What We Found in Trump’s Drained Swamp: Hundreds of Ex-Lobbyists and D.C. Insiders

–by Derek Kravitz, Al Shaw and Isaac Arnsdorf, ProPublica

When the Trump administration took office early last year, hundreds of staffers from lobbying firms, conservative think tanks and Trump campaign groups began pouring into the very agencies they once lobbied or whose work they once opposed.

Today we’re making available, for the first time, an authoritative searchable database of 2,475 political appointees, including Trump’s Cabinet, staffers in the White House and senior officials within the government, along with their federal lobbying and financial records. Trump Town is the result of a year spent filing hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests; collecting and organizing staffing lists; and compiling, sifting through and publishing thousands of financial disclosure reports.

Here’s what we found: At least 187 Trump political appointees have been federal lobbyists, and despite President Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp,” many are now overseeing the industries they once lobbied on behalf of. We’ve also discovered ethics waivers that allow Trump staffers to work on subjects in which they have financial conflicts of interest. In addition, at least 254 appointees affiliated with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and at least 125 staffers from prominent conservative think tanks are now working in the federal government, many of whom are on teams to repeal Obama-era regulations.

Drilling down even further, at least 35 Trump political appointees worked for or consulted with groups affiliated with the the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, who also have a network of advocacy groups, nonprofits, private companies and political action committees. At least 25 Trump appointees came from the influential Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank founded in 1973, and at least two came from Heritage Action, its related political nonprofit. Heritage says the Trump administration, in just its first year, has enacted nearly two-thirds of its 334 policy recommendations.

We also found — for the first time — dozens of special-government employees, or SGEs, who work as paid consultants or experts for federal agencies while keeping their day jobs in the private sector. This rare government gig allows them to legally work for both industry and the Trump administration at the same time. Under the Obama administration, Huma Abedin, the longtime aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, benefited from this policy while simultaneously working at the State Department, the Clinton Foundation and a corporate consulting firm, drawing scrutiny from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Government Accountability Office.

Roughly 60 percent of the Trump administration officials included in our analysis have financial disclosure reports. We have requested these reports for the rest. Since our last update of financial disclosure records in August, we have added 660 such reports from across the government.

We also did a more limited version of this project in 2009, at the start of the Obama administration. As part of this year’s analysis, we compared the number of appointees in the first year of both the Obama and Trump administrations who had been active lobbyists in the two years prior to their nomination for Senate-confirmed government jobs. Even though the Trump administration has lagged significantly behind previous administrations in appointing people for such positions, more Trump appointees were recent lobbyists than Obama appointees: Trump had 18 in his first year, while Obama had 14.

“Focusing on novel scandals alone can distract from the enormous scale of the Trump administration’s embrace of revolving-door hiring,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The pipelines between conservative policy think tanks — namely the Heritage Foundation and the Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce — and the Trump administration are clear, as is their effect on federal policy.

Just before Trump took office last January, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, one of the main conservative advocacy groups funded by the Koch Brothers, unveiled a deregulatory wish list. The action plan highlighted 19 Obama-era policies affecting the environment, labor and technology that Freedom Partners wanted gone. “This strategy can help to unravel eight years of regulatory overreach starting immediately,” the organization’s vice president, Andy Koenig, wrote in an accompanying press release.

A few weeks later, Koenig joined the White House as a policy assistant, putting him in a position to implement his former employer’s agenda. Sure enough, just over a year later, the administration has acted on 16 of the 19 suggestions that Freedom Partners listed.

The moratorium on federal coal leases? Lifted. The Paris climate agreement? Withdrawn. The Clean Power Plan? Repealed. The FCC’s net neutrality policy, the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s arbitration rules? All reversed.

Freedom Partners and the White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Trump campaign had a small staff and was light on policy chops, so it leaned heavily on personnel from the Koch network and the Heritage Foundation during the transition. “When you have a president committed to strong deregulatory policy, there’s no better place to figure out what regulations put a stranglehold on the economy than to go to the Koch network and the Heritage Foundation,” said Marc Lampkin, the co-chair of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s lobbying practice and a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner. “It makes perfect sense that they would be part of the intellectual breeding ground for the administration.”

The Heritage Foundation has touted its influence over Trump’s agenda. On Jan. 23, the organization said the Trump administration embraced two-thirds of the 334 policy recommendations in its “Mandate for Leadership,” such as shrinking national monuments in Utah, preventing taxpayer funding for international groups involved in abortion (known as the Mexico City Policy), raising military spending, and withdrawing from UNESCO.

Heritage cited the efforts of about 70 of its former employees working throughout the transition and administration. Our analysis found 28 officials who used to work at the Heritage Foundation and its advocacy arm, Heritage Action.

Not all political appointments are announced. In digging through lists of special-government employees, we found several in key positions in the Trump administration, including Wendy Teramoto, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s chief of staff and a longtime aide at his private equity firm; James D. Ray, a George W. Bush-era staffer who worked as an unpaid consultant at the Department of Transportation while keeping his job as a principal in KPMG’s infrastructure consulting practice; and Leonard Wolfson, who was lobbying on behalf of the Mortgage Bankers Association on Capitol Hill one week before getting paid $64 per hour as an expert at the Department of Housing and Urban Development the next week.

