Asked about the propriety of a waiver to those rules allowing chief White House strategist Steve Bannon to communicate with Breitbart News, the pro-Trump outlet he ran until last year, Spicer indicated that, by definition, Trump can’t run afoul of ethics measures he imposed by executive order in January because Trump himself imposed them.
“This didn’t have to do with the law or regulations,” Spicer said. “This had to do with the president’s pledge, his ethics pledge, so he is the ultimate decider on that.”
Spicer comments came in response to scrutiny of a retroactive waiver to an ethics pledge required of all Trump administration appointees. The waiver, which was announced on Wednesday and covers all White House appointees, allows officials to communicate with former employers or clients in the news business.
The waiver did not mention Bannon by name, but squarely addressed allegations that Bannon had violated the ethics pledge by communicating with multiple staffers at Breitbart, which Bannon chaired before joining the Trump presidential campaign last year. Those allegations are at the center of a complaint filed with the Office of Government Ethics in March.
The White House didn’t reveal when the waiver was issued, but said it applied to all staff communications since the day Trump took office. Applying it retroactively appeared to absolve Bannon of any potential violations, but the government’s top ethics watchdog says that in itself may have skirted ethics rules.
“There is no such thing as a retroactive waiver,” OGE director Walter Shaub told the New York Times. “If you need a retroactive waiver, you have violated a rule.”
Spicer seemed to indicate that the White House had not initially considered how the president’s executive order would restrict communications by officials formerly employed or contracted by media organizations.
“What we discovered is that several individuals on staff had previously worked with media organizations and in order to continue having those discussions and advancing the president’s agenda and priorities it was important to ensure that all individuals had the opportunity to speak to the media about what the president is doing to make the country stronger,” Spicer said on Friday.
The waiver will free up other White House staffers to communicate with their former news media employers.
And there are several employees who could now choose to take advantage of the waiver including Bannon deputy Julia Hahn, who was also a Breitbart writer before joining the White House in late January, Trump assistant John McEntee, a production assistant at Fox News until mid-2015 and White House counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka, who was a paid Fox contributor until January.
Cliff Sims, the director of White House message strategy, will also be able to communicate with employees of Yellowhammer News, the Alabama-focused political news site he founded and led until January.
Potential future White House hires could also be covered by the waiver. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who has been bragging of his imminent return to Trump’s side, would likely be free to work with employees of One America News Network, where he has been on contract since January. Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle would be able to meet with her former colleagues if, as has been rumored, she joins the White House communications shop.
The media waiver wasn’t the only blanket ethics pledge exemption released this week. The White House also waived provisions of the pledge for all White House senior staff with respect to their communications with political groups and nonprofit advocacy outfits supporting the president.
Another thirteen individuals received waivers to portions of the ethics pledge. The waivers were released only after a pointed exchange between Shaub and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who initially questioned OGE’s authority to request the information.
President Barack Obama issued a total of 17 waivers to White House officials during his eight years in office, exempting them from portions of a similar ethics pledge. The terms of that pledge directed OGE to periodically list all waivers on its website. Trump’s White House has been less forthcoming with such information.
OGE has said it will release the names next week of all administration officials, not just those in the White House, who have received ethics pledge waivers.