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Resignation of William Shaub from Office of Government Ethics; Interview with Prime Minister of Serbia; Interview with Playwright and Director of Syrian Play showing at Lincoln Center. Aired 5-5:30p ET
Aired July 21, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Tonight, the man who just resigned as the U.S. ethics chief tells me Donald Trump is setting a weak tone for the
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WALTER SHAUB, FORMER DIRECTOR, U.S. OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT ETHICS: We can't know what his intent is, but we shouldn't have to wonder, and it raises a
question as to whether or not his decisions are motivated by his policy aims or his own personal financial interest.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: And I speak to the Serbian prime minister about her landmark collection as the country's first openly gay and female prime minister.
One of the former gatekeepers of the U.S government tells me Donald Trump has done nothing to fix his conflicts of interests. Until Wednesday, Walter
Shaub was director of the Office of Government Ethics, traditionally an obscure post in an obscure agency. But he was catapulted into the spotlight
with the election of Donald Trump and the president's vast business portfolio.
Now initially, Shaub was resolute, tweeting last year that his office was delighted with Mr. Trump's seeming commitment to transparency. But after
months of wrestling with the White House over its ethical standards, Shaub resigned his post and is ready to tell his story. I spoke with him from
Mr. Shaub, welcome to the program. Tuesday was your last day in your job and you made it clear that you had discomfort with a lot of things that
happened in the White House. Remind us of exactly what the President has reported financially, and why, you know, you were uncomfortable with what
was going on?
SHAUB: Well, thanks for having me. This is my first day as a private citizen. The president filed a financial disclosure report that breaks out
his various holdings consistent with the Ethics in Government act, they're fairly complex holdings and, you know, we analyzed them as best we could.
But the bigger issue for me is that the financial disclosure form reveals vast holdings in a wide range of businesses. And he's done nothing to
resolve those conflicts of interest, in fact he went so for as to say a president can't have conflicts of interest, which is an absurd statement,
because of course a president or any other human person can have conflicts of interest. But the law doesn't make them illegal for the President for
fairly technical reason. Past presidents have done what they can do to live up to that law by selling off their assets.
AMANPOUR: Yes, and by any measure the presidency of Donald Trump has been unorthodox and unprecedented. Having said that, you know, in a statement to
the New York Times after they had done an interview with you, the White House, the truth is Mr. Shaub is not interested in advising the executive
branch on ethics, he's interested in grandstanding and lobbying. I mean, how do you react to that? That this -- they gave this statement while you
were still technically, still in the job even though you are not today, how do you react to that criticism?
SHAUB: Well, that's just the playbook of this White House, that if anybody speaks truth to power in the United States anymore, they're going to smear
them. And so they did a coordinated campaign in it appears the various conservative media outlets to try to smear me. But there's some objective
facts, I mean, first of all, they didn't fire me, I quit. Second of all, the most important work right now that we do in the Office of Government
Ethics is move the President's nominees who have to get confirmed by the United States Senate before they could start working in the government.
we've moved those nominees faster than we moved the nominees in the Obama administration during the last presidential transition.
And that was no easy task because their financial holdings were much more complex because they were wealthier. And frankly because of the bad tone
set from the top by the president, a number of them, not all, but a number of them pushed back against having to comply with ethical rules with an
intensity we've just never seen before.
AMANPOUR: Well apparently. President Trump and to say this -- this is a -- it's not a theoretical thing, it is a fact. If you can just go through, he
owns golf courses, other properties, a hotel very close to the White House. What were your specific concerns about the fact that he continues to hold
these properties, is profiting from these properties, his family's profit - - is profiting from these properties, and he attends them, most recently just last week, he was at his own golf course.
SHAUB: Yes, well that last point is really an important one. By not selling off his assets, he's putting to question every governmental decision. You
know, we can't know what his intent is, but we shouldn't have to wonder and it raises question as to whether or not his decisions are motivated by his
policy aims or his own personal financial interests. In fact his flagship property, a famous hotel in Washington, D.C., is a actually housed in a
gigantic government-owned building that he's leasing from the government. So he's his own landlord and tenant, I'd say that's a pretty cozy situation
if you'd like, to be on both ends of a deal with yourself.
