SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump appointed what's considered the richest Cabinet in U.S. history, and reportedly, more than half of the president's Cabinet, current and former, have been the subject of ethics allegations. There's HUD Secretary Carson's pricey dining table, VA Secretary Shulkin's seats at Wimbledon, Scott Pruitt's housing sublet from a lobbyist, Interior Secretary Zinke's charter planes, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin taking a government plane to see the solar eclipse, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross might need his own category. Forbes magazine reports on many people who have accused him of outright theft, saying - Forbes magazine - quote, "if even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history." James Schultz is a former White House ethics lawyer in the Trump administration, joins us now. Mr. Schultz, thanks so much for being with us.
JAMES SCHULTZ: Thanks for having me on.
SIMON: I have to put it this bluntly - do public officials just feel they can get away with questionable ethics in this administration?
SCHULTZ: Well, look; the allegations are just that - allegations. And as it related to Secretary Carson, he didn't - ultimately, that order was canceled. That was not something that was going to go in home. It was going in his office. And some of this has more to do with optics than it does ethics. And as it relates to plane travel and just the use of government funds generally, you know, the - some of the Cabinet officials needed to do a better job of making good decisions, optics decisions, not necessarily bad ethics decisions. And, you know, as it relates to Secretary Price, he's no longer with the administration. As it related to the former EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, there's an investigation pending, and the allegations, at this point, are unfounded that he had done anything wrong. So we're still waiting to see how that shakes out.
SIMON: Well, then...
SCHULTZ: So to say that there is - that this administration is rife with ethical violations, it's just not right. A lot of this is the Democratic Congress trying to attack as much as they can, you know, and pick everything apart as much as possible mainly because they don't like the policy decisions of the president. And when you're in a position like Secretary Pruitt and the secretary of HHS, certainly you're going to be under more scrutiny when you're taking on bold initiatives.
SIMON: We do know, though - don't we? - that Jared Kushner, the special adviser, failed to disclose scores of contacts with foreign officials. That's the kind of thing a lot of people resigned over. And then, of course, I think we know Wilbur Ross lied about saying that he divested all the assets he promised he would.
SCHULTZ: Well, I would - I wouldn't say that he lied about anything. You know, those decisions are made through an office of government ethics process. So in this case, it goes through the agency ethics office, the White House counsel's ethics office and ultimately needs to be signed off on by the Office of Government Ethics official. At that time, it was Walter Shaub, so to say that Walter Shaub was going to let one slip by the goalie is a far-fetched argument.
SIMON: What do you think about all the allegations and then some against Secretary Ross? I mean, you know, we have to note that Forbes is not exactly The Nation magazine. These are serious charges.
SCHULTZ: Right. Well, what you're talking - what they're talking about there is a series of lawsuits. And if you're in the business that Wilbur Ross was in for long enough, I guarantee you you're going to take on lawsuits time and time again and have to defend those. And people are going to make allegations against you.
SIMON: But he - should he be secretary of commerce with that kind of background?
SCHULTZ: What do you mean that kind of background? These are just that - unfounded allegations. To the extent he might have had a settlement with a regulatory body - companies do that all the time. So to say that he's ill-equipped to be the commerce secretary, I would say, is just absurd at this point because there's been no finding whatsoever as it relates to these individual lawsuits that have been brought against the secretary.
SIMON: Why hasn't President Trump released his tax returns?
SCHULTZ: You'll have to ask President Trump that question. He's decided not to release his tax returns as his - as it is his prerogative. And he's said time and time again, he's not releasing them. So that's not a question for me. That's a question for him. The bottom line is - I mean, to be focused on tax returns when we had such successes in this administration with tax reform, jobs coming back, jobs coming back to all income levels and to the point - and the successes are just tremendous as it relates to the economy. So we're talking about tax returns at a time when people are getting tax relief.
SIMON: Thanks very much, James Schultz, former White House ethics lawyer.
SCHULTZ: Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.