Today, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin held a press conference to announce the president’s long-awaited tax reform plan. The plan includes proposals like corporate tax cuts, elimination of the alternative minimum tax, and elimination of the estate tax, that would massively benefit wealthy people — including the president of the United States.
Yet when pressed about whether President Trump would, at long last, release his tax returns to the public, Mnuchin curtly replied that the president had “no intention” of doing so, and even claimed, against all evidence, that Trump “has given more financial disclosure than anybody else.”
Today’s bit of blatant disregard for transparency and accountability for conflicts of interest, coupled with the false pretense that Trump is actually forthcoming and conflict-free, is hardly an anomaly. But even as the administration thumbs its nose at the most basic demands of government ethics, it is simultaneously making Trump’s ethical performance central to its efforts to create an image of a president with many momentous accomplishments in his first 100 days.
For instance, check out the official White House website which touts Trump’s “bold action” to “hold government accountable,” which lists a range of ways he is supposedly cleaning up Washington. One of the listed items on the First 100 Days website — an item that is held forth as a key component of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” — claims that Trump instituted a five-year ban on lobbying and a lifetime ban on foreign lobbying by departing members of his administration, through an ethics executive order Trump signed on January 28, 2017.
But government ethics experts tell me that, based on both the language of the executive order and the Trump administration’s implementation of it, that claim is highly questionable. In fact, they argue, he has left the well-known “revolving door” in Washington — through which people pass from government to the private sector or the other way around — open even wider than ever.
In interviews with me, Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, the government watchdog group, and Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive think tank, identified numerous key failings with the executive order and the administration’s enforcement of it. These problems include:
- The executive order defines the five-year “lobbying” ban narrowly to encompass only legislative branch influencing, not executive branch work, and it imposes more limited restrictions on agency officials who work on regulations or rule-making.
- The administration is either ignoring or granting waivers to its own ethics rules in secret, but it’s difficult or impossible to know in the absence of transparency by the administration.
- Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration has not required all incoming officials to sign an ethics pledge.
- The administration has brought in wealthy individuals as “special advisors,” who are not subject to the ethics rules and can therefore press for policy that benefits their financial interests.
- As a consequence of its delays in nominating senior political appointees at agencies, hundreds of top positions are being temporarily filled by “beachhead” teams of individuals who may not be held to the executive order at all.
Holman, who said he urged the Trump administration to retain as many of the Obama-era ethics rules as possible, said the executive order Trump eventually signed is instead “very modest.” Crucially, he noted, under the Trump executive order,”lobbying” only means influencing legislation, and doesn’t include influencing the rule-making and regulatory functions of federal agencies.
As a result, Holman says, even though Trump seemed to extend a ban on lobbying to five years, that extension doesn’t mean much. Rule-making is “what the executive branch does, they don’t pass legislation,” said Holman. “With that exception, anyone could leave Trump administration and immediately begin lobbying on rule-making.”
What’s more, in comparison to the Obama administration, there is little transparency into the process for both requiring new appointees to sign ethics pledges or for appointees to receive a waiver from those ethics requirements, Hauser says.
The ethics pledges themselves may be toothless. The Trump executive order requires “every appointee in every executive agency” to sign a document laying out various promises not to engage in lobbying after leaving government. But as Holman argued in a March op-ed, “these agreements are nondescript pledges to abide by the executive order without explaining its revolving door restrictions,” and in at least one case, a lobbyist who went to work for the administration said the restrictions were not explained to him.
Worse, ethics watchdogs say, it is hard to know which officials have sought — or been granted — a waiver from having to abide by the ethics pledges. That has kept the public in the dark about how much, if any, of the swamp has actually been drained. Under Obama, Hauser noted, “there was a process to make waivers public,” but under the Trump ethics executive order there is “no provision to make them public.”
The New York Times and Pro Publica reported earlier this month that even Walter Schaub, the head of the Office of Government Ethics, “is being kept in the dark” about how many waivers have been issued, or as Holman says, whether “the ethics rules simply are being unenforced and ignored.”
More broadly, based on reviewing appointees’ financial disclosures and lobbying records, the Times concluded that Trump is staffing the White House and federal agencies with “former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who in many cases are helping to craft new policies for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck.”
One notable example cited by the Times is Michael Catanzaro, the top White House energy adviser, who through 2016 was a lobbyist for energy companies looking to dismantle environmental regulations, now his bailiwick under Trump. Another is Chad Wolf, now chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, who had lobbied for government funding of a screening device for the Transportation Security Administration.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are also raising questions about Trump’s use of “special advisers,” including Carl Icahn, the billionaire advising Trump on deregulation. In a letter to the White House, four Democratic Senators have asked whether Ichan is seeking to “leverage his newfound political power for his own personal gain.” Hauser also raised questions about two appointees to a council advising Trump on infrastructure projects, Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth. Both men, like Trump, are wealthy titans of New York real estate who could stand to benefit from the very projects on which they are advising the president.
On still another front, Pro Publica recently reported on Trump’s use of “beachhead” appointees to temporarily fill positions that, for a permanent hire, require Senate confirmation. Trump’s ongoing delays in filling these positions permanently have created yet another ethics issue, as these temporary appointees cycle in and out of government. Robert Wasinger, who served briefly as a White House liaison to the State Department, left that post in March without having signed an ethics pledge, and promptly registered as a lobbyist for telecommunications and pharmaceutical companies. It is not clear whether the Trump administration is requiring any temporary appointees to sign the ethics pledge or comply with his executive order’s lobbying restrictions.
Taken together, Trump’s serial flouting of ethics standards is a six-alarm ethics fire for which the Republican majority hasn’t even installed a smoke detector. It’s up to Democrats to push for legislation that will create real oversight and clearly enforceable ethics rules, and to make a huge deal of any Republican intransigence. This is not just a 100 day issue. Left unchecked, it could do untold damage to accountable government.