The conflict between US president Donald Trump and Walter Shaub, until recently the head of the US Office on Government Ethics, were no secret. Weeks after Trump’s election, Shaub tweeted—from the agency’s official account—about the incoming president’s refusal to divest from his businesses. The critique was so sharp that even his employees thought the account had been hacked. He clashed with potential cabinet nominees with clear financial conflicts of interest and battled the new administration over ethics waivers it was quietly doling out to employees.
Shaub served under three presidents. He resigned in July, six months before the expected end of his term, with a brief letter to Trump that pointedly praised government ethics officials whom he described as “protecting the principle that public service is a public trust” (italics in the original). He now works for the Campaign Legal Center, a voting rights group.
Shaub didn’t specify the reason for his departure at the time. But in a recent conversation in Highline magazine with three other career civil servants who quit jobs they loved under an administration that appalled them, Shaub explained to interviewer Lydia Polgreen the personal system that helped him decide when it was time to quit:
Polgreen: Walt, I heard you had a mental checklist that helped you decide whether to stay or go.
Shaub: It’s a three-part checklist I’ve recommended for others. The first is: Can I perform the mission effectively? Then: Can I perform my job ethically and morally? And three: Can I tell the truth? I certainly didn’t shy away from telling the truth. I felt I was performing my mission morally and ethically, but I reached a point where I didn’t think I could actually achieve the mission effectively. And I kept asking myself that question every month.
In the early months of the transition and administration, Shaub felt that his office was able to have some influence on the administration’s actions. Persuading cabinet nominees to divest from potential conflicts and getting access to the ethics waivers the White House gave employees were instances of the office doing what it was put there to do.
But when he realized that the administration was keeping information from the office, he saw that it could lead to a situation where he’d be certifying financial disclosure reports from White House officials without being able to know if the information in them was true. “I became concerned that I would be window-dressing for corruption,” he said.
Not every resignation requires standing up to a president. But if a job compromises your own standards for what’s ethical and effective, it may be time to stand up up for what’s right.