Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
Lobbyists who joined the Trump administration and now want to return to their old trade have a problem: President Trump said they can’t.
Days after taking office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring every political appointee to sign a pledge as a condition of taking office. The appointees agreed not to lobby the agencies they had worked in for five years after they left government service. Nor would they lobby anyone in the White House or political appointees across federal agencies for the duration of the Trump administration.
But never doubt the ingenuity of the Washington swamp class. At least eight former Trump officials have found ways around the so-called ethics pledge.
Using staffing lists compiled for ProPublica’s Trump Town, the first exhaustive database of current political appointees, we found at least 184 people who have left the Trump administration. Of those, at least six former officials are now registered lobbyists and several others work at firms in roles that resemble lobbying in all but name.
Their techniques vary from the bureaucratic to the audacious: Some former officials are tiptoeing around the rules by not registering as lobbyists or by exploiting loopholes. Others obtained special waivers allowing them to go back to lobbying. And at least one never signed the pledge at all.
Needless to say, roundtrip traffic between lobbying and government has long been endemic in Washington. The Obama administration, despite campaign promises to the contrary, hired dozens of previously registered lobbyists and many officials returned to K Street firms afterward. “The revolving door is a persistent feature of Washington if you work in an administration and you develop some expertise over an area of policymaking,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow who studies lobbying at New America, a left-leaning Washington think tank. “There’s a high demand for someone with your knowledge and connections.”
Candidate Trump famously vowed to put an end to such D.C. practices by “draining the swamp.” Indeed, in some respects, the Trump administration’s ethics pledge is tougher than those in place under Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Trump’s version expanded the prohibition from lobbying to what his executive order called “lobbying activities” after people leave government. This was intended to stop former officials not only from communicating directly with government officials but also from helping other lobbyists do that.
The goal, as Trump put it at a Wisconsin campaign rally in October 2016, was to “expand the definition of ‘lobbyist’ so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants, advisers, all of these different things, and they get away with murder.”
Violating the pledge exposes former officials to possible extended bans on lobbying, civil proceedings or fines, or being barred from lobbying entirely.
Paradoxically, experts warn that tougher enforcement could be spurring the growth of “shadow” lobbyists. That’s the term for those whose tasks look much like lobbying but which they label, say, “strategic consulting.” It also applies to those who don’t meet the legal threshold requiring them to formally register as lobbyists. According to the Lobbying Disclosure Act, a lobbyist must register if he or she spends “20 percent or more of his or her time in services for [a] client over any three-month period.”