June 27, 2019
Last week, the White House broke with its own disclosure practice by scrubbing earlier versions of ethics waiver lists from its Disclosures web page. Just an hour before doing that, the White House uploaded a new undated ethics waiver. By removing past waiver lists, the White House obscured the fact that the new waiver had not appeared on earlier lists, possibly in order to hide the fact that it appears to have been issued retroactively.
Retroactive waivers may seek to paper over interactions that violate ethics rules after they have taken place. But OGE considers retroactive waivers to be invalid.The Trump White House has a history of issuing ethics waivers that are undated and may be retroactive, and this change makes it harder to identify new waivers and around when they may have been issued. Previously, the public could more easily discern that information by comparing new ethics waiver lists to the old ones linked on the White House Disclosures page.
Since the White House removed all but its latest list of ethics waivers from its Disclosures page, CREW has posted all of the lists the White House removed on its website so the public can continue to easily access them.
The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and lawmakers have scrutinized the White House’s apparent preference for issuing undated ethics waivers. After a dispute between the White House and OGE, the White House released 14 waivers in May 2017. Ten of those waivers were not dated. Since then, the White House has continued to issue undated ethics waivers. This practice raises concerns that the waivers may have been issued after, and to cover, problematic interactions that had already taken place.
After inspecting the updated list of ethics waivers the White House released last week, CREW identified a previously undisclosed waiver for Assistant to the President for Strategic Initiatives Brooke Rollins. The waiver authorizes Rollins to communicate and meet with her former employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) “on broad policy matters and particular matters of general applicability.” It appears that the waiver was issued retroactively, perhaps to cover a meeting Rollins participated in with her former employer in January 2019.
According to a January 2019 Axios report, Rollins attended a meeting Jared Kushner hosted about immigration reform along with Joshua Treviño, TPPF’s chief innovation officer. Rollins was TPPF’s president and chief executive officer from January 2003 until May 2018. Depending on whether that meeting was “open to all interested parties,” Rollins’s participation in the meeting may have violated President Trump’s ethics pledge.
While the specific date of the meeting is not known, the meeting took place during the week of January 21, 2019. Until last week, the last list of ethics waivers the White House released was current as of January 24, 2019. While it seems plausible that the TPPF meeting could have taken place on January 25, 2019 and that the White House issued the waiver to Rollins that day, a closer inspection of the waiver shows that it most likely was not issued to her until March 12, 2019 or later.
Senior Counsel to the President Scott Gast identified himself as the “Designated White House Ethics Official” where he signed the waiver, bringing it into effect. But Gast did not receive that designation until March 12, 2019. On undated ethics waivers that were disclosed on the list of waivers issued as of January 24, 2019, Gast identified himself by his prior role as the “Alternate Designated White House Ethics Official.” Therefore, Gast most probably did not issue the waiver to Rollins any earlier than March 12, 2019, raising questions about whether Rollins violated President Trump’s ethics pledge when she participated in the January 2019 meeting.
Rollins’s support of a bill TPPF lobbied for also raises questions about whether she was acting to pursue TPPF’s agenda after she became a White House appointee. To date, however, there is no indication that she met or communicated with TPPF officials about the bill after joining government, but according to a “senior administration official,” Rollins was “a tremendous advocate” of the First Step Act in the White House. She also gave a speech in support of the bill at an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) event in August 2018. Justin Keener, Rollins’s former colleague and TPPF’s lobbyist on the issue, attended the ALEC event and posted a photo of Rollins sitting at what he described as “the @RightOnCrime table,” after a TPPF initiative of that name. TPPF only began to lobby on the issue after Rollins joined the White House and confined its lobbying to the White House Office rather than, for example, Congress or the Department of Justice.
The White House’s decision to issue an undated ethics waiver to Rollins and remove links to older lists of waivers suggests that the White House sought to issue the waiver to Rollins retroactively. Gast’s title on the form strongly suggests it was issued well after she participated in a meeting with a TPPF official. In the interest of transparency, the White House must respond to Representative Elijah Cumming’s letter seeking signed and dated copies of all ethics waivers the White House has issued.