Throughout the 2016 campaign, President-elect Donald Trump attacked the political establishment as corrupt, promising to fundamentally alter the way Washington works. The system is rigged, Trump asserted, because lobbyists and special interests have privileged access to decision-makers. The most egregious example is the Clinton Foundation, where large contributions provided privileged access to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state, a pay-for-play system that appeared corrupt and may have been illegal. But the Clinton Foundation was only the tip of the iceberg, illustrating in vivid fashion a pervasive flaw of our political system.
It is too early to tell whether Trump will find a way to curb special interest influence in Washington. He deserves a chance to fulfill his promise before we rush to judgment. For example, given Trump’s campaign pledge to pursue energy independence by further developing our fossil fuel energy resources, we cannot infer that special interests have won if the oil, gas, and coal industries reap greater profits under a Trump administration than they would have under a continuation of the Obama rules. A more salient test would be to see if particular companies can reap greater profits from cultivating political ties with Trump than they can from investing in more efficient production, for instance.
Already, critics have pounced on his appointment of DC establishment lobbyists and consultants to his transition team as proof that of his disingenuousness. (Update: On Wednesday, Donald Trump’s transition team stated that Vice President-elect Mike Pence directed the transition team to not include lobbyists.) Yet Trump freely admits that he himself was a player in the system he attacks. He made contributions to both political parties in the past with the expectation that those contributions bought access, and perhaps influence, to the circles of power.
Trump’s complicity in the reigning order does not disqualify him as a reformer, and his appointment of lobbyists and consultants to his transition team doesn’t make a mockery of his reform agenda. The most realistic reformers are those who know how the system works, and therefore how it can be changed.
President Barack Obama took the opposite approach after his 2008 electoral victory. Confronting the task of making 4,000 political appointments to government agencies (not including his cabinet picks), Obama prohibited the inclusion of lobbyists (defined as those who were registered lobbyists during the preceding year) on his transition team in areas where a conflict of interest could have been alleged. In addition, transition team members were barred from lobbying the agencies they had helped to staff, even after they left government. These steps to preclude corruption, or even the appearance of corruption, were largely cosmetic, with little impact on the Washington system as a whole. If Obama’s priority were draining the swamp, would he have been willing to entrust his legacy to Clinton despite an ongoing FBI investigation of pay-to-play corruption at the Clinton Foundation?
If fundamental change is the goal, who better to effect it than those who know the system best? When lobbyists move from the private sector to the government, they do not necessarily bring with them the desire to advance the interests they championed in their previous roles.
Corporations have understood this principle for years. When they hire lawyers, they often hire those who have most effectively opposed their interests in the past, either as government lawyers working for agencies that regulate them or attorneys working for competitors. Lawyers are professionals who can be counted on to advance the interests of their clients, and they will use the same skills that allowed them to stymie a corporate interest in the past to now advance that interest in the service of their new employer.
No one questions the fact that politicians can transfer their political skills to serve private interests when they leave government service, but we are less appreciative of the fact that the revolving door can work in reverse. Tom Daschle, former Democratic Senate majority leader, was initially tapped to become President Obama’s first secretary of health and human services. Daschle’s healthcare expertise and Hill experience would have been invaluable assets as Obama moved forward with the Affordable Care Act, but Obama had to withdraw his nomination partly because Daschle had previously worked for a K Street lobbying firm. Obama was rightly confident in Daschle, but skepticism over lobbyists’ influence deprived the president of a wise counselor.
Franklin Roosevelt had an astute understanding of the transformation that can overcome someone in the private sector when they are recruited to work in the public sector. Committed to imposing a new regulatory system on Wall Street that would better protect the average American, Roosevelt chose Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s father) to head the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission. Progressive reformers howled in protest, given Kennedy’s history of stock market manipulations, but Roosevelt simply replied, “Set a thief to catch a thief.” Roosevelt was right—Kennedy became a champion of the small investor, insisting on greater honesty and transparency in stock market practices.
By tradition, presidents surround themselves with trusted lieutenants. We should spend less time second-guessing Trump’s personnel choices and more time focusing on the policy choices facing the nation.
Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Donald Trump's transition team's move to not include lobbyists on the president-elect's transition team.