Two prominent — and hollow — echoes from President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies in 2016 were: “We’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it,” and “We’re going to drain the swamp.”
We know all about the outcome of the first proclamation — that if a wall is built, it will be U.S. taxpayers footing the bill. As for the second, the swamp that is Washington, D.C., couldn’t get deeper in ooze.
Trump never details how he will accomplish most of his promises, but regarding influence-peddling in our nation’s capital, one thing he did insist on — in the form of an executive order — was that his political appointees who leave office not lobby the agencies from which they departed for five years. Further, they cannot lobby anyone in the Trump administration while he’s in office.
Turns out, you can sail a leaking oil tanker through a loophole in that toothless order.
In February, ProPublica documented a list of nearly three dozen former Trump hires who are doing what Trump said they shouldn’t, with impunity. The leading scofflaw is probably Ryan Zinke, former Interior Department secretary, whose abuse of ethics while in office was both appalling and legendary, eventually leading to his resignation. Zinke didn’t suffer long, landing a job at the lobbying firm Turnberry Solutions, along with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski — who’s now mulling a challenge to New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
That has led Zinke to work with U.S. Gold Corp., which focuses on mining exploration and development. Zinke says he won’t lobby for U.S. Gold, but the head of the company noted Zinke’s “excellent relationship” with the Bureau of Land Management and the Interior Department in explaining the hiring.
Now comes Joe Balash, who has served as assistant secretary for land and minerals management for the U.S. Department of Interior. Balash, who oversaw oil and gas drilling on federal lands, has joined a foreign oil company that is expanding operations in Alaska.
He confirmed to The Washington Post that he’s working for Oil Search, a Papua New Guinea firm, and that he has the role of senior vice president for external affairs. So far, the company is working on state lands, but the Trump administration wants oil and gas exploration in the federal Arctic National Refuge, just next door to Oil Search’s work. Perhaps Balash will abide, as he says, the pledge he signed not to lobby the Interior Department, but he’ll be supervising employees who surely will pressure the federal government to let Oil Search in.
ProPublica’s research detailed the caveat that is allowing these former Trump officials to ignore the executive order. A clause allows former political appointees to try to influence any “agency process for rulemaking, adjudication or licensing.” And since “rulemaking” is what agencies are charged with doing, voila, you have all the permission you need to pursue, for instance, deregulation. And these days, there’s certainly been plenty of that coming from agencies charged with protecting the environment.
Zinke and Balash are illustrative of the highly questionable activities of many who have left Trump’s government, which has happened in droves, by the way. But there’s just as much swampiness in the other direction. For example, Andrew Wheeler, EPA administrator, is a former coal industry lobbyist — just the type of guy you’d want in charge of keeping our air clean. And David Bernhardt, Interior secretary, previously headed up a lobbying firm’s natural resources division.
Certainly, the Trump administration has no corner on the market of coziness between special interest hacks in Washington and the agencies about which they have an interest. But it’s particularly egregious to run a campaign claiming you’ll clean up Washington when what you’ve really done has turned a swamp into a cesspool.