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Ex-lobbyists swarm Trump administration, despite 'drain the swamp' pledge

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on June 21, 2017, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on June 21, 2017, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

More than 100 former federal lobbyists have found jobs in the Trump administration, despite President Trump's campaign pledge to restrict the power of special interests in Washington, according to a tally provided to USA TODAY by a Democratic group.

And roughly two-thirds of them — 69 — work in the agencies they have lobbied at some point in their careers, according to research by American Bridge 21st Century. They include about three dozen recent lobbyists who have not received waivers from Trump's ethics rule that bar industry insiders and former lobbyists from working on specific matters that benefited their former employers or clients for two years after their appointments.

The prevalence of lobbyists in the new administration shows that Trump and his aides are "are holding themselves to a different standard than we expected," said Lisa Gilbert of the liberal-leaning group Public Citizen, which is expected to release its own study this week, highlighting ex-lobbyists working on the same issues in government as they did in their recent lobbying posts.

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"Hiring former lobbyists at the agencies they just lobbied is problematic," Gilbert said.

Industry insiders and former lobbyists working in the administration range from Amy Swonger, the White House's deputy director of legislative affairs, who lobbied on behalf of nearly two dozen clients before joining the White House staff, to Stephen Vaughn, the general counsel at the U.S. Trade Representative. He lobbied on trade laws on behalf of U.S. Steel as recently as 2015, federal records show.

Other industry figures now in the government include Kristi Boswell, who worked as a Farm Bureau lobbyist until earlier this year and now is an aide to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Robert Eitel, who has worked as a lawyer for a company that owns for-profit colleges and now serves as special counselor to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

None has received a waiver from a Trump ethics rule that bars ex-lobbyists and other political appointees from participating in specific matters that are "directly and substantially" related to their former clients or employers.

Instead, White House and administration officials say the former lobbyists and other industry officials joining the government are avoiding conflicts of interest by shedding themselves of financial ties to their former employers and agreeing to recuse themselves from working on the specific issues they handled in their old jobs.

"The White House takes seriously the need for appointees to resign, recuse and divest where required," said Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman. "The White House Counsel's Office worked closely with all White House officials to avoid conflicts arising from their former places of employment or investment holdings."

White House officials view waivers, which provide blanket exemptions to Trump's ethics rules, as a last resort, granted only to key staffers with broad portfolios. "To the furthest extent possible, counsel worked with each staffer to recuse from conflicting conduct rather than being granted waivers," Walters said.

So far, roughly two dozen waivers have been granted to political appointees throughout the government, putting Trump on pace to exceed the 22 President Obama granted during the first full year he was in office.

(Waiver recipients have included White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who is allowed to have contact with his former colleagues at the Republican National Committee, and Lance Leggitt, a former health-care lobbyist who serves as chief of staff at the Health and Human Services Department.)

On the campaign trail, Trump often pledged to confront Washington lobbyists and "drain the swamp" of special interests.

American Bridge researchers found former lobbyists now working at agencies they lobbied at some point in their careers — ranging from 15 in the executive office of the president to one or two at departments, such as Labor and Treasury.

Agency officials say the former lobbyists and industry officials they have hired are avoiding the specific issues that affect their former clients or employers.

At the Education Department, for instance, Eitel is recusing himself from a broad range of issues that could affect for-profit college operators, such as Bridgepoint Education, where he worked as a lawyer, according to agency spokeswoman Liz Hill.

Those include DeVos' planned review of an Obama-era "gainful employment" rule, which penalizes for-profit colleges whose graduates' earnings eat into more than 8% of their income. The industry has opposed the regulation.

Last week DeVos announced plans create new committees to review that rule and another that would ease loan-repayment requirements for students if a for-profit college used deceptive tactics to persuade students to borrow money for tuition.

At Treasury, meanwhile, officials say that senior adviser Mauricio Claver-Carone, a former lobbyist who until recently led one of the most vocal pro-Cuba embargo groups in Washington, is steering clear of Cuba sanctions policy in his new government role. His hiring had been hailed by pro-embargo forces as a good sign for their efforts.

Last week, pro-embargo interests celebrated as Trump announced he was reinstating some travel and business restrictions on Cuba that had been eased during the previous administration.

At the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Vaughn, the former U.S. Steel lobbyist, "is in full compliance with applicable ethics requirements," according to an agency statement, and "continues to have discussions about ethics issues with appropriate USTR officials."

Agriculture Department officials did not respond to interview requests this week about Boswell's role.