Don Irivne / Flickr steve bannon...
Don Irivne / Flickr

This story isn’t anywhere near as pyrotechnic as the new White House Communications Director calling the White House Chief of Staff a “f**king paranoid schizophrenic” or opining that the Chief Strategist “tries to suck his own cock,” but it is equally without precedent; and it is potentially illegal, which makes it par for the course for Trump World. Steve Bannon has a shadow press office outside the White House. The White House is referring questions for senior presidential adviser Stephen K. Bannon to an outside public relations agent whose firm says she is working for free. TIME Magazine:

Alexandra Preate, a 46-year-old New Yorker and veteran Republican media strategist, describes herself as Bannon’s “personal spokesperson.” But she also collaborates with other White House officials on public messaging and responses to press inquiries. It was Preate who responded when the Center for Public Integrity recently asked the White House Press Office questions about Bannon.

Preate, however, is not employed by President Donald Trump’s administration or paid by the federal government.The unorthodox setup means Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, is potentially violating the Antideficiency Act, which provides that federal employees “may not accept voluntary services for [the] government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law.”

Granted, it’s not unusual for executive branch employees to hire people to assist them who are not on the government’s payroll; a personal lawyer for example. The difference is that personal lawyers are not hired to help the White House perform official duties and in this case, Preate was hired to do just that, apparently.

Preate, however, “appears to be organizing the administration’s response to questions sent to the White House,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in government ethics. “And the fact that other officials are responsive to her distinguishes this situation from the kind of activity a private lawyer would do.”

Said Norm Eisen, ethics czar during the Obama administration: “She seems to be privy to government information, and she appears to be acting on behalf of a government entity, either Bannon or the White House Press Office. If she’s doing it for free, then that is a potential violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act.”[…]

“If Preate’s firm works for Breitbart, then is this arrangement part of a continuing relationship of some kind between Breitbart and Bannon?” Eisen said. “Is Breitbart paying for this?”In addition to Breitbart, Preate has reportedly represented prominent Republican political donor Rebekah Mercer, whose billionaire family is a part-owner of Breitbart. She has also been quoted in news stories as “a friend” of Mercer.

So is right-wing Breitbart involved in the daily messaging of White House communications? And how do legitimate professionals in government and media feel about an arrangement like that?

“We would never have tolerated this in the Bush White House,” Tony Fratto, a former principal deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, said of the Trump White House’s arrangement with Preate.In addition to the ethics issues, Fratto said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, Preate’s role would have caused problems within the White House Press Office itself.

“From an operational perspective, a situation like this would be difficult to manage, because it’s an uncoordinated messaging channel that isn’t being overseen by the White House communications office,” Fratto said.”If a comms director doesn’t have control over who is doing the messaging, then you get contradictory information and disjointed messaging, and that’s a problem,” he added.

For Virginia Canter, an attorney for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former government ethics lawyer, Bannon’s situation raises the question of whether Preate’s clients are effectively supplementing Bannon’s salary. “The question is whether there is some kind of arrangement among Bannon, Breitbart and Preate that enables Preate to provide public relations services to Bannon and the White House, without compensation from either Bannon or the White House,” she said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity.

Bannon and Preate refused multiple requests from the Center for Public Integrity to answer this specific question.According to Eisen, Clark, Canter and others, Bannon’s acceptance of Preate’s services could also violate 18 U.S. Code section 209, a law commonly known as the salary supplementation ban. This law “prohibits employees from being paid by someone other than the United States for doing their official Government duties,” according to the Office of Government Ethics.”If this gift of valuable public relations consulting services is being provided to Bannon by Preate or by others, then that is compensation that could be viewed as supplemental compensation on top of his salary as a member of the executive branch,” Eisen said. “And that is not permitted.”

Bannon seems hell bent to maintain his relationship with Breitbart no matter what.  This is a topic which has been regularly revisited, even in the short time that the Trump administration has been in existence.

This is not the first time that questions have arisen over whether Bannon is maintaining ties to Breitbart that violate executive branch ethics rules. Within weeks after Trump took office in January, reports began to emerge that Bannon was contacting Breitbart staffers in an attempt to influence how the site was covering Trump’s administration.The contact appeared to violate the Ethics Pledge Bannon had signed as a condition of his employment in the Trump White House.

The pledge expressly prohibits newly hired officials, like Bannon, from having contact with their previous employers. In late March, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to White House Counsel Don McGahn, requesting an investigation into whether Bannon had violated the Ethics Pledge. Rather than reprimand Bannon, the White House in May released what it said was a retroactive, blanket ethics waiver.  Such a waiver allowed executive branch employees who had previously worked for media organizations — such as Bannon at Breitbart — to ignore longstanding federal rules that prohibit government employees from communicating with their former employers. Unlike every ethics waiver that had ever been granted before it, however, this one did not have a signature on it. Nor did it have a date to show when it went into effect.

These are the issues that are going on in the Trump White House while the smoke screen of Anthony Scaramucci’s profanity laced attacks on Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon are getting all the attention. In the meantime, the Trump administration continues to break rules and possibly even federal laws, that previous administrations never even bothered to trifle with.  The Trump administration and its bizarre antics is slowly but surely eroding the norms of government.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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