AMANPOUR: One might say, Mr. Shaub that, look, it's a weakness in the law. Did we not see this coming, is there not -- what are you calling for in
terms of change going forward, if we give the president complete credit that he wanted to do the legal thing, he is doing the legal thing.
SHAUB: No, I don't think any credit's deserved because he did absolutely nothing at all. It is -- there's a policy these days of bare minimum legal
compliance. Now listen, the legal compliance in the Executive branch of the federal government is the difference between being a criminal and not being
a criminal. I think we deserve better than be able to say the president is not a criminal. I'd hope we'd set the bar a little higher, and I hope he'll
set the bar a little bit higher for him. I'm not fighting against him, I'm fighting for the ethics program so that people can have confidence in the
institutions of our government.
AMANPOUR: And in terms of why it matters, you know, I've been all over the world when you talk to governments specifically. But even people on the
street, they say that the United States is quite hypocritical, that they say, you know, do as I say, not as I do. Do you have concerns about the
moral credibility of the United States around the world with this Trump administration in office?
SHAUB: Well, when we set a terrible example, I think we run the risk of them being right, that we are being hypocritical. I'd like to be able to
put our best foot forward and say to the world, we're doing the right thing and we'd like you to do the right thing too. And until recently, I believe
we were able to do that.
AMANPOUR: And now you say?
SHAUB: Well, you know, they have a lot of things they can say, I'm frankly ashamed.
AMANPOUR: In terms of when you've pushed back to the White House staff or to the White House lawyers and said, okay, you've got this financial
disclosure form here. Can you do more? Will you do more? What has been the reaction?
SHAUB: The Office of Government Ethics collects standard ethics records from across the executive branch all the time. It's one of the main things
we do. Well they fought us tooth and nail and it took a month to finally get them to agree to release those. And when they did, they released a
collection waivers, most of which were unsigned and undated, and many of them appeared to be retroactive. And in fact the counsel to the president
self-issued two of them to a group of people that included himself, so he's both issuer and recipient of a weaver saying, I think I'm going to weave
the rules for myself. And that's just terrible, that is not how ethics program have been run. And it creates the appearance if you're giving
retroactive waivers that there have already been violations and you're just trying to paper them over.
AMANPOUR: You're proposing that we have -- that we do have more stringent laws. Do you think that's going to solve the problem? I mean, some people
have commented, you can't legislate behavior.
SHAUB: You know, in the past we've been able to rely on the voluntary compliance of presidents. I guess we're on the new era where we can't and
so we need laws to enforce that.
AMANPOUR: And when you say we need laws to enforce that, I mean, do you really, suggesting here a complete wholesale change so that if a person
like President Trump comes back into office, there is no way that they can hold the presidency and continue to have all of these real estate holdings,
business holdings and would have to divest.
SHAUB: I'm not proposing that there be a qualification requirement that if you don't do this you can't be president. But I am proposing that we pass a
law that says you have to do this, and then if you're a lawbreaker, Congress can deal with your behavior.
AMANPOUR: You mentioned today is your first day as a private citizen, in the White House it's only been six months. How do you intend to be an
advocate going forward?
SHAUB: Well first of all, it's been eight months for me because we started working with the new administration right the day after the election. But I
do intend to be an advocate going forward. I've joined a non-profit group called the Campaign Legal Center that is headed by a former Republican
chair of Federal Election Commission. And so one of the things we're going to focus on is try to build some bipartisan support for these changes.
There are really good people in both parties in Congress and many of them care about government ethics. And I'm hoping to appeal to that interest in
them. And if needed, to appease, you know, to solicit bipartisan support, I'd be fine with the new laws taking effect in January, 2021 so the
president has the opportunity to decide if he wants to run again under these new terms.
AMANPOUR: Now we will continue to follow your efforts, Mr. Shaub. Thanks so much for being so generous with your time.
SHAUB: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: Allegations involving Russia have been a staple feature of Donald Trump's presidency. After the break all discuss the Kremlin and what it
means for regional security with the prime minister of Serbia.
AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program, when Serbia's President appointed Ana Brnabic to the post of prime minister last month, the reaction was
somewhat mixed. As the country's first female and first openly gay prime minister, the move came under pressure from the Christian Orthodox Church
and ultra-nationalists. And while Western observed praised the decision as a sign of progress in what remains the deeply conservative country, many
wondered how much it had to do Serbia's EU membership ambitions. I talked to the prime minister about this, and what she hopes to achieve when she
joined me earlier from Belgrade.