Wolfson’s case is a prime example of the inherent business conflicts in such arrangements: Wolfson is a well-known housing lobbyist among House Republicans and served in the Bush administration at HUD from 2005 to 2008. Senate records show Wolfson was actively lobbying on banking legislation and regulatory issues in April and May.

By mid-May, Wolfson had taken a relatively rare position as an outside “expert” at HUD while he was still employed at the 2,200-member lobbying group. To take the HUD gig, Wolfson took an unpaid leave from the Mortgage Bankers Association. He didn’t fully resign from the group until July 31.

At HUD, Wolfson worked on getting nominees for senior positions at the agency through the backlogged and slow Senate confirmation process, according to HUD officials.

Reached for comment, a HUD spokesman denied there was any conflict. “There was absolutely no overlap,” said Brian Sullivan. “He took one hat off and put another one on.”

His paid government consulting work this past summer was not previously disclosed. And in December, Wolfson himself was appointed and confirmed as HUD’s assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental relations.

We’re releasing Trump Town as a resource for journalists, researchers and the public. Its goal: to increase understanding of who the current administration’s taxpayer-funded decision-makers are and how their work histories and financial holdings might influence public policy.

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Moderation may be the most challenging and rewarding virtue

By Aurelian Craiutu

He is a professor of political science and adjunct professor of American studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. His most recent book is Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes (2016). He lives in Bloomington.

Three centuries ago, the French political philosopher Montesquieu claimed that human beings accommodate themselves better to the middle than to the extremes. Only a few decades later, George Washington begged to differ. In his Farewell Address (1796), the first president of the United States sounded a warning signal against the pernicious effects of the spirit of party and faction. The latter, he argued, has its roots in the strongest passions of the human mind and can be seen in ‘its greatest rankness’ in popular government where the competition and rivalry between factions are ‘sharpened by the spirit of revenge’ and immoderation.

If one looks at our world today, we might be tempted to side with Washington over Montesquieu. Our political scene offers a clear sign of the little faith we seem to have in this virtue without which, as John Adams memorably put it in 1776, ‘every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey’. Although our democratic institutions depend on political actors exercising common sense, self-restraint and moderation, we live in a world dominated by hyperbole and ideological intransigence in which moderates have become a sort of endangered species in dire need of protection. Can we do something about that to save them from extinction? To answer this question, we should take a new look at moderation, which Edmund Burke regarded as a difficult virtue, proper only to noble and courageous minds. What does it mean to be a moderate voice in political and public life? What are the principles underlying moderation? What do moderates seek to achieve in society, and how do they differ from more radical or extremist minds?

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Throwback Thursday: An Election, an FOIA, and @StateDept in the Eye of the Storm

Posted: 1:48 pm EDT
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In November 1992, Sherman Funk, the Inspector General at that time was joined at the State Department podium by Lawrence Eagleburger who was then Acting Secretary of State for a special briefing on the investigation into the passport files of then Democratic presidential nominee Gov. Bill Clinton, his mother, and independent presidential candidate Ross Perot.

The report blamed lower level State Department employees for beginning the search, with the assistant secretary for consular affairs as the highest bureaucratic casualty. The OIG report notes that “The genesis of the search may have been ordinary FOIA requests; the manner in which it was carried out was anything but ordinary. Although aspects of the search made headlines for a month and a half, the entire search lasted but two days.”

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Click on image to watch the 1992 video via c-span.

Mr. Funk did an oral history interview for ADST (PDF) where he talked about his investigation of this incident. Quick excerpt below:

[I]n view of the enormous political potential of this, I called Eagleburger and said, I think this should be turned over to the FBI. Not that we couldn’t do it, but because of the unbelievable sensitivity in an election year when Bush was starting to run further and further behind, that this could look like a dirty trick like what was pulled back in the ‘72 campaign with Mr. Nixon. I also sent later that day a memo for record. I said this could be the October surprise to end all October surprises. We talked about it on the phone, as we did first thing in the morning, I pointed out that for the Republicans this could be a no-lose situation. If a letter like that could be found, Clinton was dead. There was no way he could become President if he at one time said he renounces his American citizenship, just impossible. On the other hand, if no letter could be found, and a charge could be made that the files had been tampered with, and that charge could have validity, that would make it appear that he had removed the letter surreptitiously from the files with the power of the presidency behind him. So therefore, whether or not the letter was written, if the story got out that we were looking at a tampering investigation, it would be a very dicey situation, particularly inasmuch as Jim Baker, the former Secretary of State, was now running the campaign for Bush. And I said I would not want to be in that position because obviously I had worked closely with Baker while he had been Secretary. So Eagleburger, personally I don’t think he was too happy, but he didn’t argue, he said Sherman you call it the way you want to. So I called the Attorney General, Bill Barr, whom I knew rather well, I had worked with him on a number of things before, and in fact helped him get the deputy attorney generalship. It’s a long story, but I had some working relationship with him. And I told him something that I had only read about in books before. He said is it important? I said, “Yes, Bill, this is a matter of national moment.”
[T]he Department was really coming to pieces. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. People would stop me in the halls with tears in their eyes, and say, “You’ve got to do something about this. We’re being taken over by politicians.” Because every day there were different leaks in the newspaper. Newspaper reporters are very aggressive, particularly during a campaign. So they go to some GS-4 clerk in the national archives and say, “If you don’t tell me what’s going to happen, we’ll put you all over the paper and your career will be dead.” Somebody actually told me this, and they’d be crying when they talked to the reporter. And some of the reporters, who were absolute shits on this thing, unbelievable bastards in the way they operated. There were some noble people. There were some excellent reports, particularly in the Wall Street Journal and to some extent the New York Times, and by and large, the Post wasn’t too bad. But the Washington Times, the Daily News, the New York Post. It wasn’t a matter of politics, it was a matter of just scandals and little journalism. And every night there was something on the evening news about this. And people honestly in the State Department began to think that the Department had been totally corrupted and had been taken over. I’ve never seen a man as devastated in my life as Eagleburger, who was a lame duck until the election was over, who wanted to end his career on a high note, had been a brilliant officer, I think. I happen to think immensely of the man. And here he was leaving on a note that was so low that he was totally despondent.

