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

Dec 30, 2016
Originally published on January 12, 2017 5:37 pm

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.

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 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of the odder stories of the last month came from what is typically a quiet corner of the federal bureaucracy - the Office of Government Ethics. As debate heated up over the potential influence of Donald Trump's vast business empire over his decisions as president, the OGE took to Twitter with a series of Trump-style tweets congratulating him on the decision to divest, except he hadn't and still hasn't specifically promised that.

One thing we didn't know was who at the OGE was the author of these tweets until now, thanks to NPR's reporter Alina Selyukh. Alina, tell us about who it is and how you found that out.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The tweets came from the director of the Office of Government Ethics. His name is Walter Shaub. He's an Obama appointee. His term expires in January 2018. And the way we found out that he's the author of the tweets is by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

I requested emails and other communications related to the tweet storm that was really bizarre in November. And what we received was 365 pages of documents and requests and emails, some of which do indicate direct authorship of the tweets by the director.

SIEGEL: And can you tell us what sort of things you saw in all these records that you received?

SELYUKH: Well, so specifically on the authorship of the tweets, there are two emails from the director on the morning of the tweet storm, which was November 30. First, he sends a note to the chief of staff with all nine of the tweets that ended up taking internet by storm. And a few minutes later, he sends out a link to the chief of staff again. It's to the legal document that's referenced in one of the tweets. And then he writes (reading) get all of these tweets posted as soon as humanly possible.

I've reached out to the OGE today to see if they wanted to comment on this and also to clarify why the tweets were taken down later that day before they were reposted. They haven't commented.

SIEGEL: What else did you learn, if anything, from these 365 pages worth of emails and messages?

SELYUKH: Yeah, so the OGE redacted about 15 of 365 pages. And a big chunk of the disclosures that I got were media inquiries like mine for freedom of information requests but also comments about the tweets. There were a lot of concerns or worries that this was a hack of the OGE. And there's actually an email from a Twitter government affairs official in D.C. trying to figure out if OGE was in fact hacked.

And then there are dozens and dozens of messages from just members of the public. It was quite fascinating. People wrote emails, letters. One guy even mailed in a postcard of what looked like Alexander Hamilton with a black eye.

People have really strong opinions about Trump and conflicts of interest and the need to uphold ethics standards. Some of them were critical of OGE and the tweets, and others were really encouraged by the sort of candid conversation that the tweets started. Most of them encouraged OGE to hold up ethics standards for the Trump administration.

SIEGEL: And the reason that people suspected a hack of OGE was that these tweets were so unusual to be coming out of that office.

SELYUKH: Usually the OGE doesn't air its opinions publicly, and they were just really uncharacteristic in their style. They had lots of question marks. There was one bravo. There was a phrase - divestiture is good for America. And so that made people suspect that this was sort of a rogue employee or a hacker, and it was in fact the director of the OGE himself.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh. Alina, thank you.

SELYUKH: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.