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White House ethics waivers prove 'drain the swamp' was a scam

Donald Trump has relied on secret waivers to allow lobbyists to shape his administration's policies.
President Trump addresses rally in Harrisburg, PA on April 29, 2017. Screenshot from NBCNews.
President Trump addresses rally in Harrisburg, PA on April 29, 2017. Screenshot from NBCNews.

We learned in April that Donald Trump's White House has hired several lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants who are now crafting policies "for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck." The administration has ethics rules to prevent this from happening, but Team Trump quietly issued waivers, allowing officials to ignore the rules.

What we didn't know at the time was just how common this practice has been in Trump World -- because the White House insisted on keeping information about the waiver secret. The Office of Government Ethics told the administration it had to disclose the details, and the White House relented.

The New York Times reported on the information the Trump and his aides were so reluctant to share.

President Trump has given at least 16 White House staff members dispensation to work on policy matters they handled while employed as lobbyists or to interact with their former colleagues in private-sector jobs, according to records released late Wednesday. [...]The list of waivers includes high-profile names such as Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump's chief of staff, and Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser. They had to be granted waivers because of their prior work with organizations such as the Republican National Committee, which Mr. Priebus once ran, and because they continue to have contact with those organizations as part of their White House work.But the waivers granted by the White House are also going to former lobbyists, despite Mr. Trump's campaign vow to try to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington.

So, for example, Michael Catanzaro was a corporate lobbyist for an oil company and a coal-burning electric utility. Trump then hired him to help undermine the same environmental safeguards he used to target as a lobbyist, thanks to a waiver that allows Catanzaro to ignore the ethics rules Trump used to brag about.

The White House and its allies will be quick to note that the Obama administration relied on similar waivers. That's true, to a point, but the details matter: not only did the Obama White House volunteer to publicly disclose these waivers, which were narrowly focused, but Trump World has issued more ethics waivers in four months than Team Obama did in eight years.

Obama also didn't extend waivers to much of his senior White House staff, while Trump has done exactly that.

Adding insult to injury, a separate New York Times report added that the Republican administration may not have handled these waivers properly.

The Trump administration may have skirted federal ethics rules by retroactively granting a blanket exemption that allows Stephen K. Bannon, the senior White House strategist, to communicate with editors at Breitbart News, where he was recently an executive.The exemption, made public late Wednesday along with more than a dozen other ethics waivers issued by the White House, allows all White House aides to communicate with news organizations, even if they involve a "former employer or former client."The waiver, which was undated, did not mention Mr. Bannon specifically, but appeared to benefit him by potentially dislodging him from a pending ethics complaint over his past discussions with Breitbart editors. It would also free him from restrictions on his future communication with the conservative media company.

"Drain the swamp" was one of the pillars of Trump's improbable election victory. We now know, however, that it was a scam.

Update: The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House more waiver disclosures are on the way.