State/OIG was kind enough to dig up the 1992 report for us which should be required reading:





Congressional Reps Inspect Diplomatic Facilities, Guess Where They Went?

The Federal Times reported recently that seven members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee were on a mission inspecting security arrangements for State Department personnel in various diplomatic posts in the Middle East. Apparently the aim is to better evaluate the commitments of host nations’ to keeping American embassies and consulates secure.

Woohoo! Excerpt below:

To better protect its diplomatic personnel abroad, the United States must better evaluate the commitments of host nations’ to keeping American embassies and consulates secure, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., said during a tour of the Middle East on Wednesday.

DesJarlais is one of seven members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee inspecting security arrangements for State Department personnel in the region as part of its ongoing inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others dead.

“You want to ensure against future loss of American life,” DesJarlais said as he spoke with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on a conference call from Cyprus. Issa is the committee chairman.

So far, the group has inspected American facilities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel and in Turkey and Lebanon. Issa said plans call for three more stops but for security reasons could not reveal the destinations.

“We’re seeing quite a diversity in the needs of the different embassies,” DesJarlais said.
The United States, DesJarlais and Issa added, also needs to evaluate the locations of some of its diplomatic outposts. Some places, they said, may just be too fraught with security risks.

As for what’s needed from Washington, both members downplayed calls for new major spending on embassy security, even though Democrats have complained about Republican appropriators failing to meet the Obama administration’s recent annual budget requests for embassy security by amounts ranging from $90 million to $300 million.

Read in full here.

The Tennessean also reported that the group is not stopping in Benghazi itself, since apparently, according to Congressman DesJarlais, aerial photography and other means have already shown what the problems were there. But here is the important detail:

“In addition to visiting American facilities, the congressional delegation is talking to key officials in the host countries as part of their assessment of those nations’ commitment to using their own resources to protect embassies and consulates.”

How come this guy DesJarlais sounds familiar? Oh …

Anyway – the congressional delegation reportedly went and visited Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel, and also visited Turkey and Lebanon.  Possibly Cyprus and 2-3 more posts not revealed for “security purposes.”  Yes, the delegation did not stop in Benghazi, and we don’t know if they have plans to stop in Tripoli or the US Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen or the US Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, or the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. And Khartoum.

Khaaaartoum, anyone?

Hey, are we to understand that the delegation were also in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus for some inspection?  Any recent anti-U.S. demos and mobs attacking our American facilities there?

So here we are supremely perplexed.  Have you ever heard of an incident where the Government of Israel allowed protesters to over run our diplomatic compounds in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without an appropriate response?  No?  Have you ever heard of an incident where the Government of Turkey took 4-6 hours to respond to a mob attack in Ankara or Istanbul or Adana? Or that they never showed up?  Nope, we don’t remember that happening either. Well,  have you?

So why the foxtrot are these congressional folks wasting taxpayer dollars visiting Israel and Turkey to assess “those nations’ commitment to using their own resources to protect” our embassies and consulates?

We did have problematic responses from host countries in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Sudan as evidenced by damages from the September 2012 embassy attacks. Is the CODEL visiting those countries and talking to host country officials about rapid response in protecting our diplomatic facilities there?

Or for that matter, why the heck are they not inspecting all the newly designated 17 high threat posts of the State Department and assessing those countries commitment to protecting our people and facilities? There’s a good number of garden posts to choose from — Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen. Why not visit those?

Pardon me?

Well — if they’ve got second thoughts about visiting and inspecting Afghanistan, they should listen to Mr. Farahi quoted in the NYT: “Afghanistan is a country very suitable for attracting tourists …. It’s a place where tourists can have all their wishes come true.”

Seriously, if it’s a place suitable for tourists, dammit it should be suitable for a CODEL visit, too.