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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What do White House Rules Mean if They Can Be Circumvented?

Sheelah Kolhatkar
The New Yorker
Originally posted June 6, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Each Administration establishes its own ethics rules, often by executive order, which go beyond ethics laws codified by Congress (those laws require such things as financial-disclosure forms from government employees, the divestiture of assets if they pose conflicts, and recusal from government matters if they intersect with personal business). While the rules established by law are hard and fast, officials can be granted waivers from the looser executive-order rules. The Obama Administration granted a handful of such waivers over the course of its eight years. What’s startling with the Trump White House is just how many waivers have been issued so early in Trump’s term—more than a dozen were disclosed last week, with another twenty-four expected this week, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal—as well as the Administration’s attempt to keep them secret, all while seeming to flout the laws that dictate how the whole system should work.

The ethics waivers made public last week apply to numerous officials who are now working on matters affecting the same companies and industries they represented before joining the Administration. The documents were only released after the Office of Government Ethics pressed the Trump Administration to make them public, which is how they have been handled in the past; the White House initially refused, attempting to argue that the ethics office lacked the standing to even ask for them. After a struggle, the Administration relented, but many of the waivers it released were missing critical information, such as the dates when they were issued. One waiver in particular, which appears to apply to Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, without specifically naming him, grants Administration staff permission to communicate with news organizations where they might have formerly worked (Breitbart News, in Bannon’s case). The Bannon-oriented waiver, issued by the “Counsel to the President,” contains the line “I am issuing this memorandum retroactive to January 20, 2017.”

Walter Shaub, the head of the Office of Government Ethics, quickly responded that there is no such thing as a “retroactive” ethics waiver. Shaub told the Times, “If you need a retroactive waiver, you have violated a rule.”

The article is here.