President-elect Donald Trump’s stated plan to keep lobbyists out of his administration is off to a bumpy start, with questions being raised about the role they are already playing on his transition team.
At least two people Trump’s transition team is considering for cabinet rank positions have ties to the lobbying world. Trump’s military adviser Mike Flynn, who runs a consulting firm that lobbies on defense matters, is being considered for Defense Secretary. And Jeffrey Holmstead, whose name has been floated in several reports as a potential EPA administrator, lobbies for energy companies.
“If president-elect Trump is serious about this, the first thing he ought to do is make sure, in the ethics area, that he continues the existing executive order,” said Fred Wertheimer of the government watchdog group Democracy 21. “If [Trump] repeals this executive order, as opposed to keeping it or strengthening it, it will send a very important signal that the new president is not really interested in draining the swamp.”
Flynn’s consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, recently filed paperwork to lobby for the Dutch company Inovo BV on bills authorizing Pentagon and State Department programs, according to a disclosure report filed in September, though it is unclear what parts of the legislation his firm is targeting.
Holmstead is a lobbyist and lawyer at the law firm Bracewell — the former firm of ex-New York mayor and Trump ally Rudy Giuliani. He was deputy EPA administrator in the George W. Bush administration and now lobbies for Duke Energy, DTE Energy and other energy companies before the EPA, according to lobbying records. Bracewell was previously known as Bracewell Giuliani until earlier this year, when Giuliani left to join the law and lobby firm Greenberg Traurig.
Ethics experts say it would be unusual for a lobbyist to become a Cabinet secretary, though some who work in the influence industry have been nominated in previous administrations and others have assumed top deputy positions, including in the Obama administration.
“I don’t recall lobbyists taking cabinet level positions,” said Jan Baran, an election law and lobbying ethics expert at the law firm Wiley Rein. Baran noted, though, that the idea of a registered lobbyist is relatively new.
It is not unusual for a president-elect to consider people from the lobbying industry for lower-ranking jobs in the administration or to lead independent agencies — FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, for example, used to be a cable industry lobbyist.
Despite championing restrictions on lobbyist serving in his administration, Obama faced tensions over the issue as well.
In 2008, Obama nominated Tom Daschle as Health and Human Services secretary, but Daschle withdrew after questions arose over unpaid taxes and his work for health care and other private sector firms. While Daschle was not a registered lobbyist, critics said the work he did for corporate clients was essentially lobbying by a different name.
Obama also nominated William Lynn, then a lobbyist at the defense contractor Raytheon, as deputy Defense secretary — which forced the newly elected president to issue a waiver walking back the lobbyist ban he had just signed.
For Trump, the issue is of increased importance because of the promises he made on the campaign trail and the anti-establishment wave he rode to victory.
Last month, Trump proposed changes to lobbying ethics rules that would make it much harder for government and elected officials to become lobbyists after leaving office by extending the current “cooling off period” — the time period that lawmakers and administration officials must wait before lobbying their former colleagues — from one or two years to five years. He also said he would enact a lifetime ban on senior executive branch officials from becoming lobbyists for foreign countries, and close a loophole in federal lobbying laws that currently allows people who spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying for a single client to avoid registering as a lobbyist.
Trump appears to be softening some of his anti-lobbyists rhetoric, telling CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday that it’s hard to find people to work in the government who don’t have some ties to the lobbying industry.
“Everybody that works for government, they then leave government and become a lobbyist, essentially,” Trump said. “I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist.”