Drain the swamp? Lobbyists were in Trump transition, now Pence says they’re out

The fledgling Donald Trump administration has reversed a decision to allow lobbyists on the transition team, but good government advocates say the move falls short of eliminating potential conflicts of interest.

With Trump’s lobbyist-heavy transition team seemingly violating his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington, Vice President-elect Mike Pence is working to rid the team of the so-called influence peddlers.

Pence, who Friday took over the duties of transition chief from Gov. Chris Christie, is “making good” on Trump’s promise, a campaign spokesman said Wednesday.

Trump repeatedly promised during his campaign that he’d shake up Washington business as usual, but stocked his transition team with a traditional cadre of lobbyists for special interests, including those for telecommunications, banking and energy companies.

Spokesman Jason Miller sidestepped questions as to why lobbyists were on the team in the first place, but said Pence and transition team executive director Rick Dearborn would see that no lobbyists are involved with the transition efforts.

“When we talk about draining the swamp, this is one of the first steps,” Miller told reporters. “The bottom line is, we’re going to get the transition team where we need it to be. It’s going to be a team that will be able to put in place the exact type of team that President-elect Trump wants to have in. And so, I think folks will be reassured that that campaign promise is going to be fulfilled.”

Trump defended the inclusion of lobbyists in a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, saying he had no choice. Lobbyists have traditionally served on presidential transition teams, though under then-President elect Barack Obama, active federal lobbyists were not allowed to work on the transition and those who were registered as federal lobbyists within the past year could work on the transition only if it didn’t involve the policy field in which they lobbied.

Trump, though, told 60 Minutes that Washington is “one big lobbyist.”

“That’s the only people you have down there,” he said of the federal government. “Everybody’s a lobbyist down there. That’s what they are. They’re lobbyists or special interests.”

Trump insisted, however, he’d still impose reforms: “They know the system right now, but we’re going to phase that out,” he said. “You have to phase it out.”

Pence’s move comes after Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sent Trump a scathing letter, charging that placing such “Washington insiders” on his transition team signals that “you are already breaking your campaign promises to ‘drain the swamp’ and that you are selling out the American public.”

Good government groups say it is unclear how the new “no lobbyist” edict will be applied, and who will be removed from the team. Public Citizen, which has compiled a list of what it says are lobbyists and others with potential conflicts, noted that removing only lobbyists would not address situations such as a defense contractor working on defense interests.

“The candidate who ran as the outsider populist has populated his transition team with a rogues’ gallery of insiders – corporate lawyers, lobbyists, wonks from corporate-funded think tanks and corporate executives,” said Public Citizen president Robert Weissman.

Critics charged that Trump’s initial team entirely contradicted his public statements and his pledges to institute ethics reform once he takes office.

“While it’s long been standard practice to go to old hands, that’s not what Trump ran on,” said David Vance of Common Cause. “It’s preposterous to say you can’t build a better mousetrap without lobbyists.”

The purging of lobbyists came amid reports of a tumultuous transition process, but Trump insisted it’s on track.