House GOP reverses course on gutting ethics office after Trump backlash

In an abrupt reversal Tuesday afternoon, House Republicans dropped a proposal to gut an ethics office overseeing them, after coming under intense criticism from President-elect Donald Trump and others.

The reversal came just hours after Trump criticized the House GOP for making the ethics rules change an initial priority of the new Congress.

"With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority," Trump posted in twotweets. "Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS"

Related: Trump's official picks for cabinet and administration positions

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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions
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Counselor to the President: Kellyanne Conway

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Veterans Affairs Secretary: David Shulkin

(Photo credit DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Transportation secretary: Elaine Chao

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Energy secretary: Rick Perry

(Photo credit KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

 REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

Secretary of Defense: Retired Marine General James Mattis

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chief of staff: Reince Priebus

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Chief strategist: Steve Bannon

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Attorney General: Senator Jeff Sessions

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Director of the CIA: Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Deputy national security adviser: K.T. McFarland

(Photo by Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)

White House counsel: Donald McGahn

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ambassador to the United Nations: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Education secretary: Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Commerce secretary: Wilbur Ross

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Homeland security secretary: General John Kelly

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Housing and urban development secretary: Ben Carson

(Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Health and human services secretary: Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security: Retired General John Kelly

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Secretary of agriculture: Sonny Perdue

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)
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Incoming White House press secretary and communications director Sean Spicer later added in a conference call with reporters that Trump's tweets were a "question of priorities."

"He says their focus should be on tax reform and healthcare," he said. "It's not a question of strengthening or weakening — it's a question of priorities."

House Republicans had voted Monday night to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics, a nonpartisan ethics watchdog, in a closed-door meeting. The lawmakers voted to place the office under the oversight of the House Ethics Committee, which gives them more control over the independent body tasked with investigating their behavior. It was a measure that was added to a larger rules package expected to pass on Tuesday.

The proposal to gut the ethics office was withdrawn Tuesday afternoon by unanimous consent.

The new rules would have eliminated the office's spokesperson, its ability to investigate anonymous tips, its ability to alert law enforcement if has identified a crime, and its authority to publicly release allegations of wrongdoing, a mandate that the formal House Ethics Committee does not have.

House Republicans said this was because the public releases had undermined their own due process in investigations.

OCE was created in 2008 after a series of House corruption scandals.

"The OCE has a serious and important role in the House, and this amendment does nothing to impede their work," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who sponsored the measure.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who created the office, expressed dismay with the decision.

"Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress," the California Democrat said in a statement.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy were reportedly against the measure.

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"After eight years of operation, many members believe the Office of Congressional Ethics is in need of reform to protect due process and ensure it is operating according to its stated mission," Ryan said in a Tuesday statement. "I want to make clear that this House will hold its members to the highest ethical standards and the Office will continue to operate independently to provide public accountability to Congress. The Office will continue to be governed by a bipartisan independent outside board with ultimate decision-making authority."

"I have made clear to the new chair of the House Ethics Committee that it is not to interfere with the Office's investigations or prevent it from doing its job," he later added. "All members of Congress are required to earn the public's trust every single day, and this House will hold members accountable to the people."

MSNBC host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough on Tuesday also lashed out at the Republican lawmakers who voted to gut the office.

"Dudes, dudettes, what's wrong with you?" Scarborough asked on "Morning Joe."

He suggested Trump should oppose the measure, with which he later expressed dismay.

"This seems like a great opportunity for the incoming president to show his independence, show he wants to drain the swamp, and immediately start hammering them on this," Scarborough said. "This is ridiculous. This is what happens. Time and time again, a party takes control of power, and Republicans have complete power, and their first act out of the gate — it's just complete arrogance. It's a horrific misstep."

"This needs to be reversed," he later added. "Paul Ryan needs to take charge, and say 'You guys are looking like idiots and like you have something to hide. This is not how we're supposed to start our new Republican era.'"

Maxwell Tani and Reuters contributed to this story.

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