The Trump administration, in a significant escalation of its clash with the government’s top ethics watchdog, has moved to block an effort to disclose any ethics waivers granted to former lobbyists who have work in the White House or federal agencies.
The latest conflict came in recent days when the White House, in a highly unusual move, sent a letter to Walter M. Shaub Jr., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, asking him to withdraw a request he had sent to every federal agency for copies of the waivers. In the letter, the administration challenged his legal authority to demand the information.
Dozens of former lobbyists and industry lawyers are working in the Trump administration, which has hired them at a much higher rate than the previous administration. Keeping the waivers confidential would make it impossible to know whether any such officials are violating federal ethics rules or have been given a pass to ignore them.
Marilyn L. Glynn, who served as general counsel and acting director of the agency during the George W. Bush administration, called the move by the Trump White House “unprecedented and extremely troubling.”
“It challenges the very authority of the director of the agency and his ability to carry out the functions of the office,” she said.
Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama reserved the right to issue waivers to this ban. Mr. Obama, unlike Mr. Trump, automatically made any such waivers public, offering detailed explanations. The exceptions were typically granted for people with special skills, or when the overlap between the new federal work and a prior job was minor.
President Trump signed an executive order in late January — echoing language first endorsed by Mr. Obama — that prohibited lobbyists and lawyers hired as political appointees from working for two years on “particular” government matters that involved their former clients. In the case of former lobbyists, they could not work on the same regulatory issues they had been involved in.
Ethics watchdogs, as well as Democrats in Congress, have expressed concern at the number of former lobbyists taking high-ranking political jobs in the Trump administration. In many cases, they appear to be working on the exact topics they had previously handled on behalf of private-sector clients — including oil and gas companies and Wall Street banks — as recently as January.