A disclosure of ethics waivers provided to Trump administration officials suggests that top adviser Steve Bannon may still be playing a key role in the right-wing media world — despite working in the White House.
The disclosure, first reported by The New York Times, lists 16 White House staffers who were exempt from ethics rules barring them from maintaining contact with colleagues at previous private sector jobs they held. These include former lobbyists who are now allowed to keep in touch with co-workers and clients while they work for the U.S. government, but it also includes a more general exemption that allows White House officials to maintain ties with news organizations “on matters of broad policy.”
This clause, though not directed at any specific White House employee, is seen as tailored to the needs of Bannon, the former executive at Breitbart, a conservative news outlet that had prided itself on being the platform for “alt-right” writers and had been accused of publishing bigoted and misogynistic content. A liberal watchdog organization filed a complaint to the White House counsel, claiming that Bannon broke ethics rules by meeting and holding discussions with Breitbart editors after taking on his position as top strategist to President Trump.
The exemption provided by the White House will allow Bannon to continue these ties with his former colleagues and employees. According to the complaint, these communications focused on Breitbart’s coverage of the president and his team, and led to exclusive access for Breitbart to White House officials.
There is little information regarding Bannon’s current relationship with Breitbart, but under the new White House waiver he will be allowed to maintain an open channel to the news outlet that openly backed Trump throughout the campaign and during the early months of his presidency.
In doing so, Bannon may have a greater role than meets the eye. In addition to being a member of Trump’s closest circle, equal to adviser Jared Kushner and to Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, Bannon can also be instrumental in shaping the coverage of Trump’s presidency in Breitbart, thus making sure that the president’s most loyal support base receives a positive image of Trump and his policies.
The recent decision by Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement demonstrates the coverage offered by Breitbart on controversial issues surrounding the president. While other national media outlets highlighted the various points of view about the agreement, and about the criticism hurled at the administration by environmentalists and European nations, Breitbart led with a headline reading, “Promise Kept: POTUS Withdraws USA From Global Warming Deal.”
Bannon, according to reports, was the key voice pushing Trump to move forward with the decision to abandon the climate pact.
The ethics waivers, while issued under White House rules, are unusual in their breadth. Trump, in his first four months in office, issued five times the number of waivers that his predecessor, Barack Obama, did in his first four months.
Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, questioned the validity of the waivers and said they was no legal option for retroactive exemptions given to government officials. He expressed special concern about the media contact waiver, which did not include dates and therefore did not make clear whether it exempted Bannon from future ethics problems when contacting Breitbart or whether it was made out to resolve complaints about Bannon’s previous ties with the right-wing media outlet.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.