Throw sun­shine on se­cret waivers

The president must dis­close ex­emp­tions to his ethics rules.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

WHAT DID President Trump really mean when he vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington? Did he mean to break up the en­demic con­flicts of in­ter­est among lob­by­ists, in­dus­try and pub­lic ser­vants? Cer­tainly Mr. Trump’s cam­paign rhetoric im­plied that he would dis­cour­age the min­gling of po­lit­i­cal power and in­flu­ence. On tak­ing of­fice, Mr. Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der on ethics tough­ened the rules on govern­ment of­fi­cials when they leave, bar­ring them for five years from lob­by­ing on top­ics they worked on in govern­ment.

In the same ex­ec­u­tive or­der, Mr. Trump also at­tempted to pre­vent con­flicts of in­ter­est when of­fi­cials join the govern­ment. Specif­i­cally, un­der Mr. Trump’s or­der, of­fi­cials must pledge that, for two years from tak­ing of­fice, they will not par­tic­i­pate “in any par­tic­u­lar mat­ter in­volv­ing spe­cific par­ties that is di­rectly and sub­stan­tially re­lated” to for­mer em­ploy­ers or clients. Also, if they were lob­by­ists in two years be­fore tak­ing of­fice, they must prom­ise to stay away from any spe­cific is­sue they lob­bied on, a ban that should also last for the first two years in govern­ment.

Now come re­ports the Trump White House is is­su­ing se­cret waivers to the president’s own ethics rules, al­low­ing in­com­ing of­fi­cials to work on is­sues they han­dled be­fore be­com­ing pub­lic ser­vants. The New York Times re­ports that in the Obama years, there were waivers is­sued un­der nar­row cir­cum­stances, but the waivers and ex­pla­na­tions were made pub­lic. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is no longer dis­clos­ing and no longer ex­plain­ing.

How many waivers have been is­sued? No one seems to know, but the president is ap­point­ing for­mer lob­by­ists, lawyers and con­sul­tants who are in many cases work­ing on poli­cies af­fect­ing the same in­dus­tries they served be­fore, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey con­ducted by the Times in col­lab­o­ra­tion with ProPublica. For ex­am­ple, they re­ported, a top White House en­ergy ad­viser is han­dling the same is­sues that were of con­cern as a lob­by­ist for ma­jor en­ergy-in­dus­try clients.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to con­flicts of in­ter­est be­cause the president is de­lib­er­ately re­cruit­ing of­fi­cials from busi­ness and in­dus­try. Sure, many of th­ese peo­ple have man­age­ment and en­tre­pre­neur­ial skills valu­able to govern­ment ser­vice. By all means, they should be en­cour­aged to sign up. But if that is the goal, ex­tra care should be taken to avoid con­flict of in­ter­est.

Sun­shine is al­ways the best an­tisep­tic. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could use more of it. Wal­ter M. Shaub Jr., di­rec­tor of the U.S. Of­fice of Govern­ment Ethics, has chal­lenged the ex­ec­u­tive branch to re­port by June 1 on all such waivers is­sued so far. The president should make the se­cret waivers pub­lic to re­move any doubt hang­ing over his ap­pointees. Un­for­tu­nately Mr. Trump’s early per­for­mance — his un­ful­filled prom­ise to re­lease his tax re­turns, for ex­am­ple, or his de­ci­sion to keep the White House vis­i­tors logs a se­cret — sug­gests an ad­min­is­tra­tion de­ter­mined to op­er­ate in the shad­ows.

That’s no way to drain the swamp.

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