Is the Swamp Drained?
Here's what Trump Promised vs. His Actions

March 7, 2017

Jack's headshot By: Jack Noland
Research Analyst, Represent.Us


President Donald Trump's pledge to “Drain the Swamp” defined his campaign, a call-to-action against special interest groups and lobbyists in Washington. With the outsider now in office, it's important to ask: what has the administration done so far to reduce corruption? The answer – some, but not much. Let's break down Trump's promises and actions to date, before discussing how to fix the problem.

The Plan

As a candidate running against the political establishment, Trump called repeatedly for stronger anti-corruption measures. His campaign ethics plan, for example, included five ethics reform points designed to “make our government honest again.” Here's how he planned to “drain the swamp”:

  • Five-year executive lobbying ban: A five-year ban on executive officials registering as lobbyists upon leaving the government, plus a new law to codify this restriction
  • Five-year legislative lobbying ban: Asking Congress to implement a five-year ban on lobbying for former legislators and their staffers=
  • Lobbyist registration: Closing registration loopholes that allow individuals to attempt to influence government without registering as lobbyists
  • Foreign lobbying: Barring former senior executive branch officials from lobbying for foreign governments
  • Foreign fundraising: Banning foreign lobbyists from fundraising in American elections

Three of those points – the executive lobbying, foreign lobbying and foreign fundraising bans – made it into Trump's plan for his first 100 days in office, alongside:

  • Clean Up Corruption in Washington Act: Introducing a bill that would enact “new ethics reforms to Drain the Swamp and reduce the corrupting influence of special interests on our politics.” On an appearance on Face the Nation in November, Vice President-elect Pence reiterated the administration's desire to focus on the “fundamental ethics reform” Americans want to see.

The Actions

So, what has the Trump administration done? On January 28, the administration released an order that requires executive branch appointees to sign an ethics pledge that addressed some, but not all, of the promises listed above. As several commentators have noted, including POLITICO's Isaac Arnsdorf, this order actually falls short of the Obama administration ethics requirements in many places. Here are some of the pledge's highlights and how they compare to Trump's stated plans:

  • Five-year lobbying ban: Trump's order only restricts former executive branch employees from lobbying the agency they left, rather than the entirety of the federal government. Former congressional staffers are not mentioned. In its campaign promise tracker, the Washington Post rated this “a promise broken,” noting that the order “in many ways is a step backward.”
  • Foreign lobbying: The administration followed through – executive employees are indeed banned from ever lobbying for foreign governments or political parties.
  • Lobbyists in the administration: Rather than barring individuals who were registered lobbyists within the previous year from joining the administration, as Obama did, Trump's order only precludes former lobbyists from participating in matters or issue areas on which they lobbied in the preceding two years.
  • Communications ban: During the Obama years, officials that left the administration were banned from communicating with their previous agency for two years. The new order maintains the general restriction, but, for most employees, reverts to the one-year ban mandated by federal law.

The number of lobbyists on Trump’s transition team should perhaps have forewarned that the administration would allow former lobbyists into its ranks. In terms of increasing general transparency – an important factor in comprehensive ethics reform – the administration has done little. As David Graham of The Atlantic points out, Trump's unwillingness to release his tax returns and apparent double-speak in maligning Hillary Clinton for giving paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and then tapping former executives of the bank for executive positions exemplifies the kind of course-correction the new administration will need to make in order to fight cronyism in a substantial way.

As for the proposed legislation:

  • Clean Up Corruption in Washington Act: As of writing, no legislation has been introduced under that name or with the intention of broadly reforming special interests in Washington.

To be fair, it's early. Trump's 100 days expire on April 29 and even then, the presidency requires addressing a whole slate of issues, some of which arise unexpectedly. Priorities may shift over time, but since “draining the swamp” was so central to President Trump's campaign, it is important to note that the actions taken so far appear insufficient to truly gird against corruption and reform ethics at the federal level. The actions taken to date are commendable, but the administration will need to push harder to make a real impact.

What's missing?

When Trump was first elected, Represent.Us published a guide describing how the new president could really fight against corruption while in office. Many of these changes are policies Trump hasn't delivered or even promised. Substantially shifting Washington's special interest culture would require implementing reforms found in the American Anti-Corruption Act, including:

  • Banning contributions from lobbyists to politicians
  • Broadening the definition of lobbying to encompass all people currently being paid to attempt to influence the government without having to register publicly, as Trump himself has called for
  • Closing the revolving door between special interests and the government, which the administration's five-year ban does in part, but not completely
  • Banning lobbyist bundling, which allows lobbyists to fundraise large sums for politicians in hopes of influencing the policies they pursue
  • Restricting political fundraising during working hours, when representatives should be serving the people
  • Implementing immediate, online political money disclosure
  • Requiring secret-money organizations spending vast sums on political influence to disclose their true donors
  • Introducing small credits for every voter to fund campaigns, ending the need for candidates to depend on wealthy special interests to run for office
  • Punishing illegal coordination between super PACs and campaigns that allows large-dollar donors to subvert contribution limits
  • Beefing up enforcement measures so that there's a real price to pay for flouting election laws

These are reforms that would work to make Washington more transparent, empower all Americans to participate in their system of government and restrict secretive special interests. If the Trump administration is serious about draining the swamp, it needs to give more than lip service to real reform. This won't be a walk in the park; in fact, it will take time and energy and political capital. But fundamentally improving our political system to protect against corruption and elevate everyday people – truly making the nation great – is worth it.