President Donald Trump has granted ethics waivers to at least 17 of his top White House aides, including chief strategist Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, in addition to four former lobbyists.
The waivers, released by the White House late Wednesday but granted on various dates, undermine Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
They also reveal a president who is granting ethics waivers at an unusually rapid pace. The 17 senior White House appointees were all granted waivers in the past four months. His predecessor, Barack Obama, granted that same number of waivers to his top staff over the course of his eight years in office.
The waivers allow those covered under them to be exempt from some of the restrictions imposed by Trump’s executive order on ethics, which he signed just days after taking office. Most involve allowing contact with former clients and employers.
According to White House lawyers, each of these waivers is justified because the administration’s “need for the covered employee’s services outweighs the concern” that he or she might put their own financial interests above the interests of the nation.
Conway’s waiver, for example, permits her to meet and communicate with former clients of her consulting firm. Priebus’ waiver allows him to interact with the Republican National Committee, of which he is a former chairman.
White House Counsel Don McGhan was one of six lawyers who joined the Trump administration from the law firm Jones Day. All six of them were granted a limited waiver to “participate in communications and meetings with Jones Day.”
Another waiver allows all Trump executive appointees to communicate with news organizations. The language of this waiver covers Bannon, who was executive chairman of the far-right site Breitbart News until he joined the Trump campaign last year. Without the waiver, Bannon would be barred from meeting with Breitbart.
In addition to the boldfaced names, four staffers were granted waivers to deal with issues they recently worked on as lobbyists in the private sector.
Shahira Knight, who is a special assistant for tax and retirement policy, was a lobbyist for Fidelity Investments before joining the administration. Andrew Olmem, who does financial policy, was a lobbyist for big banks and lenders.
Michael Catanzaro, recently hired as one of Trump’s top energy advisers, was a lobbyist for oil and gas companies. Knight, Olmem and Catanzaro are all members of Trump’s National Economic Council, which is headed by former Goldman Sachs boss Gary Cohn.
The fourth lobbyist granted a waiver is Joshua Pitcock, who serves as chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. Pitcock was a lobbyist in Indiana before joining the Trump administration.
Other officials granted waivers include Daniel Epstein, who is permitted to “participate in matters involving” his former employer, Cause of Action Institute, the watchdog group backed by the conservative Koch brothers; Rene Augustine, who is allowed to work on hiring White House staff despite having a number of politically sensitive financial holdings; Chris Herndon, the head of White House IT, who is permitted to interact with his former employer, a government IT contractor; and Claire Murray, who received a waiver allowing her to communicate and meet with her former employer, the law firm Kirkland & Ellis.
In a statement Wednesday to The Washington Post, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the release of the waivers reflects “the president’s commitment to the American people to be transparent.”
“The White House Counsel’s Office worked closely with all White House officials to avoid conflicts arising from their former places of employment or investment holdings,” Walters said. “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.”
Staffers who agreed to recuse themselves from working on issues that posed potential conflicts of interest did not need to apply for ethics waivers.