On the campaign trail, Donald Trump presented himself as the ultimate outsider who would rid Washington of special interest corruption and “drain the swamp.” And immediately after taking office, he signed a flashy executive order tightening restrictions on lobbyists’ work in the executive branch.
But he immediately began to staff the administration with people whose work seemed, on its face, to clearly violate the terms of the order. Rather than publicly grant waivers of ethics rules with a clearly stated rationale, the White House was simply routinely waiving ethics rules in secret so nobody knew how many waivers were issued or for what purpose.
After extensive back and forth with congressional Democrats and the Office of Government Ethics, Trump has finally provided documentation, and it shows that the ethics rules are plainly meaningless. He’s granted five times as many waivers in his first four months in office as Obama did, which cover key figures in the administration like Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and counselor Kellyanne Conway. All told, 17 waivers were granted to members of the White House staff, and we still have no idea how many waivers have been granted for other executive branch agencies or whether anyone is even keeping track.
Trump’s ethics pledge, explained
Back in October 2016, with his poll numbers in a tailspin after the devastating revelation that he’d been caught on tape bragging about routine sexual assault, Trump unveiled a flashy series of promises to “drain the swamp” in Washington and shake up the establishment.
With key party figures abandoning him and major Republican donors focused on saving the House and Senate rather than backing his candidacy, it was a smart way of making lemons out of lemonade. Experts like New America’s Lee Drutman panned Trump’s pledges as “fake reform,” but as Jeff Stein argued last November, there’s considerable evidence that it worked. Despite all the post-election kvetching about Clinton’s message on the economy (or lack thereof), exit polls showed her decisively winning among voters who cited economic issues as their main interest. Trump dominated, by contrast, among voters who said they wanted “change.” And pre-election issue polling from both Pew and Gallup showed Trump with a clear edge on just one issue — reducing special interest influence.
The specific elements of Trump’s plan were, however, largely vague or unworkable:
- First, propose a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress.
- Second, impose a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health).
- Third, require that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated.
- Fourth, put a five-year ban on White House and congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service.
- Fifth, place a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.
- Sixth, put a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.
To the extent that Trump could really do any of these things, he packaged them into his January 28 executive order. But as good-government types found during the Obama administration, these kinds of executive branch commitments are inherently flimsy because what the president orders, the president can also grant exceptions to. And like Trump, Obama ended up giving members of his administration waivers to allow them to work on regulatory issues tied to their former lobbying portfolios.
But while Obama at least made an effort to make waivers the exception rather than the rule — to require them to meet the specific legal standard that nobody else in the administration could do a given task — Trump seems to be simply waiving the rules willy-nilly and then doing his best to avoid disclosure when it’s happened.
Some key White House waivers
These waivers are, in many cases, particularly egregious. Andrew Olmem, for example, joined the White House as special assistant to the president for financial policy after having lobbied the federal government on behalf of a number of financial firms, including MetLife.
His waiver allows him, among other things, to work on the subject of Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) regulatory treatment of insurance companies.
As it happens, the single most controversial thing FSOC has done over the course of its existence is designating MetLife as being in need of enhanced regulatory supervision as the kind of entity whose self-inflicted imprudence and eventual failure could threaten the entire national economy.
Michael Catanzaro, a lobbyist for a coal-burning utility, is working on the rollback of Obama-era regulations on coal-burning utilities. Shahira Knight, who lobbied for Fidelity Investments, is now working on tax and retirement policy.
Former lobbyists are, in other words, directly managing the White House end of the regulatory process on issues that directly implicate their clients’ core interests.
Trump’s biggest broken promise
Trump’s public, flagrant flouting of his promise to inaugurate a new era of more ethical and less conflicted federal government is less sexy than secret intelligence leaks about previously undisclosed contacts with Russia. But it’s in many ways worthy of more attention than it’s thus far received. A lot of Trump-era campaign promises were pretty clearly nonsense to anyone who bothered to do a five-minute Google search, or else were mired in hopelessly contradictory rhetoric from day one.
But Trump, like him or not, really was a political outsider whose nomination as president really was resisted by the top leadership of the Republican Party and who really was viewed warily by key congressional Republicans right through Election Day, and he really did rely much less on traditional campaign donors than the past few GOP nominees or Hillary Clinton. The whole Trump show clearly discomfited the broad political establishment along a number of dimensions, and it wasn’t obviously ridiculous to draw the inference that one thing the establishment feared about Trump was the risk that he would shake up the existing cozy financial arrangement.
In reality, Trump’s White House is filled with lobbyists and waivers. And we have no idea what kinds of rules are being waived in the various regulatory agencies.
Beyond that, even when Trump has brought “outsiders” into the government, they overwhelmingly pose their own financial conflicts of interest. Whether it’s Jared Kushner’s sister hawking EB-5 visas, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price trading on insider information, Wilbur Ross’s stake in a Chinese shipping firm, or the decision to have a bunch of Wall Street lawyers run the Securities and Exchange Commission, the lines between private financial interests and public policy have never been blurrier than they are under the Trump administration. That starts from the top down, where the president’s personal pledge to separate himself from his private business interests has been implemented in an utterly meaningless way, and it carries forward to his implementation of his own self-imposed ethics rules.
The story of Trump’s life from a young age has been the experience of the impunity enjoyed by rich people in America, and his approach to ethics is simply to extend that impunity as far and wide as possible.