The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump is showing just how tough it is to ‘drain the swamp’

Donald Trump speaks as his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka listen at a campaign event at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., in June. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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Donald Trump embraced a mantra toward the end of his campaign: “Drain the swamp.”

That promise is immediately being put to the test as the president-elect assembles his administration piece-by-piece. And as we're now being reminded, draining the swamp is:

  1. Very difficult
  2. Very much open to Trump's own interpretation of what precisely the “swamp” is

The Trump campaign is now saying that it will institute a five-year ban on officials taking lobbying jobs after departing the administration and that state and federal lobbyists will not be allowed to serve.

Both of those sound like commendable goals, and surely would meet with broad approval among an American public that is increasingly concerned about the influence of lobbyists. A Gallup poll in June showed 84 percent of Americans agree that “members of Congress pay too much attention to what special interests and lobbyists want them to do.” And back in 2011, Gallup polling showed lobbyists topped the list when it came to who had too much power — above major corporations, banks and labor unions.

It's no wonder this message had appeal during the campaign.

But actually keeping lobbyists out of government and avoiding people trading on their official government jobs down the road is another matter entirely. Trump's transition effort and public lists of his possible Cabinet appointees include plenty of lobbyists, and the financial sector he campaigned against seems pretty happy with what they see. Lobbyists have expertise that is attractive to any incoming administration, and people who take government jobs tend to make less money in doing them but may take them knowing that a bigger payday awaits in the private sector.

Trump himself alluded to the difficulty of finding qualified non-lobbyists during his "60 Minutes” interview over the weekend, saying lobbyists needed to be “phased out” more gradually.

“Everybody's a lobbyist down there,” he said. “We're doing a lot of things to clean up the system. But everybody that works for government, they then leave government and they become a lobbyist, essentially. I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist.”

The Obama administration is Case Study No. 1 when it comes to how difficult it is to stand by a lobbying ban 100 percent. As Politico's Ken Vogel and Mike Allen wrote back in 2009:

President Obama promised during his campaign that lobbyists “won't find a job in my White House.”
So far, though, at least a dozen former lobbyists have found top jobs in his administration, according to an analysis done by Republican sources and corroborated by Politico.

Obama signed an executive order that was less stringent than his campaign rhetoric. It stated that officials couldn't work for an agency or on an issue on which they had lobbied at any point in the past two years. And soon a number of top jobs were inhabited by people who had lobbied previously, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

In some other situations — out of thousands of appointments, it should be noted — waivers were granted for those who couldn't meet the requirement. In other situations, the officials were simply to recuse themselves from the specific issues on which they lobbied.

Trump's plan is being dissected for such exceptions and loopholes. Chief among them would be the front-end ban on hiring current lobbyists. As The Washington Post's Catherine Ho writes, it would appear that lobbyists wanting to serve in the administration may simply deregister to meet the requirement. But is hiring someone who was a registered lobbyist until a few days ago really not hiring a lobbyist?

And there's already evidence that might be what happens. A top aide to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Josh Pitcock, this week sent notice that he will deregister, Ho reports.

The five-year ban on lobbying after leaving the administration wouldn't seem as easily skirted, but the Trump team hasn't yet said how it would be enforced. Once officials are out of the administration, how could they be prevented from taking lobbying jobs? Would legislation be passed or an executive order be signed, and would the latter withstand legal scrutiny? Would appointees sign a binding contract of some kind?

And even government officials who are subject to lobbying bans will often simply take jobs as consultants or advisers for firms that do lobbying. So they technically don't have to register as lobbyists themselves, but they can still be enriched based on their government expertise by a firm that benefits financially from it.

And lastly, there seem to be conflicting signals about precisely which swamps Trump wants to clean up. Even as his transition team is pressing forward with its lobbying ban proposal, he has drawn criticism from watchdogs for putting his personal fortune in the hands of his three oldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump.

Trump's team has labeled this a “blind trust,” but it doesn't appear to meet the definition. What's more, all three of those children have been named as part of the transition effort, giving them apparent power over who will oversee the policies that could affect his empire.

The apparent lack of a truly impenetrable firewall between a President Trump and his businesses came into even more question in recent days when it was reported that security clearances — even top-level ones — were being sought for his children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The Trump campaign is denying that this is happening.

But the “blind trust” situation means real questions remain about Trump's commitment to avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest or furthering his own business interests as president.

And his ability to actually prevent administration officials from enriching themselves through their jobs, if past is prologue, won't be easy, either.