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Blog Post | January 5, 2021

Biden Should Beware The Right-Wing's Revolving Door Attacks

2020 Election/TransitionCabinetExecutive BranchFinancial RegulationRevolving DoorRight-Wing MediaTech
Biden Should Beware The Right-Wing's Revolving Door Attacks

This article is an update to our ongoing efforts tracking right-wing media. Read our previous installment here.

With the Trump administration entering its final days, conservatives have slowly begun to shift their focus from defending President Trump (their deplorable defense of his attempts to steal the election notwithstanding) to attacking his successor. As we have previously chronicled, the right-wing has gone all-in on criticizing Joe Biden’s executive branch nominees for their revolving-door ties and potential conflicts of interest, despite having spent the last four years turning a blind eye to Trump’s corporate cronyism

These barbs are transparently hypocritical, but the fact that Republicans are being hypocritical does not change the effectiveness of their attacks — or even necessarily make them untrue. On the contrary, a failure to meaningfully respond to these concerns may make the GOP’s attacks even stronger. Millions of Americans are worried that their government represents corporate America, and any move that validates that fear will come at a severe political cost (recall the political fallout of Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails and Wall Street speeches during the 2016 campaign). 

The right-wing’s cynical and opportunistic attacks on Biden highlight ethics reform as not just an important policy matter, but vital to neutering the right-wing’s most potent political attacks. Here is our latest roundup of the emerging right-wing narratives about the Biden administration:

Big Tech’s “infiltration” of the Biden Administration: The right-wing’s loudest revolving-door critique of Biden has been the close ties of several of his nominees to Big Tech. Conservatives argue that major technology companies like Facebook and Twitter “hacked the election” by allegedly censoring conservative reporting critical of Biden, and President Trump has called for repeal of Section 230 for Twitter’s fact-checking of his conspiracy theories. Right-wing populists like Senator Josh Hawley (who claim the GOP is now a “working-class party” despite opposing policies that would benefit working-class Americans) have also opposed Amazon for its treatment of small businesses and workers. Republican leaders and right-wing media outlets have focused closely on Big Tech-connected Biden nominees, such as ex-Facebook lawyer and incoming White House Staff Secretary Jessica Hertz, White House Counselor Steve Ricchetti (whose brother is now representing Amazon through their family’s lobbying shop), and various Facebook and Google alums serving on Biden’s Agency Review teams

