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Politics & Government

Breaking With Precedent, Trump Fails To Take Action On Ethics

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump has signed more executive orders and presidential memoranda in his first week in office than any of his recent predecessors - 14 so far. That's one more than Barack Obama. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, there is a glaring omission from Trump's directives. Breaking with the precedent set by the last three men to occupy the Oval Office, there is nothing about ethics for the executive branch.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In their first two days in office, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all took executive action to send a signal to the American public about their commitment to ethics. For Bush, it was a presidential memo about the standards of official conduct - no conflicts of interest, no soliciting gifts and a reminder of laws that say senior government employees can't immediately lobby the agencies they worked for. President Obama in his second day on the job made a show of signing his executive order on ethics for administration officials.

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BARACK OBAMA: In a few minutes, I'm going to be issuing some of the first executive orders and directives of my presidency. And these steps are aimed at establishing firm rules of the road for my administration and all who serve in it.

KEITH: With cameras flashing, he signed an order, saying it was about restoring Americans' faith in their government.

President Clinton's first executive order, signed January 20, 1993, said that senior executive branch employees couldn't lobby their former agencies for five years. And it said they couldn't ever engage in activity on behalf of a foreign government or political party. If that sounds vaguely familiar, there's a reason.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: On ethics reform, as part of our plan to drain the swamp, we will impose a five-year ban on executive officials becoming lobbyists after they leave the administration and a lifetime ban on executive officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.

KEITH: That was President-elect Trump in a video released in late November.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Drain the swamp. Drain the swamp.

KEITH: His pledge to drain the swamp became a rallying cry in the final weeks of the campaign.

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TRUMP: Drain the swamp. We're going to drain the swamp of Washington. We're going to have fun doing it. We're all doing it together.

KEITH: But now, a week into his presidency, Trump still hasn't made his swamp-draining policies official. Though his transition team did announce that people serving in the administration would have to sign a strict ethics pledge, it's not clear whether that has happened.

When asked whether President Trump had plans to sign an executive order on executive branch ethics, an administration spokeswoman said she had nothing to announce at this time. Instead, it seems Trump and his team have placed a higher priority on showing he's keeping his other campaign pledges.

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REINCE PRIEBUS: All right, we're going to sign three memorandums right now. The first one is a withdrawal from the United - of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

TRUMP: Everyone knows what that means, right? We've been talking about this for a long time.

KEITH: In his first week, Trump has also moved to undermine Obamacare, temporarily halt refugee resettlement in the U.S., revive the Keystone Pipeline and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, among other things. The language in his directives has been more bold than typically found in these sorts of documents, says Phillip Cooper, a professor of public administration at Portland State University.

PHILLIP COOPER: And if you look at that language, right after the first paragraph or so when it gets into the policy stuff, you can see that this is right out of the campaign.

KEITH: Executive actions in the early days of an administration, Cooper says, are to be expected.

COOPER: In terms of the scope and content, the first few things he's done are pretty dramatic. In some of the previous administrations, we've seen a lot of symbolic things happen right away, responses to campaign promises. But in this case, clearly he's going after some of the most controversial issues.

KEITH: But just because a president signs an order on something he pledged during the campaign doesn't mean it will become a reality. President Obama never was able to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay despite signing an order to do so in his first week. And on those ethics directives, presidents can and have granted waivers. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST SONG, "LUCK OF LUCIEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.