Trump exempts senior staff from ethics rules

The White House on Wednesday evening released its list of waivers to the Trump administration ethics pledge, exempting at least a dozen White House officials from the rules.

The list includes ex-lobbyists who joined the administration to work on policy areas they had covered for their K Street clients. Two comprehensive waivers give whole swaths of White House employees a waiver from the ethics pledge. 

Trump’s ethics pledge, contained in an executive order, came along with promises that he would “drain the swamp” of the Washington influence industry. 

The release comes right before the June 1 deadline, and immediately following a White House conflict with the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which compiles ethics waivers from other agencies. The White House had questioned OGE’s authority to request the waivers, but ultimately said the spat had been a misunderstanding.

White House counsel Don McGahn and the leader of the White House ethics office, Stefan Passantino, vetted the waivers.

Trump’s ethics pledge is aimed at cutting down on conflicts of interest, banning ex-lobbyists for two years from working on matters they dealt with for paying clients. It is based on a standard set by the previous president, Barack ObamaBarack ObamaWhite House weighs blocking Comey's testimony Susan Rice: Trump’s moves 'a whole lot of winning' for Russia, China Bloomberg pledges M to UN to cover US climate share MORE

One waiver gives a blanket exemption to all political appointees in the Executive Office of the President, allowing them to talk to the media about policy matters.

Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, is the former head of conservative news outlet Brietbart. The waiver from ethics rules would allow him to contact his former outlet.

Another blanket waiver allows all commissioned officers in the White House to communicate with Republican political organizations — including the Republican campaign arm, Trump’s presidential campaign, and a group for GOP governors — about broad policy areas. 

The White House told the Associated Press on Wednesday that waivers were only granted if recusing themselves from issues was not a feasible option.

"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," White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said, according to AP.

In the case of former energy lobbyist Michael Catanzaro, now working as Trump’s top energy adviser, there is a “public interest” in having him work on the same issues on which he lobbied.

“The Administration has an interest in you working on covered matters due to your experience and expertise on these issues. It is important that you participate in covered matters, and disqualification from such matters would limit the ability of the White House Office to effectively carry out its duties,” reads Catanzaro’s waiver, which allows him to help shape policy on Clean Air Act issues, the Renewable Fuel Standard and Obama-era energy rules like the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule and methane regulations.

Shahira Knight, who previously worked as a lobbyist for Fidelity, obtained a waiver to work as Trump’s chief adviser on tax and retirement policies.

Her waiver includes the same clause, clearing her to work on everything from the Treasury’s regulations on corporate inversions to Labor Department rules about state-run retirement plans and issues surrounding health savings accounts.

Only four ex-lobbyists snagged ethics waivers. The other two are Joshua Pitcock, who formerly worked as Indiana’s only lobbyist in Washington, and Andrew Olmem, a former financial services lobbyist from Venable who is now able to work directly on economic policies as the No. 2 on the White House National Economic Council.

The other seven named officials are former lawyers, consultants or political figures.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, former head of the Republican National Committee, received a waiver in order to “participate in communications and meetings involving the Republican National Committee.”

Kellyanne Conway, who preciously worked as a GOP pollster, is now able to contact her former clients without running afoul of ethics rules. She now serves as an adviser to Trump.

The Trump administration wants to hold meetings and communicate with Conway’s former clients, her waiver says, "on issues of importance to the administration, and your position requires you to interact with [those former clients] … in order to further [the administration’s] interests.”

Not being able to communicate with those groups — which included Koch-backed group Freedom Partners, the National Rifle Association, the Right to Life Committee, Citizens United and the Tea Party Patriots, among others — “would limit the ability of the White House Office to effectively carry out Administration priorities.”

Like others who received waivers, Conway is not permitted to discuss a "particular matter involving a specific parties," which includes, among other things, an "investigation, application, request for a ruling or determination, rulemaking, contract, controversy… or other proceeding that is focused on identified parties and in which" any of Conway's clients is either involved with or represents. 

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