House Republican summons ethics chief over Trump criticism

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. administers the House oath of office to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah., during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans have shown no inclination to challenge President-elect Donald Trump on ethics. Instead, they are going after the head of the federal ethics office who questioned Trump’s potential conflicts of interest.

Democrats slammed the move, saying GOP lawmakers are trying to intimidate an independent watchdog for having the temerity to challenge Trump’s business arrangements.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has summoned Walter Shaub Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, to answer questions about his public comments on Trump.

This week, Shaub issued a scathing review of Trump’s plan to turn over control of his business to his sons. Shaub said in a speech Wednesday that the only way Trump could avoid a conflict of interest as president would be to divest from his business and have his assets placed in a blind trust.

“Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective,” Shaub said of Trump.

Chaffetz sent Shaub a sternly worded letter late Thursday requesting that he sit for a transcribed interview. He said the interview would “help the committee understand how you perceive OGE’s role, among other things.”

“Your agency’s mission is to provide clear ethics guidance, not engage in public relations,” Chaffetz wrote.

Chaffetz’ letter cited a series of tweets by Shaub in November. In the tweets, Shaub congratulated Trump for agreeing to divest from his business — an agreement that Trump never made.

The letter did not mention Shaub’s speech. In the speech, Shaub noted that members of Trump’s Cabinet — some of them very wealthy, like Trump — must place their assets in a blind trust. Shaub said the president should be held to the same standard.

“The plan the president-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met,” Shaub said.

Congressional Democrats sharply criticized Chaffetz for summoning Shaub.

“It’s totally inappropriate,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. “Clearly an effort to deter and intimidate, and that’s a shame.”

The top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee said House Republicans are taking this action just days after unsuccessfully trying to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

“The Oversight Committee has not held one hearing, conducted one interview, or obtained one document about President-elect Donald Trump’s massive global entanglements, yet it is now apparently rushing to launch an investigation of the key government official for warning against the risks caused by President-elect Donald Trump’s current plans,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Chaffetz has been a sometime supporter of Trump. Chaffetz backed Trump when he was the Republican nominee for president, but withdrew his endorsement after a tape surfaced in which Trump can be heard bragging about groping women. A few weeks later, Chaffetz said he wouldn’t defend Trump but would vote for him.

Some Democrats see a coordinated effort by Republicans to undermine the office responsible for ethics reviews of Cabinet nominees and ensuring they will avoid conflicts of interests.

“Mr. Chaffetz’s attempt to intimidate the office is deplorable, and would be a distraction that would make it harder for OGE to do it’s already difficult job,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

A week ago, Shaub complained that Senate Republicans were moving ahead with confirmation hearings before Trump’s choices had reached ethics agreements.

This week, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., circulated an online petition that says, “It’s time for the bureaucrats at the Office of Government Ethics to pick up the pace on vetting President-elect Trump’s nominees for the cabinet.”

The Senate Commerce Committee postponed for six days a confirmation hearing on Trump’s choice to head the Commerce Department, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross. His hearing is set for Wednesday.