President Donald Trump granted ethics waivers to at least 16 White House staffers to allow them to work with subjects they had in the private sector before joining the government, according to records released by the administration on Wednesday.
The records were released after a public battle with the Office of Government Ethics, which pushed the White House to provide documentation of the waivers it was granting. The data showed that the Trump administration had granted five times the number of ethics waivers to employees during its first four months than President Barack Obama’s White House did over the same timeframe.
Some of those who received waivers included high-profile staffers such as Kellyanne Conway, White House counselor, and Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. Conway was granted an exemption to “participate in communications and meetings involving former clients which are political, advocacy, trade, or non-profit organisations” for her polling firm, The Polling Company. Priebus’ exemption allowed him to “participate in communications and meetings” that involve the Republican National Committee, which he ran prior to joining the White House.
A blanket exemption provided to all Executive Office of the President appointees appeared to cover chief strategist Steve Bannon. The exemption allows all appointees to “participate in communications and meetings with news organisations regarding broad policy matters.” Prior to joining the White House, Bannon led Breitbart, the ultra-nationalist right-wing news site, and his level of involvement with the site after joining the administration has been the subject of some debate.
“Bannon and Breitbart’s public posture has been that Bannon has no influence over their coverage and that he only reaches out ‘every so often,'” Kurt Bardella, a former spokesperson for Breitbart, said in an email. “If that’s really the truth — then why the ethics waiver?”
Trump additionally provided waivers for a handful of former lobbyists to allow them to work on issues they were involved with prior to joining his administration. In January, Trump signed an executive order that barred former lobbyists from working on matters that involved people and issues they worked with or on previously. In that order, Trump, like Obama before him, provided the option for himself to issue waivers to lobbyists and other employees as he sees fit.
The White House said the waivers were necessary because the administration needed those staffers’ expertise on certain issues.
Four former lobbyists received the waivers, three of whom are staffers on the National Economic Council headed by former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn. Those aides were Michael Catanzaro, an energy and environmental policy adviser, Shahira Knight, a tax and retirement policy adviser, and Andrew Olmem, a financial policy adviser.
Catanzaro formerly lobbied on behalf of energy sector clients, Knight worked as a tax lobbyist, and Olmem lobbied on bankruptcy and securities issues.
The fourth lobbyist was Joshua Pitcock, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, who lobbied on behalf of the state of Indiana before joining the White House. His waiver allows him to deal with policy matters that involve the Hoosier State.
“The White House Counsel’s Office worked closely with all White House officials to avoid conflicts arising from their former places of employment or investment holdings,” White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said in a statement. “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.”
Additionally, six Jones Day lawyers, which included White House Counsel Donald McGahn, were provided waivers to “participate in communications and meetings where Jones Day represents the president, his campaign, the transition, or political entities supporting the president.”
During the campaign, Trump made uprooting the Washington establishment and pointing out his opponents’ ties to lobbyists central to his message, particularly in the later weeks of his quest for office when he introduced the slogan “drain the swamp.”
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