And we want to welcome the prime minister to the program. Thanks so much. Serbia is a deeply conservative country. You are gay, you are a woman. How
has that been received in your country?
ANA BRNABIC, PRIME MINISTER OF SERBIA: I've been, to be honest openly gay, I guess, throughout my life, and I never had a problem in Serbia. So I'd
like to think that Serbia is not that conservative or homophobic, or xenophobic for that matter. There's certainly room to improve and the room
to change, and there are certainly people who still think that, you know, this is not OK, that, you know, this is not part of our tradition and part
of our set of values. But I also do actually think that they are kind of a minority, a loud minority, granted, but still a minority. I do feel that I
have a huge support from the people in Serbia.
AMANPOUR: Understood, and I take your word for that. But the reason I bring it up is that some have suggested that this is really a way for a very
conservative pro- Russian government to put in a more human face, a more acceptable phase to the West because, you know, Serbia wants to prove that
it can have it both ways, it can have close links to Russia, but also be palpable to the European Union at a time when Serbia of course is looking
for entry into the European Union.
BRNABIC: I've heard that question, I'd like to reiterate that it's a -- the government is pro-Serbia. It's neither pro-U.S. or pro-Russian, it's a pro-
Serbian government deeply dedicated to improving the life of the Serbian citizens. So in that manner, I told that my government is a fully-aligned,
it's a continuity of the previous government of the previous Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. We've had huge successes in the past three years, you
know. We had full fiscal consolidations, before that we were three months from bankruptcy as analyzed by the World Bank. We now have full
AMANPOUR: And it have to be said that Serbia's made great strive since the '90's in terms of trying to resuscitate the economy. Having said that, it
is a difficult place that you find yourselves in the world geographically and politically, I'm wondering what your thoughts are, you know, Russian
interference around the world in governments, in election is a topic right now, a topic that has now touched Serbia. Montenegro is in the middle of a
trial, allegedly people originating from Serbia tried to interfere in that election or coup perhaps even an assassination there last year that they're
on trial right now. They were said to have originated from Serbia but are now in Russia. Again, allegations non-proven, what is your understanding of
what went on, and how do you view Russia's influence in the region in a larger way?
BRNABIC: Serbia is a deeply and a strategically dedicated to EU accession. I'll remind you that we have two -- two new ministries. And they are
clearly communicating that our strategic goal is European Union, that's where we're going. We have a new ministry, ministry in charge of European
integration and another new ministry is Ministry for Environmental Protection. So this is -- what this new government is communicating clearly
to its partners in the European Union, to all of its citizens and to all of its partners including Russia.
Russia is a big market for us, they are a huge trading partner to Serbia, and apart from that, without any doubt, Serbian people are traditionally
and in terms of religion are very connected to Russia. So it's both kind of our relationship with Russia from the past times, but also something that
is happening today in terms of economic development. Serbia needs new jobs. Serbia needs new companies, we have a good GDP growth of 2.8 percent last
year, 3 percent projective for this year, I'm hoping 3.5% for 2018. But for that, we really need to be responsible towards all of our citizens and keep
our ties to Russia and that is one important source of our growth.
AMANPOUR: I just want to hold the interview there right now. And I want to please to answer the question, in terms of Russia being involved in the
Balkans the way they are right now, perhaps using the region of the jumping off-point in order to interfere with the EU, to interfere with NATO, how do
you feel about that, and do you have any proof, especially considering that two Serbians are now implicated?
BRNABIC: I don't see that happening. And to be honest, I haven't seen any proof of those allegations. As I said, and I will, you know, I just need to
reiterate that, our strategic path is towards the EU, we always have one and the same message. EU is where we're going, Russia is our friend and
it's our economic partner. And there is nothing really more to it rather than that.
AMANPOUR: Prime Minister, really appreciate you being on the program.
BRNABIC: Thank you so much. Thank you.
AMANPOUR: So from breaking down cultural taboos to transcending national borders. After the break, we imagine a world where the heartbreak of the
Syrian war is captured onstage on Central New York.
