President Donald Trump’s executive order on ethics has been waived at least 11 times since the the administration came into office in January, according to records the White House posted online Wednesday night.
The waivers allow White House staffers to work on matters that could affect their former employers or clients or involve issues from which the aides would be normally be excluded because of past lobbying work.
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About a week after taking office, Trump signed an executive order restricting the role of lobbyists in his administration and limiting the work government employees could do relating to former clients and former employers. However, the newly disclosed waivers show how often the White House has set those rules aside in order to allow key staffers to oversee issues they worked on in the private sector.
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway received a waiver that allows her to take part in “communications and meetings involving former clients which are political, advocacy, trade, or non-profit organizations,” the White House said. Conway’s polling firm, The Polling Company/WomanTrend had a variety of clients including the American Conservative Union, Catholic University, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.
Several waivers were broad in scope, but appear to affect some of the highest-profile White House aides. An undated waiver issued by White House Counsel Don McGahn allows White House aides to interact with news organizations despite prior ties the officials might have to those outlets.
Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon was executive chairman of the conservative website Breitbart before joining the Trump campaign last year. Under the waiver, he is free to engage with Breitbart even when some news organizations are excluded.
“The Administration has an interest in interacting with news organizations on issues of importance to the Administration. It is important that all appointees be able to communicate and meet with news organizations, and disqualification from such meetings or communications would limit the ability of the White House Office to effectively carry out Administration priorities,” McGahn wrote.
The media-focused waiver doesn’t allow officials who formerly worked at news organizations to become involved in business disputes or any government actions related to the companies.
Four former lobbyists were also granted waivers of provisions in a Trump executive order that would typically preclude ex-lobbyists for two years from doing government work in the subject area on which they previously lobbied.
The White House waived the rule for Trump energy policy adviser Michael Catanzaro, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry. He was given approval to work on “energy and environmental policy issues” including the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule and other environmental regulations.
Tax policy adviser Shahira Knight, a former Fidelity executive, was approved to deal with tax, retirement and financial services issues even though she’d previously lobbied on those topics.
“The National Economic Council has been tasked with addressing issues relating to tax, retirement and financial services. The Administration has an interest in you working on matters in those areas due to your expertise and prior experience,” the waiver reads.
White House economic aide Andrew Olmem was cleared to work on a variety of finance-related issues despite his lobbying for several big insurance companies and banks.
Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Joshua Pitcock, also got a waiver. He’d worked as a lobbyist for the state of Indiana on various issues, but was given approval to deal with Indiana state officials in his current job and to work on issues he’d lobbied on for the state, including refugee policy, opioid abuse, trade and education policy and wide variety of other areas.
Six lawyers of the Jones Day law firm, including McGahn, were granted approval to take part in meetings with their former Jones Day colleagues relating to the firm’s ongoing legal representation of Trump, his campaign and related entities.
A White House spokesman stressed the “limited number” of waivers granted.
“The White House has voluntarily released the ethics waivers as part of the President’s commitment to the American people to be transparent,” the statement said. “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. 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.”
However, ethics watchdogs were quick to jump on the Trump team for ignoring its own rules.
“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,” said Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Bookbinder added: “No one has believed for months that this president or his administration had any interest in ethics, but these waivers make clear the remarkable extent to which they are comfortable mixing their own personal interests with the country’s. It’s no wonder they waited for the cover of night to release them.”
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said that the waivers showed that “for the Trump White House, even its own, highly touted ethics rules are no more than an inconvenience to be waived aside if they interfere with corporate business as usual.”
He said the waivers “vastly exceed the number issued in the early months of the Obama administration and — more importantly — authorize conflicts not permitted in the Obama administration, signify both the corporate takeover of the government and the Trump administration’s utter disregard for ethical standards.”
The complete number of waivers across the entire administration is not yet known because the data released by the White House on Wednesday included only staffers in the Executive Office of the President and the Vice President’s office.
Until last week, Trump aides had been largely noncommittal about releasing the waivers, particularly for White House staffers, although the documents were posted online under President Barack Obama. Trump’s team did say it would disclose waivers of a federal conflict of interest law, but staffers evaded questions about how those records could be requested.
Last month, the Office of Government Ethics said it was launching a “data call” for all ethics and conflict of interest waivers from all agencies including the White House. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney initially raised legal questions about the ethics office’s authority to gather the data, but last week the White House said the administration would comply with the request.
Nancy Cook and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.