Disclosure of Ethics Waivers for White House Staff Doesn't Reassure Critics

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway is one of the officials who received a waiver. White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway is one of the officials who received a waiver. Evan Vucci/AP

As promised, President Trump’s team in time for a June 1 deadline posted a list of 14 White House staff individuals and groups who’ve been granted waivers from ethics rules so that they may continue communicating with former employers.

The list included such familiar names as Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and special counsel Michael Cantanzaro. The unveiling of the waivers did little to appease critics in the transparency community.

The long-anticipated accounting of waivers granted over many weeks--posted without an announcement on the “disclosure” section of the White House website-- came after months of back and forth with the Office of Government Ethics over whether the president’s team was legally obligated to report the waivers granted to Trump’s appointees, many of whom are former lobbyists or wealthy individuals who joined government with a risk of conflicts of interest.

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OGE did not acknowledge the postings, though it had distributed a reminder on May 30 of all agencies’ obligations to meet the June 1 deadline for reporting their waivers.

Trump’s list—which includes links to detailed waiver language from White House Counsel Don McGahn --cited sections of the president’s Jan. 28 Executive Order 13770 on ethics commitments for all executive branch employees, which prohibited them from lobbying their agency for five years after leaving service. The document also stated, “If I was a registered lobbyist within the 2 years before the date of my appointment…, I will not for a period of 2 years after the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter on which I lobbied within the 2 years before the date of my appointment or participate in the specific issue area in which that particular matter falls.”

The waiver for Cantanzaro, a former oil and gas industry lobbyist, for example, reads: “This limited waiver authorizes you from the date of your appointment to participate in broad policy matters and particular matters of general applicability relating to energy and environmental policy issues, including but not limited to the following: the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, methane regulations covering oil, the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program under the Clean Air Act and the gas sector and the Renewable Fuel Standard (the “covered matters”), notwithstanding the limitations found in paragraph 7 of the Ethics Pledge.”

Conway’s waiver allows her to continue to work with her polling firm clients, and Priebus can wrap up loose ends from his tenure leading the Republican National Committee.

The broader categories of waiver allow all Executive Office of the President employees to “participate in communications and meetings with news organizations regarding broad policy matters.” That would appear to allow presidential strategist Steve Bannon, for example, to continue to communicate with his former colleagues at Brietbart news, as news outlets have reported. Other categories include all commissioned officers at the White House, who may continue to communicate with political organizations that helped elect Trump, and employees of the Jones Day law firm, which represents the president.

White House spokeswoman Lyndsay Walters said in a statement that the administration had tried, when possible, to urge aides to avoid conflicts and asked them not to work on topics they once handled in the private sector, rather than seek a waiver, according to The New York Times.

The Times compared Trump’s waivers with those of President Obama, finding that during eight years he granted 16 ethics waivers and 70 for agency officials (agency waivers have yet to be reported.)

Ethics specialists were for the most part unsatisfied. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said the waivers “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. No one has believed for months that this president or his administration had any interest in ethics, but these waivers make clear the remarkable extent to which they are comfortable mixing their own personal interests with the country’s. It’s no wonder they waited for the cover of night to release them.”

The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which had been encouraged by Trump’s general approach to ethics, said, “These results are disappointing, and show that Trump’s campaign promise to drain the swamp does not include preventing the revolving door from the private sector to public service…. Allowing White House staff to meet with former employers and clients and handle matters on which they lobbied is a recipe for policies that are bad for taxpayers.”

Robert Weissman, president of the liberal-leaning Public Citizen, said, “The raft of waivers, which vastly exceeds the number issued in the early months of the Obama administration and – more importantly – authorizes conflicts not permitted in the Obama administration, signify both the corporate takeover of the government and the Trump administration’s utter disregard for ethical standards.”

Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a transparency group that earlier filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the waivers for political appointees from eight agencies, said, "The Trump administration has transformed the exception into the rule, granting broad waivers to allow the president's inner circle to work on matters they ordinarily would be barred from participating in. Given the breadth and number of the waivers, it's clear that President Trump does not prioritize ethics concerns when hand-selecting people to work in the White House. Citizens should be worried that the president is skirting rules designed to protect the integrity of government operations. And the administration should be wary as well: building a government on ethical Swiss cheese is a recipe for scandal.”

The agencies subject to the group’s FOIA requests were the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Treasury and Veterans Affairs, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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