AMANPOUR: And finally, imagine a world where the real drama of war takes center stage onstage. Tonight, a highly-charged new play about the Syrian
uprising gets its U.S. premiere in New York. Called While I was Waiting, it tells the story of a family trying to cope in conflict. Now, the
production almost never saw the light of day here in the States, because of difficulties the Syrian cast and crew had in getting U.S. visas. Ahead of
tonight's performance, I sat down with director Omar Abusaada and playwright Mohammad Al Attar about the importance of keeping Syria right in
AMANPOUR: Mohammad and Omar, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate it and congratulations on the success of the play.
Mohammad, this is really quite, what we call a visceral viewing, I mean, it's quite in the mode of the play. Why this play? Why did this resonate
MOHAMMAD AL ATTAR, SYRIAN PLAYWRIGHT: When Omar told me that he thinks about a story that we know, that for a person in Damascus, who's been
AMANPOUR: It's based on a true story.
AL ATTAR: Yes, exactly, and he was in a coma for a while, and unfortunately, he passed away. And since our early discussions, I felt that
this is a great metaphor to speak about Syria today, it's a great way to reflect on the ongoing situation in Syria today, by focusing on an intimate
narrative, on a story of a young man and his family trying to cope with a small tragedy, which is the tragedy of the young man who is in the coma,
and also of course the bigger tragedy which is what's going on around, in the city of Damascus and in Syria in general.
AMANPOUR: So, it's a relatively small personal story within what have been epic events in Syria.
AL ATTAR: Absolutely. I think the objective was for us clear, is to try to focus on the intimate personal stories, because we think that was hugely
missed in covering Syria or speaking about Syria. Today, you know, there is more or less, the dominant discourses in the media everywhere when it comes
to Syria is either speaking about it as only a war zone, or it's only about geopolitical analysis which is general is I think a weak analysis. It
doesn't cover the different layers behind this tragedy, and that's why we thought focusing on the personal narrative would humanize the Syrians,
which is important to start to really build stronger bridges with what's going on in Syria.
AMANPOUR: Do you think that's the key, then, in those personal stories, are you trying to make a connection with audiences?
AL ATTAR: Of course, absolutely, especially for a foreign audience as I say, I think the first step is to realize that Syrians are much closer to
you than you think, they are not just categories, they are not just victims or warlords or refugees or orphans, they are also human beings who have
political aspirations, human aspirations, who are very close to any other human beings in north Europe, in South America, in the United States, and
everywhere, yes? And that's important, because if you resonate with that, I think you will start to understand the Syrian dilemma much better.
AMANPOUR: And Omar, throughout this entire play, it's incredibly stark, because, you know, the main character is in a coma in the bed the entire
time. How do you think that that further promotes the storyline?
OMAR ABUSAADA, SYRIAN DIRECTOR: We make two choices which was very important to this play. The first, that we will keep the bed empty all the
play, so you always see this empty bed, and I think making this bed empty make it much more stronger, you have to look at it all the time and think
about the meaning behind this also. This is first.
The second is to keep this character there, because I think in the case of coma, we heard a lot of stories about what happens when you are in coma.
For us, the stories that we really feel in more touch to, that maybe the one who is in coma could hear you, could feel his family, the people around
him, but he just cannot say.
AMANPOUR: He's a part of it, but he's a prisoner to what is going on around him.
ABUSAADA: Exactly. You know, when the revolution started in Syria in 2011, most of the ones who was in the street was from that generation, was
so young, and they participated and they was very active at the first and very effective. But gradually year by year, you realize they didn't have
the rules, they was blamed from before, everything changed, so somehow they are very similar to our character. A lot of audience told us that they
really after the show wanted to make a search more about Syria, want to hear more about Syria as they have now very different understanding,
different point of view about what is happening in Syria. So it was really amazing, the audience reactions.
AMANPOUR: Congratulations to both of you as the play continues to run at Lincoln Center.
ABUSAADA: Thank you very much.
AL ATTAR: Thank you very much.
AMANPOUR: Now the play, While I was Waiting, is at the Lincoln Center here in New York until Saturday.
And that's it for our program, remember you can also watch our podcasts and follow me on Twitter. Thank you for watching, and goodbye from New York.