White House, Ethics Office Feud Escalates

An escalating feud between the White House and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has boiled over, with the Trump administration refusing to produce waivers it has granted to lobbyists that allow them to work in government agencies.

Walter Shaub, the office’s director, wants to review the waivers and make them public to ensure the Trump administration is adhering to publicly stated policies and an executive order signed by the president.

That would bring the Trump administration in line with practices followed under former President Barack Obama, who appointed Shaub to his current role.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney is refusing to turn over the waivers. He wants time to consult with the Justice Department about the scope of Shaub’s authority.

In a letter to Shaub, which Mulvaney distributed widely throughout the government, the budget director called the request burdensome and questioned whether the OGE had the power to obtain the waivers. Republicans have in the past bristled at Shaub’s tactics and believe he is politicizing his office.

Shaub went public on Monday with the administration’s refusal to turn the waivers over.

In a blistering 10-page letter sent to Congress and Mulvaney — and subsequently tweeted out through the official OGE account — Shaub told Mulvaney that he has the authority to “institute corrective action proceedings” against individuals who “improperly prevent” ethics officials from doing their jobs.

“OGE declines your request to suspend its ethics inquiry and reiterates its expectation that agencies will fully comply with its directive by June 1, 2017,” Shaub wrote. “Public confidence in the integrity of government decision-making demands no less.”

It’s just the latest fight between the Trump administration and Shaub, whose five-year term will end early next year if he is not fired or doesn’t resign first.

Shortly after the election, Shaub used his office’s Twitter account to urge then-President-elect Donald Trump to divest himself from his business holdings. The tweets were written in Trump’s vernacular and viewed as mocking by many Republicans.

In January, after Trump announced he would hand his business empire over to his adult sons, Shaub publicly rebuked the president at a Washington forum for not putting his assets in a blind trust.

And in February, Shaub recommended disciplinary action for White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway after she urged viewers to buy first daughter Ivanka Trump’s products during a television interview from the briefing room.

Republicans say Shaub is politicizing his position to make a name for himself as part of the Trump “resistance.”

“Walter Shaub has acted like a partisan candidate for office and not like the director of a government ethics office,” said conservative lawyer Charlie Spies. “He’s brought discredit to what the office does through totally inappropriate tweets and press conferences and clear bias against the Trump administration.

“There may be legitimate issues that need to be addressed, but those are totally overshadowed by Shaub’s grandstanding.”

Trump signed an executive order in January that indicated the new administration would follow practices established during the Obama administration. Lobbyists hired into the government would be prohibited from working with former clients or on issues they had been involved with unless they received a waiver.

The Trump administration’s refusal to comply with the request has raised suspicions among government watchdogs over how many waivers the Trump administration is handing out and to whom.

Democrats in Congress have said they’ll seek the waivers directly if the Trump administration doesn’t turn them over. Government watchdog groups are suing for the records.

Legal and ethics experts interviewed by The Hill were flabbergasted that the administration would break with precedent by refusing to comply with the request for the documents.

“The Trump administration is going to lose this fight,” said Richard Painter, the White House ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush. “The Office of Government Ethics is not a political agency and Walter Shaub is not a political guy. Picking a fight with the OGE is the dumbest thing the administration can do at this juncture. Just give them the stupid waivers.”

Even some of Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill are standing with Shaub.

In 2009, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote a letter to the OGE asking the Obama administration to “live up to its word” by being “open, transparent and accountable” about the government employees that received waivers.

“Senator Grassley stands by his letter from 2009 calling for greater government transparency of ethics waivers, and is grateful to see that, eight years later, the Office of Government Ethics now explicitly agrees with his assessment of its authority,” a Grassley spokesperson told The Hill. “He’s also been exploring the matter with Democrat colleagues in the last few weeks, and welcomes their newfound interest in improving this transparency.”

The controversy has raised questions about Shaub’s future eight months before his term ends.

The administration is frustrated by what it views as lifelong bureaucrats within the government that refuse to accept the legitimacy of the new regime.

Trump has already fired FBI Director James Comey and acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

And in a television appearance earlier this year, Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, warned Shaub to “be careful.”

Still, firing an ethics watchdog who is ostensibly fighting for greater transparency could backfire at a time when Trump is dealing with blowback for firing Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

“The outcry would be tremendous, and it would only raise further questions about what they’re hiding,” said Larry Noble, senior director at the Campaign Legal Center. “You can’t just keep firing everyone for looking into what you’re doing.”

[The Hill]

Flynn Attended Intel Briefings While Taking Money To Lobby for Turkey

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was attending secret intelligence briefings with then-candidate Donald Trump while he was being paid more than half a million dollars to lobby on behalf of the Turkish government, federal records show.

Flynn stopped lobbying after he became national security advisor, but he then played a role in formulating policy toward Turkey, working for a president who has promised to curb the role of lobbyists in Washington.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Friday defended the Trump administration’s handling of the matter, even as he acknowledged to reporters that the White House was aware of the potential that Flynn might need to register as a foreign agent.

