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Trump Administration Executive Order on Ethics Breaks New Ground

President Trump signed an executive order on ethics this weekend that is similar in key respects to the Obama Administration’s executive order governing ethical conduct by presidential appointees. But in one key respect it is significantly broader in scope than the previous Obama executive order. The Trump executive order incorporates the concept of “lobbying activities,” a defined term that it imports from the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Presidential appointees are required to agree that they will not engage in “lobbying activities” with respect to their agency for five years after the end of their term of office. Lobbying activities is a broad and amorphous term that covers not just actual lobbying contacts that may trigger lobbyist registration but also behind-the-scenes strategic advice and other work related to the lobbying contacts of others. In other words, whereas the restrictions in the Obama executive order applied to individuals who engaged in activities requiring lobbyist registration, the Trump executive order reaches even activity by non-registered lobbyists. This closes one of the major loopholes that President Obama had included in his administration’s executive order on ethics.

The Trump executive order also bars appointees from engaging in “lobbying activities” with respect to any covered executive branch official or non-career Senior Executive Service appointee for the remainder of the Administration.  This provision applies not just to the appointee’s former agency but to the entire executive branch. And again, because it applies to “lobbying activities,” as that term is defined in the LDA, it applies to behind-the-scenes strategic advice that supports someone else’s lobbying contacts.

Incorporating the term “lobbying activities” will have very significant consequences for Trump administration appointees, subjecting them to much broader post-employment restrictions than was so for Obama administration appointees. It would be difficult for Trump appointees who sign the pledge to pursue employment as strategic advisors, much less lobbyists, for a period of time after leaving the administration.

The change in language is quite subtle, probably understood only by Lobbying Disclosure Act aficionados at this point. But it is likely to draw considerable attention as appointees begin to focus on the consequences of signing the pledge.

© 2019 Covington & Burling LLP

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About this Author

Robert Kelner, Covington, Government affairs attorney
Partner

Robert Kelner is the chair of Covington’s nationally recognized Election and Political Law Practice Group.  He counsels clients on the full range of political law compliance matters, and defends clients in civil and criminal law enforcement investigations concerning political activity. He also leads the firm’s prominent congressional investigations practice.

Mr. Kelner’s political law compliance practice covers federal and state campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, pay to play, and government ethics laws. His expertise includes the Federal Election Campaign Act...

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