White House relents in fight with ethics office over waiver disclosure

Washington Post

The White House plans to comply with a request from the government's chief ethics officer to share information about ethics waivers granted to former lobbyists and other appointees, backing down from a heated showdown that threatened to undercut President Donald Trump's "drain the swamp" pledge.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Saturday that by June 1, the administration will publicly post waivers given to appointees who have been exempted from aspects of federal ethics rules, including an executive order that Trump signed in January. The New York Times first reported the decision.

So far, Trump has not disclosed how many waivers have been granted to appointees who are in violation of his order, even as his administration has tapped numerous lobbyists for posts.

In contrast, the Obama administration regularly released copies of waivers that explained why it was in the public interest to hire appointees whose past lobbying work or employers put them in conflict with ethics rules.

In April, the Office of Government Ethics issued a memo requesting that the White House and all federal agencies disclose details about such waivers by June 1. But Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, questioned whether the ethics office had legal jurisdiction to pursue such information and asked OGE to suspend its data collection.

Veteran ethics officials called the White House resistance unprecedented, and Democratic lawmakers objected to the move. OGE Director Walter Shaub Jr. issued a forceful nine-page letter defending the office's legal standing and asserting his intention to implement ethics rules "with independence, free from political pressure."

In a letter Friday to Shaub, Mulvaney said that OMB never sought to impede the ethics office or other agencies "from acting as required by law." His concern was "protecting the process," Mulvaney added, not the substance of the request for information.

"OMB shares the belief that the Executive Branch must uphold the highest ethical standards in accordance with the law," Mulvaney wrote, adding that the budget office has not issued any ethics waivers.

Shaub said that he was glad to receive Mulvaney's latest response.

"Collecting ethics records from agencies is just about the most routine thing OGE does," he said in a statement to The Washington Post. "I'm certain agency ethics officials never had any doubt about their legal duty to respond. All the same, Director Mulvaney's second letter was helpful in clearing up any confusion his first letter may have created. Agency ethics officials can now feel safe providing the sort of responses they've always provided. I'm glad things are back on track."

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