President Trump on Saturday signed a far-reaching ethics policy that will make it harder for administration appointees to profit off their time in government as lobbyists, while also carving out loopholes that government watchdogs said will speed up Washington’s revolving door.
The presidential executive order builds off ethics rules signed by former president Barack Obama in 2009, banning executive appointees from lobbying their agencies for five years after leaving office and from lobbying anyone in the executive branch for the rest of his administration. Trump also banned appointees from ever working as lobbyists for a foreign government.
“Most of the people standing behind me will not be able to go to work” after they leave government, Trump said as he signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by top aides.
But his ethics rules also shorten the “cooling-off” period during which former appointees can communicate with the agency where they worked from two years to one. And while former lobbyists who join the government will still be banned from participating in any matter they lobbied on for two years, Trump’s order allows them to join an executive agency that they lobbied in the previous two years — something prohibited under Obama.
The new rules appear to fall short of Trump’s campaign pledge to institute “a five-year ban on White House and congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service.” Congressional officials are not covered by the order, and the five-year ban applies only to lobbying one’s former agency — not becoming a lobbyist.
“While there are things to like here, it’s disappointing that someone who promised to drain the swamp has torn two loopholes in the Obama [ethics policy] that was so successful,” said Norman Eisen, who helped draft the 2009 order as special counsel to the president.
“Lobbyists can now go to the agencies they lobbied — that’s rife with the potential for abuse,” Eisen added.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said that while he is “impressed that Trump is beginning to realize the importance of managing conflicts of interest of incoming administration officials,” he has serious doubts the president is committed to enforcing the rules.
“Trump has exempted himself from these ethics standards, which sets the tone for the rest of the administration,” he said.
White House officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump was carried into office on his pledge to “drain the swamp,” repeatedly promising on the campaign trail to go after the lobbying industry. “On the first day in office, my administration will immediately take steps to clean up the corruption in Washington, D.C.,” he promised.
His new ethics policy could serve as a substantial disincentive for those considering joining the administration. Critics of Obama’s executive order said it kept talented candidates from serving in the White House and encouraged lobbyists to de-register to meet the letter of the law, while still effectively lobbying. The Obama administration ended up granting at least 50 waivers to appointees who were allowed to skirt aspects of the rules.
Eisen defended the workarounds, saying, “I believe when you put in very tough rules, it’s appropriate to waive them on occasion.”
“The proof that it was a workable and realistic solution is that there was no White House scandal” under Obama, he added.
Trump’s executive order appears to apply to all his appointees, including those named before he signed the order Saturday. That means that Cabinet picks will likely have to submit new ethics agreements with the Office of Government Ethics agreeing to abide by the new terms. Some, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, have financial connections to companies affected by their departments. They had agreed not to participate in any matters involving those companies for one year. Under the new order, they must now agree to a two-year moratorium.
This post has been updated.