The administration of President Trump has disclosed 16 ethics waivers granted to White House senior staff members, including several former lobbyists. The disclosure arrived after a standoff between the administration and the Office of Government Ethics.
On Jan. 28, Trump signed an executive order prohibiting administration appointees from working on issues that would involve entities that they had previously worked for. This was to apply to all executive branch appointees for up to two years after their appointment, according to the Associated Press.
The president had the discretion to issue waivers for any appointees that would exempt them from the ethics rule. Historically, the White House has immediately disclosed any waivers given to internal staff, but the Trump administration chose not to do so. This prompted OGE Director Walter M. Shaub Jr. to request that every government agency provide his office with copies of potential waivers by the beginning of June, The New York Times reports.
On May 17, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney sent a letter across the federal government ordering agencies not to comply, asserting that Shaub's request "appears to raise legal questions regarding the scope of OGE's authorities."
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On May 22, Schaub fired back with his own letter, stating "Agency ethics officials are well aware of their legal obligation to produce information and records subject to OGE's directives."
On May 31, a day before Shaub's deadline, the Trump administration disclosed that the president had granted 13 waivers since signing his executive order. Among the exemptions was a blanket waiver that permitted all executive branch appointees to communicate "with news organizations regarding broad policy matters."
The waivers granted autonomy for several high-profile White House staffers to communicate with entities that they had previously worked for. Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway was given a waiver allowing her to continue working with former clients. Chief strategist Steve Bannon was cleared to communicate with employees of Breitbart News, an outlet where he previously served as CEO.
Exemptions were also made for several former lobbyists who were appointed to departments that regulate industries in which they had previously worked. Among them were energy policy adviser Michael Catanzaro, tax policy adviser Shahira Knight, economic aide Andrew Olmem and vice presidential Chief of Staff Joshua Pitcock.
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"To the furthest extent possible, counsel worked with each staffer to recuse from conflicting conduct rather than being granted waivers, which has led to the limited number of waivers being issued," said White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters in a statement, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Noah Bookbinder of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington blasted the waivers, asserting that they undermined Trump's pledge to root out conflicts of interest in Washington D.C.
"The ethics waivers the White House finally released reveal what we already suspected: that this administration is chock full of senior officials working on issues on which they lobbied, meeting with companies in which they have a financial interest, or working closely with former employers," Bookbinder told Politico.