The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee on Thursday issued a stern letter, including a veiled threat of an investigation, to the federal government’s top ethics monitor, who this week had questioned President-elect Donald J. Trump’s commitment to confront his potential conflicts of interest.
In an unusual action against the independent Office of Government Ethics, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah accused the office’s director, Walter M. Shaub Jr., of “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance.”
He cited a bizarre series of Twitter posts that the office made in late November congratulating Mr. Trump for divesting from his business — even though Mr. Trump had made no such commitment. Mr. Chaffetz also said that the office had failed to adequately investigate Hillary Clinton, based on allegations that she had not properly disclosed fees paid for speeches she gave after leaving her post as secretary of state.
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Mr. Chaffetz’s letter made no mention of Mr. Shaub’s airing of doubts a day earlier about Mr. Trump’s ethics plan, which includes retaining his own stake in his business empire and putting it in a trust managed by his two adult sons. Mr. Shaub, during an unusual news conference at the Brookings Institution, a policy research center in Washington, said that Mr. Trump had not gone far enough and would leave himself susceptible to “suspicions of corruption.”
Tensions have also flared in recent weeks between the ethics office and Republicans over the pace at which Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointees — many of whom are millionaires or billionaires — were moving through the review process.
Mr. Chaffetz, in his letter, noted his committee’s authority to reauthorize the office, a hint that it could perhaps be shut down. “The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is the principal oversight committee of the House of Representatives and may at ‘any time’ investigate ‘any matter’ as set forth in House Rule X,” he wrote.
A spokesman for the Office of Government Ethics did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Chaffetz asked Mr. Shaub to appear for an interview with the committee’s staff by the end of the month.
Richard W. Painter, who served as an ethics lawyer in the administration of George W. Bush, said that Mr. Chaffetz was apparently trying to punish Mr. Shaub for criticizing Mr. Trump.
“They are strong-arming them,” Mr. Painter said Thursday night after being sent a copy of the letter. “They are obviously very upset the Office of Government Ethics is leaning on Trump and not willing to jam through his nominees. It is political retaliation.”
Attacks on the ethics office are rare. Mr. Shaub joined the office when Mr. Bush was president, and he was appointed to direct the agency in 2013 by President Obama.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee came to Mr. Shaub’s defense, citing what it called Mr. Chaffetz’s “hypocrisy” in not responding to letters from committee Democrats asking him to investigate the apparent conflicts of interest presented by Mr. Trump, who is prepared to enter office while his family still controls a global real estate firm.
“Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s bizarre and fawning devotion to President-elect Donald Trump is beneath the committee he oversees and an affront to the trust his constituents have placed in him,” the Democratic committee’s spokesman, Tyler Law, said in a statement.
A group that supports Republicans, America Rising PAC, this week accused the ethics office of trying to slow down the process for Mr. Trump’s nominees, as a number of hearings have been delayed.
On Wednesday, the organization said it had sent information requests to the office. “The American people deserve to know if Walter Shaub has turned the ethics office into an arm of the Senate Democrats’ campaign of obstruction,” it said in a statement.