Vice President-elect Mike Pence did his best to put a Band-Aid on Donald Trump’s hemorrhaging credibility when he reportedly removed lobbyists this week from the White House transition team, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to fix Trump’s ethics mess.
Having pledged, in his words, to “send the special interests packing,” have an “honest, ethical, and responsive” government, and, yes, “drain the swamp,” Trump has now reneged on one of his core promises to voters within days of winning election. He’s stacked his transition team with Wall Street, K Street, and corporate insiders, he’s peddling an unconvincing ethics reform plan that’s going nowhere on Capitol Hill, and he’s handed his business empire over to his children in a supposed “blind trust” that ethics experts say does nothing to end conflicts of interest.
“Warning to Trump voters: You may have just bought one thing, but been given another,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, on a Tuesday press conference call with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Trump still has a chance to salvage at least a sliver of his original pledge to voters by agreeing, as Whitehouse, Sanders, and many others have urged, to carry over the executive branch ethics rules put in place by President Obama. In addition to barring lobbyists from donating to or working on his transition in areas in which they had lobbied over the past year, Obama installed Norm Eisen as ethics czar and imposed pre- and post-employment conditions on all executive branch employees. These included the first-ever reverse–revolving door rules that restricted lobbying by those leaving his administration.
Yet, Obama failed to dramatically change the culture of Washington, as he had promised. He helped kill the presidential public-financing system by becoming the first White House candidate to pay for his campaign with entirely private money. He embraced super PACs, having initially denounced such big-money groups. He failed to overhaul or even properly staff the Federal Election Commission, or require political disclosure for government contractors. But Obama’s executive branch ethics rules, coupled with his disclosure of White House visitor logs, are credited with making his administration one of the most scandal-free in recent memory.
Trump has signaled no plans to adopt Obama’s executive branch ethics rules, though he has released a transition code of ethics that, like Obama's, bars lobbyists from working on areas in which they've lobbied within 12 months. But Trump seems to have violated his own ethics code and proposed lobbying reforms, and his transition rules appear specifically worded to exempt his children. Transition participants pledge to disqualify themselves from matters that may conflict with their own financial interests, or with those of a spouse, minor child, partner, or client. That leaves Trump's three adult children free to continue both serving on his transition and running his business.
One of Trump’s national security advisers and a vice chair of his transition is retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who according to Politico runs a consulting firm that lobbies for Turkish interests. Yet Trump’s lobbying overhaul, which he dubs his “contract for the American voter,” proposes “a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.”
Flynn is only one of a long list of lobbyists, hedge fund billionaires, and business insiders who have been working on the Trump transition team. Trump’s top picks for Commerce and Treasury secretary include venture capitalist Wilbur Ross, and hedge fund CEO Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs vice president who cashed in on the mortgage foreclosures that triggered the 2008 fiscal crisis.
Other K Street transition advisers include David Bernhardt, a lobbyist with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck whose clients include mining companies looking to explore federal lands, overseeing the Interior Department transition; Verizon consultant Jeff Eisenach, who’s helping staff the Federal Communications Commission; tobacco lobbyist Cindy Hayden, in charge of the Homeland Security transition; and energy lobbyist Mike McKenna, whose clients include electricity and chemical companies, focusing on the Energy Department.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who championed many of the Wall Street regulations that Trump has said he will now dismantle, declared in an open letter to the president-elect that the American people “are watching to see if you were sincere in your campaign promises to look out for the interests of working families, rather than the interests of the rich and powerful.”
Asked about his lobbyist-heavy team on 60 Minutes, Trump responded that “everybody’s a lobbyist” in Washington, D.C. His allies have pointed to the lobbyist restrictions in his “contract for the American voter” as evidence that Trump means business. But the plan, while it does include a five-year ban on lobbying by White House and congressional officials after they leave office, is short on substance.
It proposes a constitutional amendment to impose term limits that would arguably strengthen lobbyists, by giving them longer Beltway tenures than elected officials (and that, not surprisingly, is a non-starter on Capitol Hill). It also includes a ban on “foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections,” something that is already illegal, and that has drawn scoffs from watchdogs who have complained to the Federal Election Commission that Trump himself illegally solicited campaign money from foreign nationals, including foreign politicians, in Australia, Britain, Iceland, and Scotland.
Trump’s biggest ethics problem, though, may not be his lobbyist-stacked transition or his half-baked “reform” proposals, but his questionable plan to resolve potential conflicts of interest in his business empire by turning it over to his children. Such an arrangement in no way qualifies as a blind trust, say ethics experts, which typically would be run by an independent trustee. The arrangement actually worsens the danger of conflicts, according to Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, by shielding Trump business dealings from public scrutiny.
House Democrat Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, the House Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, has called on the panel’s chairman, Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, to investigate what he called Trump’s “unprecedented secrecy.” Cummings warned that the president-elect’s “extensive business dealings in foreign countries raise serious questions about how he intends to avoid conflicts of interest as president.”
Trump’s voters may be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for the moment. But a stream of news reports contrasting Trump’s “drain the swamp” pledge with his special-interest-run transition may explain why Pence removed lobbyists from the team. Given how many industry consultants, CEOs, and Wall Street billionaires are not registered lobbyists, the ethics scrutiny on Trump is not likely to let up. It may only be a matter of time before Trump discovers that the same populist rage that helped elect him can also hold his feet to the fire.
This story has been updated.