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How the White House is shredding its own rules against lobbyists

President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Meetings At Trump Tower
White House counsel Don McGahn
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One week after his Inauguration, President Donald Trump took a small if meaningful step toward “draining the swamp” — signing an executive order restricting the work former lobbyists could do in his White House.

In the four months since, the Trump administration has steadily worked to undermine the rule’s strength and impact. Then in an announcement earlier this week, the White House drove a stake through the heart of its own ethics rules, rendering them largely meaningless.

Some background: Trump’s executive order on ethics this January barred lobbyists from working on the same regulatory issues that they had recently worked on in their capacity as lobbyists. This clampdown was weaker than a similar order President Barack Obama had signed at the beginning of his administration. But it looked, at least to good-government experts, like a step in the right direction.

Ever since then, reporters have discovered that Trump’s team has filled government posts with former lobbyists whose former work certainly looks like it’s relevant to their current positions.

The Trump administration was expected to defend these hires by announcing that it had given out special waivers, exempting selected former lobbyists from the president’s executive order. Instead, Trump’s team announced Sunday that it has decided against disclosing anything about these waivers anytime soon.

Trump began his term by prohibiting White House officials from regulating areas where they had recently made their living as lobbyists. The administration now won’t tell anybody how many people are going around Trump’s own ethics guidelines, who in the administration gets to do so, and why or when the White House is willing to overlook its own rules. If Trump administration officials are breaking the ethics guidelines, no one beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would know.

A sharp break with Obama

Barack Obama Receives Kennedy Profile In Courage Award Photo by CJ Gunther-Pool/Getty Images

Now, it’s not unprecedented for presidents to grant officials exemptions from ethics rules. Like Trump, President Obama also gave members of his administration waivers to allow them to work on regulatory issues tied to their former lobbying portfolios.

But there are at least two crucial differences between Obama’s policy and Trump’s.

For one, Obama only granted waivers to White House officials when doing so met a clear, defined legal definition — if nobody else in the administration could do a given task. Under Trump, by contrast, nobody knows what criteria have to be met before the Trump administration decides an official passes the lobbyist sniff test.

“To get a waiver under the Obama administration, you had to be necessary for the job and nobody else could do the job for you,” said Craig Holman, who works at the good-government group Public Citizen. “Trump’s standard is anything he wants — there’s no legal standard whatsoever. Trump can issue a waiver for anyone for any reason.”

The Trump administration’s silence on the waivers also suggests that it does not believe it has to say when it has handed out a waiver. All of Obama’s waivers were made publicly available and posted online, and many were done in consultation with the Office of Government Ethics. But Trump’s team has decided not to tell OGE, the nonpartisan ethics watchdog created after Watergate, how many waivers it’s handing out or why.

“Trump can issue a waiver for anyone for any reason and not even disclose it,” Holman said. “It’s a world of difference.”

Lobbyists are flooding into the White House, and we have no idea how many there are

President Trump Departs White House For First Overseas Trip Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The White House’s refusal to disclose its list of waivers is particularly important because nobody knows how many people has received one or will. The Times pegs the number at more than “dozens,” but there are thousands of executive branch appointments, and it’s difficult for the media to uncover how many had lobbying work relevant to their government expertise, according to Holman.

“We know many lobbyists have been brought into the Trump administration, but the exact number is unclear,” Holman said. “We’re not sure how many people this affects — there’s no list of who in the administration was a lobbyist and who is not.”

The few examples that have been made public underscore the potential danger in former lobbyists running the administration.

On February 27, the White House announced that Shahira Knight had been appointed as special assistant to the president for Tax and Retirement Policy. Less than a week later, ProPublica noted that Knight had until recently lobbied the government on “a host of retirement and tax issues” for Fidelity, the multinational financial services corporation. In particular, Knight lobbied the government to gut a regulation supported by consumer activists that experts believe saves people billions a year for retirement, according to ProPublica.

How did the White House reconcile Trump’s executive order on lobbying with the fact that his new adviser on tax and retirement policy had recently been lobbying on those very issues? The Trump administration never explained its reasoning — either to the press or to furious House Democrats.

It turned out Knight fit a pattern. The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani soon revealed that Michael Catanzaro, who had been lobbying over greenhouse gas energy standards for Devon Energy just a few months ago, is now special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy. Then there’s George David Banks, who recently lobbied on environmental issues for a business group and is now special assistant to the president for international energy and environment.

What is Walter Shaub supposed to do?

At the center of this drama is Walter Shaub, who as director of the Office of Government Ethics is tasked with enforcing Trump’s now-toothless executive order.

Shaub is an appointee from the Obama years, and is serving out the last year of his five-year term under Trump. (It runs until January 2018.) He and the administration have already repeatedly clashed, with Shaub going after Trump for his international business conflicts.

They’re fighting again over the lobbyists’ waivers. Shaub’s job is to translate Trump’s ethics rules attempting to crack down on the revolving door into an enforceable policy. But absent the information from the White House about who has gotten a wavier and why, there’s not much Shaub can do.

“OGE is supposed to be able to develop policies and regulations to implement Trump’s executive order,” Holman said. “But the fact that Trump and [White House counsel] Don McGahn are keeping who is receiving a waiver secret and why makes doing so impossible.”

Stymied, Shaub sent a letter to every federal agency this March asking for copies of the waivers they had granted to officials who were exempted from Trump’s lobbying restrictions. The White House wrote him back on Sunday to say that the request was being rejected, and that the agencies had no obligation to explain its lobbying hires.

Shaub responded with a 10-page letter denouncing the White House’s decision. But despite congressional Democrats’ complaints, there’s nothing Shaub alone can do to force Trump to reveal which lobbyists are working on their former portfolios within the government.

"The attempt by the Trump administration to stifle the independent agency the OGE from receiving information about granted waivers is way out of bounds,” said Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen.

Trump is not draining the swamp

In October 2016, his poll numbers in a tailspin, Trump announced a five-point plan to “drain the swamp” and end corruption in Washington.

Many of the proposals were so hopelessly vague that it was hard to know if they’d translate into concrete reforms. But experts were cautiously optimistic that some of Trump’s ideas — like extending the definition of a lobbyist to cover “consultants” clearly engaged in lobbying — could improve Washington’s notorious revolving-door culture.

Since Trump’s election, however, hopes that Trump would meaningfully crack down on lobbyists’ power have all but vanished.

The fears began when Trump filled his transition team in January with lobbyists like Trent Lott and corruption-plagued politicians such as Chris Christie, turning to the very peddlers of corporate influence his campaign focused on deriding.

They accelerated when Trump filled his White House with titans of industry whose ties to big finance had hardly been cut. At least three of Trump’s Cabinet officials are receiving multimillion-dollar payouts — so-called “golden parachutes” — from the companies they are leaving to join the federal government, a move that’s widely alarmed ethics watchdogs.

Then there is, of course, the corruption Trump and his family personally represent, as Trump turned his first 100 days in office into an opportunity for “making money hand over fist” because of unprecedented conflicts of interest.

Perhaps even more important than what Trump has done is what he has not — backed anything remotely resembling meaningful campaign finance reform. Instead, he appointed a Supreme Court justice who is likely to shred what’s left of America’s few remaining restrictions on how much big money can finance political campaigns.

Of all Trump’s broken promises, his pledge to end corruption may be the one that currently most appears beyond recovery. The shredding of his own lobbying ban is just further proof.

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