THE SLOGAN “drain the swamp” was a potent one, tapping into public perceptions that Washington is paralyzed by special interests. President Trump has signed an executive order for administration appointees that is more restrictive in some ways than the rules President Barack Obama left behind. It is a down payment on draining the swamp, but by itself not a solution. What counts are not only the edicts, but also how Mr. Trump and his appointees behave in the face of potential conflicts of interest, attempted influence-peddling and revolving-door lobbying.
Mr. Trump’s executive order, replacing Mr. Obama’s from 2009, imposes new and tougher restrictions on officials who leave his administration. He has banned them from engaging in “lobbying activities” relating to their former agency for five years, a provision not in Mr. Obama’s rules. A parallel provision in Mr. Trump’s order prohibits government officials who leave and become lobbyists from lobbying the administration for the rest of Mr. Trump’s presidency. In both cases, Mr. Trump’s order contains restrictive wording, tighter than Mr. Obama’s, that will cover those who are not formally registered as lobbyists but give advice on strategy, a growing shadow realm in Washington’s power game. Mr. Trump vowed in the campaign to press Congress to apply this to its members and write it into law, but so far he has not. The impact of Mr. Trump’s rules may be felt most strongly by his appointees once they leave government; many could find it difficult to work in government policy areas. In one way, however, Mr. Trump eased the rules for leavers — the “cooling-off” period for contacting their former agency has been cut to one year, from two.
Another new rule Mr. Trump imposed is a lifetime ban on former appointees conducting work for a foreign government or foreign political party that would require registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This provision, a campaign promise of Mr. Trump, strikes us as too strict. Lobbying on behalf of other governments is legitimate when carried out lawfully and properly disclosed. Such a prohibition could discourage people from joining government at all, and may be difficult to enforce.
A great deal will depend on the tone Mr. Trump sets and how he conducts himself as a former businessman with a wicket of possible conflicts of interest. It is not a good omen that he promised in the presidential campaign to release his tax returns and has not done so. It is worrisome that details of Mr. Trump’s far-flung financial empire remain opaque. It is unsatisfactory that Mr. Trump has not created more of a firewall between his presidential role and his businesses. The idea behind “drain the swamp” is worthy if it leads to a government unshackled by special interests, but it is up to Mr. Trump to show what it really means by personal example.
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