Throw sunshine on secret waivers
The president must disclose exemptions to his ethics rules.
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.