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Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy July 15, 2020

Trump’s lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying for foreign governments still in effect

President Donald Trump's executive order prohibiting top administration officials from ever lobbying the U.S. on behalf of a foreign government is still in effect more than three years later, meaning he's kept his promise to institute a lifetime ban on such efforts. 

"I'm going to issue a lifetime ban against senior executive branch officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government," Trump said in an October 2016 campaign speech

Trump fulfilled his pledge shortly after entering the White House with a Jan. 28, 2017, executive order. The order established a multi-part ethics pledge that became applicable for all executive agency appointees appointed on or after Jan. 20, 2017. 

The fourth paragraph under in section 1 of the executive order mentions the lifetime ban:

"I will not, at any time after the termination of my employment in the United States Government, engage in any activity on behalf of any foreign government or foreign political party which, were it undertaken on January 20, 2017, would require me to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as amended."

Trump's executive order has not been repealed or altered, said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight.

But as we noted when we last updated this promise, the order also made room for several exceptions under section 3, where it said "the president or his designee may grant to any person a waiver of any restrictions contained in the pledge signed by such person."

Experts from government watchdog groups told us they aren't aware of any waivers the administration has issued to allow former appointees to lobby on behalf of foreign governments, although some experts said the administration hasn't been perfectly transparent. 

Reports from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics show that while several ethics waivers were granted in 2017 and 2018, none pertained to the ban forbidding lobbying on behalf of foreign governments. The report covering 2019 has not yet been released.

There are also no paragraph 4 waivers listed in White House's disclosures covering ethics pledge waivers for the White House and vice president's office through April 27, nor are there any such waivers in the Office of Government Ethics' list for executive agencies.

Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former White House associate counsel under Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, said certain senior officials are also dissuaded from foreign lobbying by a criminal statute that prohibits them from representing or advising foreign entities in their first year out of government.

"In order to get a waiver, they would have to either not be a senior employee covered by the one-year cooling-off period, or that one-year cooling-off period would have to expire," she said.

The classification of different positions has also given certain officials room to circumvent the ethics rules established by Trump's executive order, said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks foreign lobbying. 

Trump's order "only explicitly covers full-time, non-career political appointees," Massoglia said. "But the Trump administration has brought in a number of 'special government employees' or 'special advisers' who are not subject to the same ethics rules."

Pam Bondi, for example, recently re-registered as a foreign agent working on behalf of the Qatari government after serving on Trump's impeachment defense legal team, Massoglia said. She rejoined Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm where she had previously worked.

Richard Hohlt, another example, was appointed to serve a part-time advisory role on Trump's Commission on White House Fellowships. He was simultaneously registered as a Saudi government foreign agent as part of a lobbying gig that he eventually quit, Massoglia said.

Trump's promise could fully unravel if he's voted out of office and he decides to scrap the executive order on his way out. Clinton rescinded his own ethics pledge before leaving the White House, and Obama's executive order was replaced by Trump's, Amey said.

We'll continue to watch for new waivers or post-election changes. 

For now, Trump's promise stays at Promise Kept.

UPDATE, July 17, 2020: The U.S. Office of Government Ethics released its report covering 2019 in July 2020. The report also listed no paragraph 4 waivers. Our ruling remains the same.

Our Sources

The White House, "Executive Order: Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Appointees," Jan. 28, 2017

Government Publishing Office, "Restrictions on former officers, employees, and elected officials of the executive and legislative branches," accessed June 18, 2020

U.S. Office of Government Ethics, "Agency Ethics Pledge Waivers (EO 13770)," accessed June 18, 2020

Center for Responsive Politics, "Foreign Lobby Watch," accessed June 22, 2020

ProPublica, "Staffers With Ethics Waivers," accessed June 18, 2020

The White House, "Waiver Certifications for WHO/OVP Employees," April 27, 2020

Factbase Videos on YouTube, "Speech: Donald Trump Delivers a Campaign Speech in Grand Junction, CO - October 18, 2016," Sept. 2, 2019

U.S. Office of Government Ethics, "Results from the 2018 Annual Agency Ethics Program Questionnaire," July 11, 2019

U.S. Office of Government Ethics, "CY17 Annual Agency Ethics Program Questionnaire," Aug. 10, 2018

PolitiFact, "Trump signs order placing lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying for foreign government," Jan. 30, 2017

Phone interview with Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, June 18, 2020

Phone interview with Scott Amey, general counsel and editor-in-chief with the Project on Government Oversight, June 18, 2020

Phone correspondence with the Office of Government Ethics, June 18, 2020

Email interview with Anna Massoglia, researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, June 19, 2020

Allison Graves
By Allison Graves January 30, 2017

Trump signs order placing lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying for foreign government

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 28 banning administration officials from ever lobbying the United States on behalf of a foreign government, making good on one of his promises included in his Contract with the American Voter.

The order, dubbed "Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Appointees," lays out a nine-part ethics pledge for every person in all executive agencies appointed on or after Jan. 20, 2017.

The fourth pledge in section 1 is where the lifetime ban comes in. It reads:

I will not, at any time after the termination of my employment in the United States Government, engage in any activity on behalf of any foreign government or foreign political party which, were it undertaken on January 20, 2017, would require me to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as amended.

The order also carves out exceptions for people under Section 3.

"The president or his designee may grant to any person a waiver of any restrictions contained in the pledge signed by such person," it reads.

Former President Barack Obama, who signed a similar executive order on Jan. 21, 2009, also allowed for waivers in his ethics agreement.

This waiver loophole knocked Obama's promise to enact tougher rules against the revolving door for lobbyists and former officials from Promise Kept, to Compromise, and finally to Promise Broken after he issued several waivers.

Obama's promise was different than Trump's, though. It specifically said no one would "work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years."

Trump's promise is less specific, but we'll keep an eye out for any waivers that might be signed.

For now, we rate this Promise Kept.

Our Sources

Donald J. Trump, Contract with the American Voter

PolitiFact, Obameter: "Tougher rules against revolving door for lobbyists and former officials," last updated on June 12, 2009.

WhiteHouse.gov, " Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Appointees," Jan. 28, 2017.

The American Presidency Project, Barack Obama's Executive Order 13490—"Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel," signed Jan. 21, 2009.

Email to Steven Cheung, White House spokesperson, Jan. 30, 2017. 

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