What finer coda for the Trump administration’s orgy of corruption than an executive order to lift the ethical restrictions on lobbying in the last few hours? Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have written it better.
On January 28, 2017, eight days after his term in office, President Trump signed Executive Order 13770 on Ethical Obligations of Executive Staff. In fulfillment of Trump’s election promise to “drain the swamp,” the staff signed a pledge not to support their agencies for five years after leaving government service. They would permanently give up their right to stand up for a foreign government. And they would swear not to deal with old customers, and former lobbyists swear, “I will not participate in any particular matter that I have advocated within the 2 years prior to the date for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment.” from my appointment or participation in the specific subject area that particular matter falls into. “
In practice, the order was honored more in violation than in compliance. Less than a year after retiring as a top lobbyist for coal company Murray Energy, Andrew Wheeler was head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He succeeded the ethical fireball Scott Pruitt, who left government service to work for coal baron Joseph Craft III, Republican megadonor and husband of UN Ambassador Kelly Craft.
Pruitt’s attorney (yes that) Cleta Mitchell complained to the Washington Post that ethics rules were unfairly “armed to destroy political opponents”. It’s just a shame for a dedicated civil servant who lives in a lobbyist house for a nominal rent to use government employees to source hotel hand lotion and Trump hotel mattresses, and to rely on the CEO of Chik-Fil-A to franchise his wife procured is driven out of office through rank partisanship!
Mark Esper was named a Top Corporate Lobbyist by The Hill in 2016 while struggling for Raytheon. He became Secretary of the Army in June 2017 and was finally appointed Secretary of Defense in 2019. Home Secretary David Bernhardt was a former oil and mining lobbyist whose former clients did business before his department.
Not to mention the hundreds of lower-level officials who have received ethics waivers for dealing with former customers. In 2019 ProPublica wrote:
The number of lobbyists who have worked in government jobs is four times the number of the Obama administration in six years. And former lobbyists who serve Trump are often involved in regulating the industries they have worked for.
Even government guards who have long watched the revolving door say its current size represents a significant change from previous administrations. That’s an “astounding number,” according to Virginia Canter, chief ethics adviser to Washington-based nonprofit Citizens’ Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It suggests that lobbyists see themselves as more effective at promoting the special interests of their customers within the government rather than from the outside.”
While the Trump administration pretended Hunter Biden’s standard DC grip was the crime of the century.
Of course, the former president wanted to free his employees from these burdensome restrictions as a parting gift. Therefore, this morning he completely revoked the order and released his former employees from their commitment not to lobby the executive branch or on behalf of foreign governments. K Street, start your engines.
The Washington Post reports that President Biden has pledged even stricter ethical standards for his administration, including a ban on new employees receiving large parting bonuses from their former employers to incentivize the government. And it’s a safe bet that Biden won’t get his family members into foreign policy, pandemic relief, and national drug policy either.
Goodbye and good deliverance.
Update: We found 281 lobbyists who worked in the Trump administration [ProPublica]
Elizabeth Dye lives in Baltimore, where she writes on law and politics.