Top Trump advisor Steve Bannon may have violated a White House ethics agreement by communicating with employees of his former media company, the vociferously pro-Trump outlet Breitbart News.
Bannon, Breitbart’s former chairman, has spoken directly to two of the company’s top editors since joining the White House. Trump’s predecessor publicly waived portions of the ethics pledge for similar communications, but the White House confirmed this week that it has not done so for Bannon.
“It seems to me to be a very clear violation,” Richard Painter, who was White House counsel for President George W. Bush, told The Daily Beast in an interview.
A White House spokesperson confirmed that every Trump appointee has signed the ethics pledge required by an executive order imposed by the president in January. No White House employees have received waivers to the pledge, the spokesperson added.
All incoming appointees are required to certify that they “will not for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients.”
But both Breitbart political editor Matthew Boyle and editor in chief Alex Marlow have both confirmed in recent press accounts that they have spoken with Bannon, including conversations regarding the site’s coverage of the White House.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group, is asking White House counsel Don McGahn for additional information on Bannon’s communications with Breitbart and the White House’s efforts to enforce the ethics pledge generally.
“If Bannon discussed White House matters with Breitbart, tried to drive favorable coverage of the White House with his former employer, and gave Breitbart favored access, that would be a serious problem and may have violated the Ethics Pledge he took when he joined the administration,” CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement on Thursday.
Bannon’s contacts with Breitbart staff reportedly pertained to specific aspects of the organization’s coverage of the White House, the group says. “If the communications took place as reported, they likely violated the ethics pledge,” it wrote to McGahn.
It is not clear that violations of the ethics pledge are enforceable, since there is no federal statute criminalizing the conduct that the pledge prohibits.
But the White House has said that it will refer violations to the Department of Justice, which it says will have the ability to pursue various sanctions against appointees who run afoul of its prohibitions. Those penalties include civil fines, debarment from future federal government business, and court injunctions preventing an appointee, for instance, from taking a job otherwise barred by the pledge’s language.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on CREW’s complaint and the allegations therein.
Painter, who spoke with The Daily Beast before CREW sent its Thursday letter, has little doubt that a violation did occur.
“The problem here is that they’re giving a clear preference when they start to speak with Breitbart as opposed to other media outlets,” he explained. “I think that’s the type of thing that that ethics pledge is supposed to prevent. Either they don't seem to care to enforce it or they view contacts with media as being outside of its scope.”
If it does consider media contacts to be outside of the scope of the pledge, that position runs directly counter to that of the previous White House.
The Office of Government Ethics released guidance this week noting that language in an Obama executive order imposing a similar ethics pledge that barred appointee communications with former employers was legally consistent with language in Trump’s order and the pledge it imposed.
In other words, Trump’s executive order did not change Obama-era requirements with respect to communicating with former employers or clients.
But the Obama White House considered appointee contacts with a former news outlet employer to be covered by the pledge.
When Washington Post National Security Editor Paul Frantz joined the Obama State Department as assistant secretary of public affairs in 2013, the White House indicated that it considered his inevitable communications with former Post employees to be barred under the pledge’s language.
It sought a waiver for Frantz on the grounds that “Mr. Frantz will be an important point of contact between media outlets and the Department of State.”
Bannon has received no such waiver.
Though the White House confirmed as much, ethics pledge waivers have not been made publicly available, as they were under the Obama executive order, despite assurances on the White House’s website that the information is forthcoming.
Though similar to Obama’s executive order in many respects, Trump’s omitted language that directed OGE to periodically disclose any waivers granted to administration appointees.
Transparency advocates have criticized the lack of a reporting provision in Trump’s executive order. It’s part of a larger unwillingness or inability to enforce the pledge, according to CREW. “These potential violations are more in what has become a disturbingly long line of ethics issues by White House staff,” the group said on Thursday.
Though all appointees are required to sign the ethics pledge, at least three former administration officials have not done so.
Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn confirmed last week that he had not signed the pledge, though a spokesman said he still planned to abide by its terms. Former Housing and Urban Development official Shermichael Singleton has also said he did not sign it.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Robert Wasinger, who briefly served as the White House’s liaison to the State Department, also did not sign the pledge, which bars appointees from becoming registered lobbyists within five years of their administration service.
Wasinger is now a registered lobbyist.