Thursday, October 17, 2019
Courts & LawNation

The nitty-gritty of White House ethics

Figuring out the White House ethics labyrinth is a job best left to dedicated professionals. But if you’d like to do your own assessment, here’s a few places to start.


The most complete information we’ve found comes from ProPublica. This is “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” ProPublica goes after important stories with a “moral force,” which includes discussions on some of the Administration’s more glaring ethical concerns. You can also find the financial disclosures of 349 Trump administration officials. And, for those with interest and time, they invite you to help in their investigation of the disclosures.

Approved ethics waivers

On May 31, 2017, the White House provided a list of four approved ethics waivers for the staffs of both the president and the vice-president. The list explains which ethics regulations are waived for each employee and provides a brief description of the “nature” of the waiver. The names on the list are hyperlinked to the document approving the waiver.

EO 13770 Presidential Executive Order
Signed on January 28, 2017, “Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Appointees” largely focuses on curtailing appointees’ relationships with lobbying groups. Paragraph 6 prohibits an appointee from participating “in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients.” Trump has granted a sweeping waiver from this paragraph for all White House officers and Office of the Vice-President employees.

5 C.F.R. § 2635.502 – Personal and business relationships
This covers personal and business relationships for which an individual’s actions or decisions are “likely to have a direct and predictable effect on the financial interest of a member of his household.” If the relationships do not violate 18 U.S.C. § 208(a), they may be granted a waiver to be involved in matters that might, “raise a question in the mind of a reasonable person about [the individual’s] impartiality.”

5 C.F.R. § 2635.503 Extraordinary payments from former employers
This regulation bans employees from being involved in actions or decisions that affect a former employer if the employee received “extraordinary payment” prior to government service. The two-year ban can be waived if the payment amount is judged to be “not so substantial as to cause a reasonable person to question the employee’s ability to act impartially.”

18 U.S.C. § 208 – Acts affecting a personal financial interest
This regulation restricts a government employee from acting or making a decision on any matter in which the employee knows someone who has a financial interest. The term “employee” has a very expansive definition. However, the restriction may be waived if the employee makes a full disclosure ahead of time or if “the interest is so small that it is unlikely to affect the integrity of the services which the government may expect from such officer or employee.”

Other resources

As one might expect, the legal jargon in the government documents can make them hard to understand. We’ve found several sources that discuss and review how the regulations could bear on the actions of certain individuals and organizations. These include the American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, as well as, The Daily Beast, and Government Executive. A fairly clear description of the regulations is provided on the Office of Government Ethics website, and a nonpartisan discussion of the issues can be found at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. CREW has a number of lawsuits pending against the government, including one against Trump for violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution.