Trump Waives His Ethics Rules to Allow Lobbyists To Make Policy

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It is now clear why Trump’s administration tried so hard not to make public details of waivers it granted White House staffers who may have violated the president’s own ethics rules. They show that President Donald Trump, who made “drain the swamp” a campaign battle cry, has enlisted numerous swamp-dwellers–former lobbyists, consultants, corporate executives–to staff key positions in his White House and has granted them broad exemptions to work on issues directly related to their former jobs and clients.

After repeatedly criticizing DC lobbyists throughout the campaign, Trump used his first executive orders in January to establish ethics rules for his new government. The January 28 order barred Trump officials from working on issues related to their former employers for at least two years, and these rules applied not only to lobbyists, but to anyone who worked for a business or organization potentially affected by federal policy decisions. These prohibitions weren’t absolute. Waivers could be granted in certain instances.

The Trump administration initially refused to release waivers that it had granted when the Office of Government Ethics asked. But after a standoff the administration relented late Wednesday and released about 14 waivers covering White House staffers. They made it clear that Trump’s ethics rules were extremely flexible and that top staffers shouldn’t worry about following them. Although Trump’s rules look similar to President Barack Obama’s, it seems that Trump is more open to granting exceptions. Only three White House staffers have been granted ethics waivers at this point in Obama’s administration. So far, Trump has granted 14, including several that apply to multiple people.

White House chief-of-staff Reince Priebus, and Kellyanne Conway, adviser, were each granted waivers to address issues involving their former employers. This applies only to Priebus and the Republican National Committee. Conway can now work on issues that involve her ex-clients, who were part of her former life as a pollster and operative. These clients included corporations and nonprofit activist groups.

Conway had a murky relationship with these clients. She was not required to reveal who she worked for. We do know that she repped virulently anti-immigration and anti-Muslim groups. The names of some of her corporate clients also have trickled out, including Major League Baseball, Hasbro, American Express, and Boeing. The waiver may have been granted to help smooth the way for Conway after evidence emerged that she continued to operate own her polling and consulting company even after she’d gone to work in the White House–a possible violation of conflict-of-interest laws that drew the attention of congressional Democrats who have begun probing her relationship with the company.

Conway’s waiver was not retroactive, but there is another that specifically allows White House employees to communicate freely with former employers and coworkers at media organizations–and applies back to January 20. Trump’s executive order didn’t simply prohibit any of his hires from working on matters relating to a former employer–it specifically covered “any meeting or communication relating to the performance of one’s official duties.” This means at least two of Trump’s top aides, former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon and his assistant Julia Hahn, would be prohibited from chatting with their former colleagues at Breitbart about anything work-related–a rule that Bannon appears not to have followed. While not named, it seems likely that protecting the Breitbart alums from ethics complaints was the aim.

Another takeaway from Trump’s waivers is the fact that they seem to be much less restrictive than Obama administration waivers. Many Obama waivers (there were only 10 total granted to White House employees during his administration) were very narrowly tailored. James Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, was granted a waiver that would allow him to present Bill Clinton at an Atlantic Council event, even though Jones had worked previously for the group. John Brennan, who was at that time Obama’s deputy national safety adviser, had worked previously for The Analysis Company and was granted a waiver to access the company’s data during the investigation into the “Underwear Bomber”. Brennan was not allowed to speak to any employees of the company.

Trump waivers on the other hand are very broad.

For instance, Trump granted a waiver to Michael Catanzaro, who is the president’s most senior energy policy aide, allowing him to work freely on “broad policy matters and particular matters of general applicability relating to the Clean Power Plan, the WOTUS [Waters of the United States] rule, and methane regulations.” Catanzaro worked as a registered lobbyist for several oil and gas companies as recently as January, which made the waiver necessary. On his most recent lobbying disclosure form–filed on behalf of one of his clients, natural gas company Noble Energy–Catanzaro wrote that he was working on “EPA and BLM’s proposed and final regulations covering methane emissions from new and existing oil and gas facilities.” Nearly identical language appears in his most recent lobbying disclosure on behalf of another natural gas company, Encana. Catanzaro is now making policies on the same issues on which he was paid to lobby corporations. Catanzaro’s waiver does not contain any restrictions regarding his clients in the past.

Shahira Knight is another Trump aide. She was previously vice president of public policies at Fidelity Mutual Funds and is now special assistant for tax policy and retirement policy. Her waiver grants her permission to work on “matters of general applicability relating to tax, retirement and financial services issues.” Fidelity’s most recent lobbying report–filed while Knight ran its lobbying shop–lists the main issue areas targeted by the company’s lobbyists: finance, retirement, banking, and taxes.

While the Obama administration was reluctant to grant waivers in certain circumstances, the Trump waivers seem to have been carefully written to exempt previous lobbying work by White House aides.

And this is only the beginning. This release only included waivers granted by the White House to employees. It does not include waivers granted federal agency officials such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Treasury Department. Although the White House will hand these waivers to the Office of Government Ethics, it is not yet clear when they will become public.

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