This week the Trump administration cemented its refusal to disclose names of former lobbyists granted waivers to work with the federal government.
The Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross claimed terminal patients go through denial, anger, bargaining and sadness before finally accepting the truth. So it was with the president and his relationship to lobbyists.
On July 16, Donald Trump covered the first two stages by denying angrily that he would be beholden to lobbyists: “Crooked Hillary Clinton is bought and paid for by Wall Street, lobbyists and special interests. She will sell our country down the tubes!” he wrote in a tweet.
On “60 Minutes” in November, Trump seemed to bargain on the air with Lesley Stahl, who noted the president’s transition team was “filled with lobbyists.” Trump said: “That’s the only people you have down there. … I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist. … I’m saying that they know the system right now, but we’re going to phase that out. You have to phase it out.”
And on Jan. 28, Trump followed up by signing an executive order banning ex-lobbyist appointees from working on their old issues. But the order allowed the president to issue secret waivers, meaning some ex-lobbyists get to ignore the rules, and the public doesn’t get to know who they are.
Subsequent weeks were marked by sadness as the president became frustrated with staff about growing controversy over Russia. Then, news outlets began detailing an unprecedented proliferation of lobbyists running Trump agencies.
Reacting to these reports, U.S. government ethics czar Walter Shaub demanded copies of any waivers by June 1. The Trump administration shot back that Shaub’s office had no authority to demand the information, part of what a New York Times editorial called part of “a serious commitment to incompetence and deception.”
Maybe instead it’s an example of the president turning away from campaign rhetoric because he has entered a stage of acceptance. He’s processed his initial emotions about draining the swamp. And he’s now able to accept that the least troublesome path to running government is to simply hire lobbyists.
Trump Org backtracks on tracking foreign payments
NBC got its hands on Trump Organization literature that said it wasn’t tracking the money that came from foreign governments. That goes back on a major pledge the president made from the start to avoid breaking the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officeholders from taking foreign gifts. He said he’d donate the funds.
The Trump Organization then told Congress it wasn’t practical to be tracking all those payments.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the leading Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, told the Trump Organization why he thought that policy was insufficient: “foreign governments could provide prohibited emoluments to President Trump, for example through organizations such as RT, the propaganda arm of the Russian government.”
Kushner’s Saudi connection: Blackstone
When presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner personally negotiated the terms of a $110 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia, the news seemed to beg questions such as, “Why him,” and, “Don’t they have people for that?”
The crack investigative team at Bloomberg offered possible answers in a Thursday story describing Kushner’s ties to the Blackstone Group LP, whose U.S. infrastructure fund is receiving $20 billion in Saudi investment, announced shortly after the arms deal.
Blackstone has loaned more than $400 million to four Kushner Companies’ deals, a major source of Kushner funding. His wife, Ivanka Trump, invested in a 2010 Blackstone fund. Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman heads Trump’s business advisory council, and he traveled to Saudi Arabia on the recent state trip.
Trump’s PGA partners get a special White House tour
While Trump was overseas, a group of senior Professional Golf Association professionals were getting a private tour of the White House, after the president had earlier given instructions to staff to provide the exclusive perk.
The New York Times draws a connection between that tour and a lucrative PGA tournament held Thursday at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia. Trump’s 16 golf clubs generate more than $320 million annually, the article notes. And the president has showcased his properties with 25 Trump golf club visits since he became president.
Hosting a P.G.A. tournament is likely to add to the value. Association with the United States presidential seal, meanwhile, is likely to improve the bottom line of the P.G.A.
From The Times story:
“The fact that we have a sitting president of the United States affiliated with the facility where a major championship is being played – that is very good for golf and for this course,” said Ted Bishop, a former president of the P.G.A. of America who in 2014 negotiated the deal to bring the tournament here. “It offers exposure and probably credibility and prestige. … It is tough to put a dollar value on those things. But it helps.”
An under-the-radar confirmation coming soon
David Bernhardt is a Washington, D.C. lawyer and lobbyist who has made a career of challenging environmental regulations on behalf of energy companies, mine operators and agribusiness concerns.
Now Bernhardt is poised to ascend to the No. 2 post in the U.S. Department of the Interior – a job that will essentially put him in charge of regulating some of the same interests he formerly represented. A vote on the appointment is expected soon.
Among his biggest clients are the powerful Westlands Water District in California’s Central Valley, which for years has fought to blunt federal protections for the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta’s salmon fishery; and Cadiz Inc., which is promoting a controversial plan to tap the groundwater beneath the Mojave Desert and sell it to the city of Los Angeles. The company will need Interior Department permits to go forward.
Trump nominated him to the post in April, and at a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Republican senators shrugged off complaints that Bernhardt is a “walking conflict of interest,” as he was called in a joint letter signed by 150 environmental groups.
He told senators that if confirmed he would withdraw from the law firm and recuse himself from matters affecting former clients for a year after going to work.
The environmental groups are suspicious, saying they believe the administration will grant one of those secret ethics waivers to Bernhardt so he can work on issues of concern to his former clients: Bernhardt’s firm represents so many companies facing Interior Department regulation in so many areas that he won’t be able to do his job otherwise, they argue.