In March 2018, John McEntee, a personal aide to President Trump, was escorted from the White House grounds after a security clearance background check turned up financial issues related to taxes and gambling. In January 2020, McEntee rejoined the White House where he was swiftly promoted to lead the office responsible for recruiting and vetting high-level political appointees. A document obtained by CREW shows that less than four months before he returned to the White House, the top White House ethics official rejected McEntee’s termination financial disclosure report.
It’s exceedingly rare for an ethics official to decline to certify a financial disclosure report. In other instances where reports have been declined, ethics officials have often explained their reasons for doing so. In the case of McEntee’s report, however, there is no explanation, leaving the public to wonder why the report was declined. McEntee’s return to the White House and subsequent promotion despite this issue is yet another example of the Trump administration’s disregard for ethics and public disclosure.
White House Designated Agency Ethics Official and Senior Associate Counsel to the President Scott Gast declined to certify McEntee’s termination financial disclosure report on September 23, 2019, signifying that McEntee may have violated the financial disclosure law. Violations of that law come with potential civil monetary penalty. But rather than suing McEntee to impose those penalties, the White House later rehired him.
McEntee first joined the government in January 2017 as President Trump’s personal aide, a position he held until March 2018 when he was reportedly escorted from the White House after failing to obtain a security clearance. Reports at the time noted that online gambling issues may have contributed to his denial of a security clearance.
McEntee returned to the White House and his former position in January 2020. The next month, McEntee was promoted to be the director of the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office where he has reportedly filled key posts with college students and launched a purge of officials viewed as unsupportive of President Trump.
Although Gast declined to certify McEntee’s termination financial disclosure report in September 2019, the White House provided CREW with versions of the report in December 2019 and February 2020 that did not contain Gast’s note rejecting the disclosure. Instead, the line where Gast declined to certify the report was blank and the reports bore file names indicating that the White House’s review of the report had been closed administratively without action. It is not known why the White House omitted this critical information from those prior releases to CREW, but the new version CREW obtained in late April 2020 contains the annotation revealing that McEntee’s termination financial disclosure report had, in fact, been formally rejected.
Gast’s rejection of McEntee’s termination report puts McEntee on a small but notable list of Trump administration officials whose financial disclosures ethics officials have rejected. CREW is aware of five other financial disclosure reports that ethics officials have declined to certify: the 2018 annual financial disclosure reports of former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as well as the new entrant and termination financial disclosure reports of former Deputy Assistant to the President and Strategist Ira Greenstein.
In each of these other cases, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) declined to certify the reports. McEntee’s termination report, which was not subject to OGE review, is the only report known to CREW that the White House has formally declined to certify. Although OGE declined to certify them, the White House did not expressly decline to certify the reports that Greenstein filed. The White House’s decision to not formally decline Greenstein’s reports makes the declination of McEntee’s termination report all the more notable.
McEntee’s termination financial disclosure report is an outlier from the other declined reports for yet another reason: no explanation was given as to why it was rejected. The OGE officials who declined to certify the reports of Greenstein, former Administrator Pruitt, and Secretaries Ross and Mnuchin each added comments to the reports providing a general explanation as to why they were rejecting the disclosures. Gast left no such comment on McEntee’s report, leaving the public to wonder why he rejected a financial disclosure report filed by the official now responsible for recruiting and vetting President Trump’s top appointees.
Despite the lack of an explanation, CREW has flagged several possible deficiencies with the disclosure in both a complaint sent to the Office of Government Ethics last year and a blog post on CREW’s website. The biggest problem with McEntee’s termination report was a note that read: “On the advice of counsel, I am not providing further information regarding additional sources of non-investment or non-employment income.” CREW also reported that McEntee may have failed to disclose an employment agreement with President Trump’s reelection campaign and as much as $22,000 from that non-government source in his termination financial disclosure report. The Ethics in Government Act requires the disclosure of sources of income exceeding $200 during the reporting period as well as information about any agreement or arrangement regarding future employment.
Without an explanation from the White House, we cannot know if Gast rejected McEntee’s termination report for these or other reasons. Either way, the report leaves several important questions unanswered, including whether McEntee violated an ethics ban on outside earned income while he was employed at the White House.
The Department of Justice can sue filers for penalties up to $50,000 for any knowing and willful failure either to file a financial disclosure report or disclose required information in a financial disclosure. Unlike the case of former presidential aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who fell out of favor with President Trump, there is no indication that DOJ filed suit against McEntee. Instead, the White House rehired him less than four months after rejecting his termination report.
Upon returning to the White House, McEntee filed a new entrant financial disclosure report that was certified by ethics officials from both the White House and OGE. Due to the timing of this filing, McEntee’s most recent new entrant financial disclosure report and his termination financial disclosure report cover different time periods. As a result, McEntee’s new entrant report was not required to include the income he omitted from his termination report. That keeps the public in the dark as to what additional income McEntee may have received during his first stint in the White House.
John McEntee has been put in charge of vetting and filling the top vacancies in the Trump administration despite previously failing to fulfill a basic requirement of the federal ethics program. It is an insult to that program and the public he serves that McEntee was rehired by the White House after he successfully concealed income from public scrutiny.