Refilling the Swamp: Trump Issues 5 Times As Many Ethics Waivers As Obama

“Draining the swamp” was a major theme of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last year.

The phrase became a rallying cry for ethics reform and for stopping the “revolving door” that allowed government officials to go to work as lobbyists and vice versa. To much fanfare, Trump signed an Executive Order that modified the Obama Administration policy on lobbying by former government officials as one of his first acts.

Now it seems that the Trump ethics policy is not as stringent as it first seemed. On Wednesday, the White House finally issued a list of “ethics pledge waivers” for the White House staff. The White House had fought the Office of Government Ethics on whether to make the waivers public after initially granting them in secret.

The list, which includes only members of the presidential and vice-presidential staffs, includes a number of former lobbyists and members of the media. The New York Times notes that the 16 known waivers issued by the Trump Administration is “more than five times the number granted in the first four months of the Obama administration.”

Some of the waivers were granted because the White House employees had to have contact with their former employers to do their current jobs. For example, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had to be able to communicate with the Republican National Committee, the organization that he once ran. Likewise, Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to President Trump and a former Republican pollster, “may participate in communications and meetings involving former clients which are political, advocacy, trade, or non-profit organizations” per her waiver.

Other waivers are more problematic for Mr. Trump’s “drain the swamp” pledge. Politico points out that Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who previously headed the right-wing website, Breitbart.com, is covered under a waiver that allows White House aides to interact with news outlets in spite of previous ties to those organizations. According to Politico, Bannon can legally engage with Breitbart even when other organizations are excluded. Before the waiver was made public, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington had filed a complaint against Bannon for repeated contacts with Breitbart employees in apparent violation of the ethics pledge.

It is uncertain how many lobbyists have been granted approval to work in other departments within the Trump Administration, but at least four former lobbyists are known to have been granted waivers to work within the Trump White House on policy areas that could present a conflict of interests:

  • Michael Catanzaro, a former oil and gas lobbyist, was granted approval to work on energy policy.
  • Shahira Knight, a former Fidelity executive who had lobbied on tax, retirement and financial issues, was approved to work on those policy areas.
  • Andrew Olmem, a bank and insurance lobbyist, is allowed to work with former clients on financial policy.
  • Joshua Pitcock, a former lobbyist for the State of Indiana, is allowed to work with Indiana officials on issues on which he previously lobbied.

Additionally, six former attorneys for the Jones Day law firm were granted a waiver to “participate in communications and meetings where Jones Day represents the President, his campaign, the transition, or political entities supporting the President.” Donald Trump was a client of Jones Daybefore he became president and White Counsel Don McGahn, along with 11 other Trump Administration lawyers, are alumni of the firm. Jones Day, which is not a lobbying firm, ran adstouting its “insights on the new Administration” in April.

Watchdog groups were critical of the extent of the waivers. “The ethics waivers the White House finally released reveal what we already suspected: that this administration is chock full of senior officials working on issues on which they lobbied, meeting with companies in which they have a financial interest, or working closely with former employers,” said a spokesman for the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The Obama Administration issued about 16 waivers in eight years. The Trump Administration has issued 16 waivers after four months. At this point in the Obama Administration, three waivers had been issued per the Times.

A White House spokesman told the New York Times that the Trump Administration tried to avoid conflicts of interest when possible. The administration also asked its employees not to work on policy areas in which they had worked in the private sector.

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