Public Citizen: Trump Violating His Own Executive Order on Ethics

Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group, has filed 30 ethics complaints for violations of Trump’s executive order, identifying at least 36 former lobbyists who are now working in Trump’s administration on issues for which they have recently lobbied. That number is just the tip of the iceberg, says Craig Holman, PC’s government affairs lobbyist

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

I gather you remember the 2016 presidential campaign when Donald Trump told us with this memorable rhetoric about draining the swamp in Washington.

DONALD TRUMP: I want everyone in Washington to hear and to heed the words that we all say together. If we win on November 8, we are going to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C. We’re draining the swamp.

SHARMINI PERIES: Well, he did win on November 8. And when all eyes were on Trump the first few days in office, he did follow up quickly on what he was promising by signing an executive order just a week after he got into office on January 28, 2017. The executive order was to prevent lobbyists from joining his administration to work on issues that they have previously lobbied on. So a year and almost a few months out let’s examine how well this order is being executed on. Many watchdogs in Washington are alarmed at epic ethics violations on the Hill. Here’s Senator Elizabeth Warren.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Over and over again he has promised to drain the swamp, but then appointed an army of lobbyists and industry insiders to positions overseeing the industries that paid them for years.

SHARMINI PERIES: Public Citizen, an advocacy organization looking out for our rights, has identified at least 36 former lobbyists who are now working in Trump’s administration that are working on issues for which they have recently lobbied, and only six of them have gotten a waiver from Trump thus far. So on to talk about this with me is Craig Holman. He is a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen in Washington D.C.. Thanks for joining me, Craig.

CRAIG HOLMAN: Glad to be here. Thanks.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Craig, you have filed 30 complaints against the Trump administration and its officials for violating Trump’s own executive order. What are your complaints and what are some of the most egregious violations you have filed?

CRAIG HOLMAN: Yeah, sure. First of all, I want to highlight that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I was able to identify only about a quarter of all presidential appointees, and I ran through a quarter of those, and amongst those I found these 36 violations. So I suspect the real number is fourfold over that.

But some of the classic examples, I mean, there’s for instance George David Banks, who lobbied on energy before he was appointed, right before he was appointed as Special Assistant to the president on energy. Or there’s William Green, who also lobbied on energy and environmental issues, and he was appointed by Trump to be the special assistant to the president on energy and the environment. Or we have Gilbert Kaplan, who lobbied on trade issues, and he is the undersecretary of trade. All these examples appear to be, you know, very clear violations of Trump’s own ethics rules.

If I can back up and explain Trump’s ethics executive order, there’s several elements to it. There are two key elements, though, that I do want to highlight. One is Trump, as part of this drain the swamp campaign, declared that no lobbyist will be appointed to the Trump administration. And the second one is that if a former lobbyist is appointed to the Trump administration, they’re not to be appointed to positions that oversee the same specific issue area that they had lobbied on within the previous two years. When we talk about the first provision of no lobbyists in the Trump administration, all the means is you have to de-register as a lobbyist on Monday and you can be appointed to the Trump administration on Tuesday. And as a result of my looking at all presidential appointees, or a quarter of them, I found that roughly about 25 percent of all appointees in the Trump administration are former lobbyists. So lobbyists are swarming into the Trump administration.

And then when we talk about that second element, that if you were a former lobbyist you’re not supposed to be appointed to a position that oversees the same issue area that you had just lobbied on, I found, you know, 36 that have been appointed to the same issue that they they’re just lobbied on. Now, only six of them have received waivers. So that left 30 that appeared to be in direct violation of Trump’s own ethics rules. And so those are the 30 that I, 30 complaints that I filed with the individual ethics officers all across the administration, from Homeland Security to the Department of Transportation to the Department of Energy to the Treasury Department, I found all these, all these abuses of Trump’s own ethics rules.

SHARMINI PERIES: And are these different from those more high-profile people? For example, the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had come from the oil industry. He was an executive at Exxon, then becomes, I’m not saying he’s a registered lobbyist in Washington, but certainly Exxon had people registered as lobbyists in Washington. But then he becomes a secretary of state and responsible for trade, and so forth. Would you consider somebody like him in that realm of violation of a code of ethics there?

CRAIG HOLMAN: Well, certainly a conflict of interest exists there. But it’s not grounds enough for me to file an ethics complaint because I have to focus on what the ethics rules actually are. And Trump’s ethics executive order focuses on registered lobbyists. So that’s what they have to look at. Rex Tillerson, conflicts of interest no doubt, but he was never a registered lobbyist so it doesn’t run afoul of this ethics executive order. I’m focusing on the rules that exist.

SHARMINI PERIES: OK, Craig, compare this to what happened with the Obama administration. So we know that key figures in the Obama administration, John Podesta for example, had a direct conflict of interest in terms of being at the White House and his, his and his brother’s company Podesta Group being lobbyists, registered lobbyists in Washington. Now, how does what is going on in the Trump administration weigh against what happened in the Obama administration?

CRAIG HOLMAN: The Obama administration, I mean, Obama actually took these ethics rules seriously. He’s the one actually who created these ethics rules. The first day that Obama stepped into the White House he issued his ethics executive order which was the first one ever that’s ever come up identifying a reverse, what I call a reverse revolving door. And that is trying to manage the inherent conflicts of interest, or presidential appointees. People who come into the administration. Obama set up the rule of saying, first of all if you’ve been a lobby, if you lobbied a specific agency within the last two years, you’re not going to be appointed to that agency. That was Obama’s rule.

He also then had this rule that I’m focusing on, that if you are, if you were a former lobbyist who lobbied on a specific issue area, you can’t be appointed to any position that oversees that issue area. And Obama really, really for the most part, lived by those rules. You know, he issued a total, in his administration when it comes to lobbyist waivers, of six lobbying waivers. That was it. We’ve already seen three times that being issued by Trump. And that’s when Trump finally recognizes there is a conflict of interest. So Obama, for the most part, really did live by it.

You know, I, I may have several complaints against the Obama administration, but one thing that Obama really did do well was ethics. It was for the most part a scandal-free administration. Compare that to to the Trump administration, which is probably going to be the most scandal-ridden administration in history.

SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you so much for joining us today.

CRAIG HOLMAN: Thank you very much. Pleasure.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.