Editorial Board

Shine Some Sunlight on Trump's Swamp

The administration's ethics waivers reveal the need for even greater scrutiny of its conflicts of interest.

Welcome to Camp Swampy!

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The notion that Donald Trump would "drain the swamp" was always suspect. The then-candidate himself confessed to second thoughts about his pledge shortly after making it.

Still, the speed and extent of his abandonment are stunning. Not only did Trump hire people with real or potential conflicts of interest, he at first refused to divulge how many or to whom ethics waivers were granted. Only this week did the administration reveal the names of those who have been granted permission not to comply with the administration's ethics rules, allowing them work on policies that could affect their own financial interests.

Over the last four months, the White House has issued waivers allowing at least 16 staff members to work on policy matters they dealt with as lobbyists, or to interact with their former private-sector colleagues. That compares with three waivers issued to White House staff over the same period by former President Barack Obama, who issued a total of 16 such waivers over eight years.

Real-world decision-making experience is essential to good governance, especially when dealing with complex regulatory matters. Yet ethics waivers should be treated as what they were intended to be: rare exceptions that allow the government to tap experience it can't find elsewhere.

Moreover, public trust depends on these waivers conforming to the letter of the law, and according to the Office of Government Ethics, it's not clear that Trump's waivers do. That's in part what's concerning about the retroactive, undated blanket waiver allowing all White House aides to communicate with news organizations, including communications with former employers or clients.

It also helps if waivers pass the equivalent of a good-government smell test. Consider the one granted to Andrew Olmem, who is to be allowed to communicate with former clients regarding Puerto Rico's fiscal issues, and reforming the Financial Stability Oversight Council's treatment of insurers. Olmem was a lobbyist hired by hedge funds to fight efforts by Puerto Rico to restructure its debts. His firm also represented MetLife Inc., which is contesting an appeal filed by the previous administration seeking to reinstate its designation by the FSOC as a systematically important financial institution that requires greater oversight. Given those ties, outside observers could be forgiven for asking whether he will be able to fairly represent the public's interests.

It's well and good that these waivers have become public. But what they reveal suggests a need for even greater public vigilance and scrutiny.

    --Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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