The federal government’s ethics watchdog had difficulty reaching top aides to President-elect Donald Trump for ten days or more after the November election, according to government records released Friday.
Email traffic shows that Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub had various discussions with Trump’s transition planners prior to the Nov. 8 vote, but could not contact Trump lawyer Don McGahn during a period in mid-November.
“We seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election,” Shaub wrote in a Nov. 18 message to transition aide Sean Doocey. “I will be taking to Don McGahn as soon as I can pin him down to a time for a call, which is proving to be difficult. However, I don’t have confirmation from anyone on the transition team or from OMB that he is serving in any official capacity. It would help to have confirmation that he is authorized to speak for the transition.”
“I understand the difficulty getting in touch with counsel’s office. We’ve had some transitions in the legal department,” Doocey wrote back the same day.
Other messages show that Shaub did arrange a Nov. 21 meeting with Ann Donaldson, an associate of McGahn’s at the Jones Day law firm, and possibly with McGahn himself. It’s not entirely clear from the messages whether that meeting took place, but communications seem to have been restored by the end of November.
The communication difficulties came during a tumultuous period for the transition, as a wave of aides and advisers like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie departed the team and new ones came on board. Two Christie aides, Rich Bagger and William Palatucci, were among those the ethics office had dealings with before the election. Some transition personnel also left during that time because Trump decided to require his team to drop any lobbying contracts.
Transition officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Saturday.
The 75-day window between the election and the inauguration is a critical one for the ethics office and its work, which includes processing the financial disclosure forms for hundreds of political appointees and approving ethics agreements for senior officials. Those pacts detail what matters Cabinet nominees and others must recuse from due to personal financial interests and can include procedures to dispose of assets that could cause a conflict of interest.
The newly released records also show the Trump team being told explicitly that some publicly floated options for handling Trump’s businesses would not qualify as blind trusts in the view of OGE.
“Only readily marketable assets can be placed in a diversified trust (i.e., cannot place closely held businesses in the trust),” one memo the ethics office drafted for a transition team briefing says. “Trustee must be an institution and fully independent (cannot be a relative). A relative cannot be employed by the trust (i.e., in any businesses owned by the trust) … Settlor must relinquish all control of assets.”
The main conflict-of-interest prohibition in federal law does not apply to the president, as Trump has repeatedly noted since the election. However, the ethics office has previously counseled presidents to abide by the law anyway. In addition, the limits would apply to any other Trump family members who might take a formal position in the administration.
In the messages and memos, Shaub encourages the Trump team to advise his office in advance about potential Cabinet picks, so they can be vetted for conflicts of interest prior to their selection being announced publicly. In at least some instances, the Trump team seems to have “precleared” nominees with the ethics office. However, the released records are heavily redacted in some places, making it difficult to follow the online discussions.
The email messages and other records were made public Friday by the Office of Government Ethics in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from various news outlets including MSNBC.