WASHINGTON -- In an unusually frank statement Wednesday, the top U.S. government ethics officer declared that President-elect Donald Trump's plan to place his business in a trust without divesting doesn't meet standards for the highest levels of public service in the U.S.
The concerns, expressed by Office of Government Ethics chief Walter Shaub just hours after Trump announced his plan, underlined the extent to which several ethics-watchers in government and on both sides of the political aisle worry that the Trump Organization could influence the president's decision-making and weaken ethics standards across the government.
"The plan the president has announced doesn't meet the standard that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met," Shaub said at the Brookings Institution in Washington, referring to Trump. "The greater the authority entrusted in a public official, the greater the potential for conflicts of interest."
Shaub, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the agency in 2013, said the parts of Trump's plan that emphasized relinquishing positions at the Trump Organization "is meaningless from a conflicts of interest perspective."
"The presidency is a full-time job and he would have had to step back anyway," Shaub said.
Shaub conceded that the main ethics law that governs executive branch appointees, including Trump's own nominees, doesn't apply to the president. But, he said, that's because the president can't recuse himself from assets causing conflicts "without depriving the American people of the services of their leader," meaning the president should act as if the law does apply.
"Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?" he said. "I don't think divestiture too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States of America."
"I could actually run my business and run government at the same time," Trump said during his news conference earlier Wednesday. "I don't like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted to."
Shaub's remarks, which confounded watchers of the typically tight-lipped agency, hadn't been part of the scheduled event at Brookings where he appeared.
Similarly, the General Services Administration, which oversees government property, also followed Trump's news conference by saying that it would seek "additional information that explains and describes any new organizational structure as it applies to" Trump's new hotel in Washington. Trump leases the building from the government, but the agreement appears to bar any elected official from taking part in it.
"Upon receipt, consistent with our treatment of any contract to which we are a party, we will review this new organizational structure and determine its compliance with all the terms and conditions of the lease," the agency said.
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