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Trump White House clashes with federal ethics watchdog

Donald Trump is issuing secret waivers to lobbyists to work in his administration on issues they've lobbied on. Now he's trying to shut down questions, too.
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. 

The Trump administration, in a significant escalation of its clash with the government's top ethics watchdog, has moved to block an effort to disclose any ethics waivers granted to former lobbyists who have work in the White House or federal agencies.The latest conflict came in recent days when the White House, in a highly unusual move, sent a letter to Walter M. Shaub Jr., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, asking him to withdraw a request he had sent to every federal agency for copies of the waivers. In the letter, the administration challenged his legal authority to demand the information.

This is a tough one for the administration to defend.The New York Times reported last month that Trump, instead of draining the swamp, is "populating the White House and federal agencies with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who in many cases are helping to craft new policies for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck."It'd be great to know just how many lobbyists the president has hired, but that's largely impossible: the Republican White House has quietly issued waivers to lobbyists, allowing them to ignore the administration's own ethics rules.Shaub, in his capacity as the head of the Office of Government Ethics, has requested information on the scope of the administration using these confidential waivers. The White House not only won't answer the questions, it's also saying the ethics office isn't empowered to ask.

Mr. Shaub, who is in the final year of a five-year term after being appointed by President Barack Obama, said he had no intention of backing down. "It is an extraordinary thing," Mr. Shaub said of the White House request. "I have never seen anything like it."Marilyn L. Glynn, who served as general counsel and acting director of the agency during the George W. Bush administration, called the move by the Trump White House "unprecedented and extremely troubling.""It challenges the very authority of the director of the agency and his ability to carry out the functions of the office," she said.

It's worth noting for context that previous administrations used these waivers, but not quite in the same way. In the Obama administration, for example, waivers for lobbyists were publicly announced and explained. Now, Trump is issuing similar waivers in secret and refusing to offer explanations, even to the government's own ethics office.If it weren't for the other scandals hanging over the Trump White House, this would be a tough controversy for the president and his team to explain away.