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Biden's Ethics Pledge Is Tougher Than Past Administrations — But Is It Tough Enough?


On his way out the door, President Trump released his aides from ethics commitments that were supposed to last years after the end of his administration. That same day, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring his appointees to take a stringent ethics pledge. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports there are some who wish it were even stronger.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Biden laid out the expectations as he swore in appointees on his first day in the White House.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going to be judged. We're going to be judged whether or not we restored the integrity and the competency of this government. I need your help battling.

KEITH: His ethics executive order is a roadmap for appointees meant to signal those in his administration are committed to serving the American people, not their former or future employers and not their own self-interests. While the president doesn't sign the pledge, a White House official says he intends to lead by example. It's tougher than the ethics order Trump signed and repealed, and it's tougher than the one that governed the Obama administration, too.

NORM EISEN: These are the toughest rules ever both coming into government and for when his appointees ultimately leave.

KEITH: Norm Eisen helped craft the Obama ethics rules and is now at the Brookings Institution.

EISEN: Four years of Trump have reminded us that we do need to go back to basics. And the Obama EO has been refreshed, renewed and expanded by President Biden.

KEITH: Biden's order restores a reporting requirement President Trump had done away with. When it comes to post-government employment, it says appointees have to wait two years before communicating with people at their former agencies or senior White House staff. And for the first year, it also bans behind-the-scenes advising, like telling a new employer's lobbyist who to talk to or how to relate to them. Melissa Laurenza leads the political law practice group at Akin Gump.

MELISSA LAURENZA: Those are all things that that can be very important with respect to lobbying strategy. And here, the Biden EO obviously cuts that off for a certain amount of time.

KEITH: People leaving the administration can't work for foreign governments for at least two years, and there's a new golden parachute provision. It says an appointee can't accept a big bonus from their former employer to reward them for landing a job in government. Laurenza says this is welcome clarity because golden parachutes have tripped people up in the past.

LAURENZA: In the past, if somebody had done that, then it could trigger recusal obligations. It could disqualify them from serving in certain positions. So I think having that in the Biden EO is very helpful.

KEITH: But some ethics advocates say it should do more.

WALTER SHAUB: I'd say it's a very good executive order. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's great.

KEITH: Walter Shaub is a former head of the Office of Government Ethics. He wants Biden to release all ethics-related documents, including waivers when people get an exception from the ethics pledge and approvals like when appointees get permission to attend a fancy Washington gala that exceeds gift limits, so everyone can see whether they're meeting the high standards laid out in the order.

SHAUB: It's disappointing because I think we're in a post-Trump era where we've learned just how weak the ethics program is. And we have a narrow window of time to strengthen it while the country is reform-minded.

KEITH: In a statement, White House spokesman Michael Gwin defended the ethics policy, saying it is historically bold and expansive. Waivers at least will be made available 10 days after they're certified, and White House visitor logs will eventually be posted, a restoration of Obama-era transparency. Norm Eisen is encouraging them to include Zoom meetings, too, since in-person meetings aren't happening as they used to in this age of COVID.

EISEN: President Biden and Vice President Harris have gotten the credit that they deserve for ambition and for bold commitments. But now they're going to be watched closely on implementation.

KEITH: Transparency, he says - knowing people are watching - is a key to avoiding scandal.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER SONG, "I WANT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.