When his firm was hired by a Turkish businessman last year, Flynn did not register as a foreign lobbyist, and only did so a few days ago under pressure from the Justice Department, the businessman told The Associated Press this week.

Attempts by NBC News to reach the Turkish businessman, Ekim Alptekin, were unsuccessful Friday.

Price Floyd, a spokesman for Flynn, said the retired general would have no comment.

Flynn was fired last month after it was determined he misled Vice President Mike Pence about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. His security clearance was suspended.

When NBC News spoke to Alptekin in November, he said he had no affiliation with the Turkish government and that his hiring of Flynn’s company, the Flynn Intel Group, had nothing to do with the Turkish government.

But documents filed this week by Flynn with the Department of Justice paint a different picture. The documents say Alptekin “introduced officials of the Republic of Turkey to Flynn Intel Group officials at a meeting on September 19, 2016, in New York.”

In the documents, the Flynn Intel Group asserts that it changed its filings to register as a foreign lobbyist “to eliminate any potential doubt.”

“Although the Flynn Intel Group was engaged by a private firm, Inovo BV, and not by a foreign government, because of the subject matter of the engagement, Flynn Intel Group’s work for Inovo could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey,” the filing said.

The firm was paid a total of $530,000 as part of a $600,000 contract that ended the day after the election, when Flynn stepped away from his private work, the documents say.

During the summer and fall, Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was sitting in on classified intelligence briefings given to Trump.

Spicer acknowledged Friday that Flynn’s lawyer called the Trump transition team inquiring about whether Flynn should amend his filing to register as a foreign agent.

“That wasn’t the role for the transition,” Spicer said. “This was a personal matter, it’s a business matter.”

He did not explain whether anyone in the Trump operation dug into Flynn’s lobbying work.

It was well known that on Election Day, Flynn authored an op-ed in the Hill, a Washington newspaper, in which he lambasted Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric residing in Pennsylvania who is blamed by the Turkish government for fomenting a July coup attempt there.

Previously, Flynn had seemed to praise the coup attempt.

According to the Justice Department filing, Flynn’s firm was hired to gather information about Gülen, and to produce a short film about its investigation.

“Flynn Intel Group was tasked to perform investigative research for a specified scope of work using its laboratory team of senior defense, diplomacy, development, and intelligence professionals over a three-month period,” the filing said. “Flynn Intel Group was to retain an experienced filming and production crew in order to develop a short film piece on the results of its investigation, and a public affairs firm to utilize for public affairs as needed. Flynn Intel Group held weekly calls with the client to report engagement progress.”

Even some Republicans were wondering how the White House allowed Flynn to take one of the most sensitive jobs in the government.

“Makes you wonder if an adequate background check has been done,” Rep. Steve King of Iowa said on MSNBC. “I think we need to know a lot more.”

Ethics experts say more information is needed to know whether Flynn may have run afoul of any conflict of interest rules. His receipt of a large sum of money on behalf of the Turkish government may have meant he should have avoided specific decisions regarding Turkey, but the details would be crucial.

It wasn’t immediately clear Friday whether Flynn recused himself from any matter while he was national security advisor, or whether he directly participated in decisions that had an impact on Turkey.

(h/t NBC News)

Trump Adviser Icahn Accused of Breaching Lobbying Rules

A consumer advocacy group is filing a complaint to Congress on Wednesday accusing President Donald Trump’s friend and fellow billionaire Carl Icahn of violating lobbying rules by pushing the White House to change the federal ethanol regulations.

Public Citizen contends that Icahn, his company Icahn Enterprises and the CVR oil refining company he owns failed to register as lobbyists, yet pushed the White House to change the EPA’s decade-old rules on ethanol — a move that would save Icahn’s company hundreds of millions of dollars.

Trump named Icahn, whose net worth is pegged by Forbes at nearly $22 billion, as the White House’s special adviser for regulatory reform in December, but said he would “not be serving as a federal employee or a special government employee and will not have any specific duties.”

Icahn has aggressively advocated for the change in the ethanol rules under the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard since last year, and according to the Public Citizen complaint, he submitted a proposal to the White House on Feb. 27 to overhaul the program and shift the burden for complying with the ethanol rules to fuel wholesalers. The RFS, which was created by Congress, gives EPA authority to operate the nation’s biofuels program.

The letter to the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House calls for an investigation into whether Icahn and CVR’s activities constitute lobbying of the White House for changes to the program. The complaint also cites Icahn’s work in helping select EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and the proposed language he and fellow oil refiner Valero Energy submitted to the White House for a memo that would direct EPA to make the change.

“All of this has occurred with no record of any [Lobbying Disclosure Act] filings by or on behalf of Mr. Icahn, Icahn Enterprises or CVR Energy,” the complaint reads. “It is unlikely that all these activities occurred without some individual or entity being obligated to report lobbying activity under the LDA.”

The letter is latest controversy around the ethical complications that Trump, the wealthy members of his Cabinet and his advisers have faced because of their myriad business holdings.

(h/t Politico)