Waiving the Swamp Critters
Terry H. Schwadron
The first set of “ethics waivers” is public, showing that the White House issued such waivers, or permissions to hire former lobbyists or others with potential conflicts of interest, to 17 senior appointees.
In plain English, this means that besides people like Reince Priebus and Kellyanne Conway, who got top billing in the news reports, these appointees may now be overseeing policy that directly covers the folks they used to represent as lobbyists.
It’s a way to measure President Trump’s announced campaign to “drain the swamp.” By this measure, the judgment would be that he is building his own swamp rather than draining power of lobbyists. One White House appointee, for example, now oversees energy policies that directly affect the companies he used to represent.
Hell, Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, was active as Oklahoma attorney general suing the EPA because he didn’t think it was fair to the oil and gas interests he had protected, to say nothing of pursuing his denials of climate change. But his name wasn’t on the White House staff waivers docket.
Indeed, what has not come out yet is similar information from all the federal agencies, information that Budget Director Mike Mulvaney, among others, had not wanted to disclose. That had set up a fight with the Office of Government Ethics, which oversees the waivers.
The waivers exempt appointees from certain portions of ethics rules aimed at barring potential conflicts of interest. The White House counsel’s office said that these 17 waivers were in the public interest because the administration had a need for the appointees’ expertise on certain issues.
Priebus and Conway were both connected with the Republican National Committee, and with these waivers, can continue to engage with them or other former clients. The waivers allow all the appointees the ability to interact with news organizations, thus allowing Stephen K. Bannon shade to worker with Breitbart News, the conservative outlet he once headed.
Still, Walter M. Schaub Jr., head of the government ethics office, said these “retroactive” waivers were not exactly kosher. Schaub told The New York Times that the waiver to Bannon, in particular, raised questions. “There is no such thing as a retroactive waiver,” Shaub was quoted as saying in an interview. “If you need a retroactive waiver, you have violated a rule.” A spokeswoman for the White House did not comment. “It leaves us unable to evaluate if the waiver was issued before or after you engaged in conduct that would otherwise be prohibited,” Mr. Shaub said.
All the news coverage noted that the rate at which the Trump White House has handed out waivers is far faster than that of the Obama administration, which issued 17 exemptions for White House appointees over eight years.
The official statements, of course, argue the exact opposite. They say that Mr. Trump is living up to his campaign line on draining the swamp by making the voluntary waiver information public, underscoring transparency, and representing work “to avoid conflicts arising from their former places of employment of investment holdings.” The official statements suggested that reviewing each individual resulted in a minimal number of such waivers.
So, it is either a lot more than usual or a minimal number, depending on your point of view.
Who are they?
Three former lobbyists were given waivers to allow them to work as staffers for the National Economic Council, which is headed by Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive. The Washington Post quoted the White House that Cohn needed no waiver himself because he has promised to recuse himself from any matters involving Goldman.
Michael Catanzaro, a domestic energy and environmental policy adviser who handled emissions regulations, clean air standards and renewable fuel rules, used to represent energy companies on exactly those issues. Shahira Knight, an adviser on tax and retirement policy, was a tax lobbyist and former vice president of Fidelity Investments’ public affairs and policy group. Andrew Olmem, who works on insurance and financial policies, used to lobby on bankruptcy and securities issues at Venable.
You get the idea.
There are two story lines here — the fight over making public the waivers that have been granted, in which the White House seems to have decided to take the high road; and the question of who exactly is working in the White House or in important policy areas in the federal government who has served specific corporate interests.
Until there is compliance with the broader disclosure of these waivers, the fight line will continue.
But the more important thing is what we already have come to know — that Team Trump sees nothing wrong with putting people in charge of getting rid of regulations that affects their former clients. Indeed, they seem to take pride in doing so.
Call it whatever you want — but don’t call it “draining the swamp.”