Drain the swamp? Trump has named more lobbyists to Cabinet than Bush or Obama did in 8 years

At least seven former industry lobbyists are in Trump's Cabinet — and dozens more hold political appointments

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published September 19, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)


President Trump has named more former lobbyists to Cabinet positions in his first three years in office than Barack Obama or George W. Bush did over eight years, The Associated Press reports.

Former lobbyist Eugene Scalia, the son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, is set for a confirmation hearing to be Trump’s new labor secretary on Thursday, marking the seventh former lobbyist the president has named to a Cabinet-level position.

Scalia, who spent much of his career fighting against labor regulations, would replace acting Labor Secretary Pat Pizzella, another former lobbyist who previously worked with disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Former lobbyists similarly run the Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the office of the U.S. trade representative. Dan Coats, another former lobbyist, resigned as Trump’s intelligence chief last month.

With seven lobbyists named to Cabinet-level positions, not to mention former industry executives, Trump is far outpacing former President Obama, who named five former lobbyists to his cabinet over two full terms, and George W. Bush, who named three former lobbyists to Cabinet-level posts during his eight years in office.

Despite vowing to “drain the swamp,” Trump signed an executive order shortly after taking office that rolled back an Obama directive barring lobbyists from being named to federal agencies that they had lobbied over the previous two years. Since revoking the “cooling off” period, Trump has drained the swamp directly into his administration.

“Without the cooling off period, these Cabinet heads appear to be serving their former employers’ and clients’ special interests,” Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told the AP.

Trump has stacked his Cabinet with former lobbyists comes alongside a huge increase in lobbying spending. The amount spent on lobbying in 2019 is already on pace to match or exceed last year’s total of $3.4 billion, the AP reported, the highest number since 2010.

Scalia represented Walmart when the retail giant fought a Maryland law that would have required it to spend more money on employee health care. He represented Boeing in a union dispute and represented SeaWorld in a case against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after a trainer was killed by a whale. His financial disclosure showed that he had 49 clients who had paid him at least $5,000 for lobbying, including Walmart, Facebook, Bank of America and Juul Labs. 

Pizzella, who replaced Alex Acosta after he resigned over his role in a lenient plea deal that allowed convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to escape federal charges, previously lobbied for companies like Microsoft and worked on numerous occasions with Abramoff, who was later sentenced to years in prison for bribing public officials.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who replaced Trump's controversial first appointee, walking conflict of interest Scott Pruitt, is a former coal lobbyist who immediately went to work on rolling back Obama-era air and water pollution regulations. CREW submitted a complaint earlier this year alleging that Wheeler violated his ethics pledge by pushing to ease standards for storing coal ash despite previously lobbying on those regulations on behalf of coal giant Murray Energy.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt previously worked for years as a lobbyist for oil, gas and mining companies. When he was earlier named as deputy secretary of the department, the Washington Post reported that he had “so many potential conflicts of interest he has to carry a small card listing them all.” The department’s inspector general launched an investigation into Bernhardt earlier this year after receiving seven different ethics complaints against him.

Brendan Fischer, director of the Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform program, told the AP that Bernhardt’s case highlights the ethical issues of placing former lobbyists into regulatory agencies that oversee the interests they previously represented.

“It is very hard to tell where Bernhardt’s lobbying career ended and where his public service begins,” he said.

Along with Scalia, Trump recently selected Mark Esper to head the Defense Department, replacing former Boeing lobbyist Patrick Shanahan. Esper worked for seven years as a lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon, which has seen billions in additional profits since Trump took office. Esper pledged to recuse himself from decisions involving his former company, which continues to pay him deferred compensation, before listing a number of “exceptions” to his pledge.

Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, is a former lobbyist for steel companies. Emails obtained by American Oversight showed that Lighthizer has provided access and information to lobbyists at his former lobbying firm.

Along with lobbyists, Trump has also named numerous former Goldman Sachs executives, the former head of ExxonMobil, and billionaire investors Betsy DeVos and Wilbur Ross to lead government agencies like the State Department, Departmet of Education, and Department of Commerce. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is also a former drug company executive who oversaw its lobbying efforts, although he is not a registered lobbyist.

Aside from Cabinet-level appointments, a ProPublica investigation found that at least 187 Trump political appointees have been federal lobbyists.

CREW slammed Trump for “filling the swamp with lobbyists” and special interests despite his repeated vow to “drain the swamp.”

“Trump’s actions upon taking office also demonstrate — despite the tough campaign rhetoric attacking Washington, D.C.’s ‘revolving door’ — not only an unwillingness to take on special interests, but a continued expansion of the influence of lobbyists on his administration,” the group said in a statement. “Trump has abjectly failed to ‘drain the swamp.’ To the contrary, he has repeatedly turned to industry insiders and lobbyists to advise him.”

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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