer you’re held in captivity, the more and more remote your chances are. So we look at the people in Hong Kong who are bravely standing up against the most powerful authoritarian government in the world and maybe the most powerful country in the world, or potentially one day soon. And the obstacles for them are greater, and I wish them well, and I hope they succeed. But I don’t think we want to wait until it gets that bad because the odds are against them and the odds are not against us the way they are against them right now. We are fortunately still a divided country. We’re not a country that has gone 90 percent fascist with 10 percent holdouts. This is a divided country, and even many of the ones who voted for Trump probably aren’t all that excited about losing their freedoms. And that’s just among the voters. We have an enormous percentage of Americans who don’t vote, and I think that is another question we should be asking ourselves why don’t they vote? And I think some of it is we create obstacles that we don’t even call voter suppression. But our voter suppression like not having a holiday, not having a month long window to vote. Not have having a registration system where that just might seem overwhelming to somebody requiring driver’s license. When in some parts of the country, up to 25 percent of African-Americans in that region don’t have a driver’s license and so can’t produce the required ID easily. We but some of it also is that they’ve lost faith that the government’s going to do anything for them. And when you have somebody like Joe Biden finally unseated corrupt individual like Trump and then failed to even put up a fight for voting rights that doesn’t encourage them. Or when you have Nancy Pelosi this week on TV saying, Oh, members of Congress should be allowed to trade stocks even though they’re violating. I mean, she didn’t add this part, but even though they’re violating the transparency requirements and even though we have concerns about insider trading because the access to information they have and that coincidentally convenient purchases they make that would benefit from those decisions that doesn’t inspire confidence and so on to get people on Twitter saying this is the least thing we should care about right now. Why are you pounding away at Nancy Pelosi and members of Congress for Trading Stocks? And the answer is because you’re causing people to give up and all of this is tied together. All of this matters. So we have these obstacles and it’s terrifying. And I am not someone you would call an optimist, but I truly believe that even though I think things will get much worse, it’s not a lost cause. And I think the sign that should give people hope is the engagement of young people right now. I look back at when I was in college, man, I didn’t care about the outside world. I cared about where the next keg party was and whether the person I had a crush on liked me back. That is not true of today’s kids. I mean, maybe they like keg parties or pot parties and they like somebody who’s who’s got a crush on them, but they also care about the outside world, which I never did. And they are so engaged and they are so impressive. And it’s not that humans are being made differently now. It’s the same genes. It’s that the times are producing these people, and I think the Times will continue to produce engaged people. And I think the greatest service older people can do right now, like me and others, is in Stoke. That fire and them encourage them to go with that instinct, elevate them to opportunities where they can stand up and support them as they do it and preach a belief in democracy as being something worth fighting for. So when I say it’s going to get much worse, I’m not preaching gloom. I’m saying, let’s be ready for what’s coming, but let’s not lose hope. And we need to talk in terms of morality, which, by the way, is a curve ball I’ve just thrown in here. But I don’t mean in the sense of religious morality that I’m talking about civic responsibility and stealing somebody say in their future and stealing somebody’s freedom and promoting authoritarianism is just objectively evil. You can be. Religious, you can be an atheist, you can be anything in between or anything else and understand that that is evil and that it’s truly immoral to try to make one small group of people have all of the say or even one big group of people and steal the voice of other people. And so I think we need to talk in terms of freedom and equality and access in terms of good and evil and in terms of moral and moral, because I think that’s what we’re up against. And as I hear myself talking this way, by the way, this is just so crazy because I wanted to talk to people about the disclosure of accepted investment funds under five CFR section twenty six thirty four point three ten. See, and instead of preaching about goodness and democracy and charter, but this is where we need to be.
S1: It’s so interesting what because one of our very most recent guests on the show, Catherine Franki from Columbia, talked really provocatively about the need for morality and ethics in government and for that to be a thick, robust morality and ethics. And I think you’ve just made exactly the case for that. Walter Shaub is a government ethics expert who has advocated for integrity and accountability in government across his entire career in public service. He leads the Project on Government Oversight Government Ethics Initiative. Before joining Pogo, he served for four years as the Senate confirmed director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, the OGE and Walt for somebody who is just standing still. You have been nevertheless a beacon of light and sanity for me for many years now, and I’m really, really grateful for your time here and for all the work you do.
S2: Oh, well, that’s really nice, and thanks for having me today.
S1: And that is a wrap for this episode of Amicus, thank you so much for listening in. Thank you so much for your letters and your emails and your questions. You can always keep in touch at Amicus, at Slate.com, or you can find us at Facebook.com slash Amicus podcast. Today’s show was produced by Sara Burningham. Gabriel Roth is Editorial Director. Alicia Montgomery is executive producer, and June Thomas is senior managing producer of Slate Podcast. We will be back with another episode of Amicus in two short weeks. Till then, hang on in there. Take good care of yourselves and happy holidays.