Not A Hack: U.S. Office Of Government Ethics Tweets At Trump

Nov 30, 2016
Originally published on November 30, 2016 5:30 pm

The federal ethics watchdog isn't the kind of agency that typically airs its positions on Twitter — let alone in a snarky tone, with exclamation points.

But it's been an all-around weird day at the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

It started Wednesday morning, when President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to address concerns about his ability to lead the U.S. government while also holding massive business interests around the world.

"While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses," Trump tweeted, adding that "legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations" and that he will be leaving his "great business in total."

What exactly that means remains unclear. But the verified Twitter account of the typically decorous federal ethics office chimed in with statements that appeared to goad Trump about divesting his businesses — something he hasn't specifically promised to do.

"Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!" the agency tweeted, mimicking Trump's own tweeting style. And: "OGE is delighted that you've decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!"

And then things kept getting weirder.

All of the tweets disappeared. Twitter erupted in confusion. Observers were suggesting this was a hack or the work of a rogue employee, as The Washington Post posited:

"Maybe the OGE has inadvertently leaked that Trump intends to sell off his assets, a dramatic move that the president-elect may have intended to save for his 'major news conference' Dec. 15. Maybe the tweets are a hacker's social-media joke. Or maybe an OGE official went rogue with the agency's social-media accounts, as a way to sarcastically poke at Trump or, having misread the news, cheer him on."

But then, some hours later, the tweets returned — re-posted all over again, sending a new wave of confusion.

U.S. Office of Government Ethics/Screenshot by NPR

An OGE spokesman, Seth Jaffe, who is the chief of the agency's ethics law and policy branch, emailed a statement to NPR:

"Like everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-elect's twitter feed indicating that he wants to be free of conflicts of interest. OGE applauds that goal, which is consistent with an opinion OGE issued in 1983. Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not. We don't know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it."

The statement suggested that the tweets have been deliberate all along. And, in fact, the OGE later confirmed to NPR that this was not a hack.

A few things remained a mystery, among them: Did the OGE know something about Trump's plans that he hasn't made public? As NPR's Scott Detrow has reported:

"Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump promised to turn the Trump Organization over to three of his children. But Don Jr., Eric and Ivanka Trump all remain close political advisers and members of his transition team, so it's hard to see how the Trump Organization and the Trump administration would remain separate, if that remains the case."

Almost two hours after the first statement, the OGE issued another one:

"The tweets that OGE posted today were responding only to the public statement that the President-elect made on his Twitter feed about his plans regarding conflicts of interest. OGE's tweets were not based on any information about the President-elect's plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed. OGE is non-partisan and does not endorse any individual."

The agency's officials still haven't answered why the tweets — if they were deliberate — initially were deleted.

And more fundamentally, why did the usually straitlaced OGE decide to break character and publicly vocalize its opinion?

Perhaps it's part of a new, Trump-inspired era of governing and social media. Big league!

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A bizarre situation unfolded on Twitter today. At its heart was an obscure part of the federal bureaucracy called the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. NPR tech blogger Alina Selyukh is here to tell us what happened. Hi, Alina.


SHAPIRO: Walk us through this odd sequence of events that you saw today.

SELYUKH: It was really bizarre, and it started this morning. You might have heard Donald Trump went on a tweet storm today regarding his conflict - potential conflicts of interests. And he said, quote, "it was visually important for him to not - in no way appear to have conflicts of interest" and that legal documents are being crafted to take him completely out of business operations and that he'd be leaving his business, quote, "in total." And that's what launched a bizarre tweet storm of its own from the federal ethics watchdog.

SHAPIRO: The federal ethics watchdog, called the Office of Government Ethics - its job is to prevent conflicts of interest in the executive branch, and typically its Twitter feed is relatively boring.

SELYUKH: It's a pretty straitlaced, decorous office. It works with presidential transition teams, kind of in the background. And today it went rogue. It posted a series of tweets that were just snarky, clearly mimicking Trump's tweeting style - so many exclamation points. I'll give you a couple of examples. One tweet said, oh, geez, delighted that you've decided to divest your businesses - right decision. And here's another one - brilliant - divestiture is good for you, very good for America.

SHAPIRO: There are more exclamation points in these nine tweets than in all the other tweets that I've scrolled through from this Twitter account. Is there actually any evidence that Trump is really planning to divest - as in sell - his businesses?

SELYUKH: And that's the thing. We don't actually know what he plans to do. Theoretically, he could, or he could just turn over control to someone else. And people were starting to point that out exactly right when OGE account took down all of those tweets. They just vanished. And, of course, many people immediately jumped to the conclusion that maybe this was either some staffer going rogue or maybe the OGE got hacked.

SHAPIRO: That's what I thought when I saw it earlier this afternoon. Did they get hacked?

SELYUKH: And that's the weird part. No, they were not. And even weirder, a few hours later, all of those tweets - they came back. The agency reposted all of those tweets - all the snark, all the exclamation points.

SHAPIRO: You spoke to somebody at the Office of Government Ethics. How did they explain this odd behavior?

SELYUKH: You know, at first, they issued a statement, as a government agency does, and they kind of vaguely suggested that this was not a hack. And then they said they did not know the details of Trump's plan, but were generally encouraged by his tweets. They underscored that divestitures do resolve conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not. But that still left a lot of questions unanswered.

So I and, I'm assuming, a bunch of other reporters kept calling them, asking them specifically - given that Trump never mentioned divestitures, did the ethics office know something about his plans that he hasn't publicly announced? And then the OGE came out and issued a second statement that addressed that question, sort of saying they were only responding to a tree - Trump - excuse me - shared on his own feed. And they wanted to make clear that they were nonpartisan.

SHAPIRO: So at the end of the day, do you know why this usually staid federal office went rogue?

SELYUKH: We don't know. It was a really strange day. And when I first tweeted the original statement they issued, it just went viral so quickly. I had no idea people were watching this mystery unfold with such interest. And the response from people really varied. Some people were really encouraging, saying, you know, go get him, OGE. So refreshing to hear a government agency go rogue. And then other people were saying this was unseemly, disrespectful. And one person even filed a complaint that this was an unethical move for an ethics office.

SHAPIRO: NPR tech blogger Alina Selyukh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.