  • On the appointment of Big Tech alums to the Biden transition’s Agency Review Teams:
    • Republican Congressman Ken Buck Said Biden’s Appointment Of Big Tech Alums Was “Payback” For Big Tech’s Role In The 2020 Election. “It’s not surprising. You see where the vice presidential pick was from and the support that she had during her career, and then you see the the money that flowed into the Biden campaign, and it’s payback time. It’s time that the Biden Administration make sure that that Google, Amazon, and the others are taken care of, and they will do it by placing personnel in key positions as well as continuing the flow of money back and forth.” [Ken Buck, Fox News, 12/29/20]
    • The Blaze Criticized Biden’s Appointment of Facebook And Google Alums To Agency Review Teams. “President-elect Joe Biden has tapped several top employees from technology and social media companies to assist with his transition, a potential sign that Silicon Valley and the White House will have a cozy relationship during Biden’s presidential tenure. The move is sure to raise eyebrows given criticism that Big Tech received during the election, especially over allegations that right-leaning content was suppressed.” [The Blaze, 12/15/20]
    • Senator Ted Cruz Said Biden’s Agency Review Team Picks Were Proof Of Big Tech Working “Hand-In-Glove” With Democrats. “‘Big tech billionaires in Silicon Valley consistently work to advance the interests of the Democratic Party while silencing those with whom they disagree. And they do so while enjoying a special immunity from liability under Section 230 — which effectively operates as massive corporate welfare,’ Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Fox News. ‘The fact that top executives at Big Tech are planning to work for a potential Biden administration is just more evidence that Big Tech works hand in glove with the Democratic Party.’” [Fox News, 12/21/20
    • Senator Josh Hawley, A Leading GOP Opponent Of Big Tech, Claimed Biden Was “Bought And Paid For” By The Tech Industry. “Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told Fox News that ‘if Joe Biden is sworn in as President, Big Tech will run the government.’ ‘He’s bought and paid for by Big Tech monopolists that want to censor our speech, spy on us, and partner with China,’ Hawley said.” [Fox News, 12/21/20]  
  • On the Biden Campaign’s donations from Big Tech executives:
    • Fox News Reviewed FEC Filings Of Biden Campaign Donations From Facebook And Twitter Executives. “Top executives at Facebook and Twitter donated tens of thousands of dollars to President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign, Federal Election Commission records reviewed by Fox News reveal […] A Fox News review of FEC records shows that top executives at the social media companies made large donations to the Biden campaign, including several who gave the legal maximum of $2,800. Fox News identified zero Facebook or Twitter executives who donated to Trump’s campaign.” [Fox News, 12/15/20]
    • Senator Josh Hawley Said Fox News’ Report Proved Big Tech Was “In The Tank” For Biden. “A surprise to no one – #BigTech in the tank for Biden.” [Josh Hawley, 12/15/20]
  • On news that Jeff Ricchetti, brother of White House Counselor Steve Ricchetti, would lobby on behalf of Amazon: 
    • The Daily Caller Reported On Amazon’s Hiring Of Jeff Ricchetti And The Ricchettis’ Influence In The Biden Administration. “Amazon, the trillion dollar tech company, has hired lobbyist Jeff Ricchetti, whose brother will be the top White House counselor to Joe Biden. According to disclosure forms filed with Congress, Ricchetti will lobby for Amazon on ‘[i]ssues related to COVID-19, including implementation of the CARES Act.’ […] Ricchetti Inc. is poised to be a lobbying powerhouse in the Biden administration. Amazon is the 10th company the firm has registered as a client since May 1, 2020. Ricchetti has a stable of other corporate clients, but had inked only one lobbying deal since July 1, 2016, according to records filed with Congress.” [Daily Caller, 12/27/20]
    • Far-Right Congresswoman Lauren Boebert Said Jeff Ricchetti’s Contract With Amazon Was Proof Biden Would Make The D.C. Swamp “Worse Than Ever”. “And so it begins… the swamp is going to be worse than ever before if Joe Biden becomes President.” [Lauren Boebert, Twitter, 12/26/20]
    • The Conservative Media Research Center Called Jeff Ricchetti’s Lobbying Contract With Amazon “Exciting” For Big Tech. “Big Tech and the DC swamp are very excited about this hire.” [Media Research Center, Twitter, 12/28/20]
  • On Biden’s hiring of former Facebook counsel Jessica Hertz as White House Staff Secretary:
    • Fox Business Reported On Biden’s Appointment Of Jessica Hertz as Staff Secretary, Noting Facebook’s Antitrust Lawsuits. “President-elect Joe Biden appointed former Facebook attorney Jessica Hertz to serve as staff secretary in his incoming administration, the Biden-Harris transition team announced on Wednesday.[…] The incoming Biden administration has faced criticism from both sides of the political aisle regarding its appointment of former Big Tech employees at a time when the industry is facing unprecedented antitrust scrutiny. […] The former Facebook attorney’s appointment to role the staff secretary came just weeks after a bipartisan group of 48 state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission filed antitrust lawsuits against the social media giant.” [Fox Business, 12/30/20]
    • Republican Congressman Ken Buck Called Hertz’s Hiring A “Bad Idea”. “Big Tech in the White House is a bad idea. We must take action against Google and Facebook for their anticompetitive practices. Now is not the time to cozy up to Big Tech.” [Ken Buck, Twitter, 12/30/20]

Wall Street and The Finance Industry’s Role in the Biden Administration: So-called “right-wing populists” have latched onto several Biden nominees’ ties to major banks and investment firms as a talking point, arguing these connections pose major conflicts of interest. Cabinet-level nominees have received the most scrutiny, including Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen (whose lucrative Wall Street Speeches have made national headlines), and State and Defense nominees Tony Blinken and Lloyd Austin (whose ties to shadowy investment firm Pine Island Capital Partners have raised eyebrows). 

  • On the presence of Wall Street veterans on transition review teams:
    • DAILY CALLER: “Biden Welcomes Goldman Sachs Into The Fold”. “Joe Biden has added two Goldman Sachs veterans to his transition team, Politico reported Monday. Eric Goldstein and Monica Maher are among the latest to join Biden’s team, which has added dozens since the first formal disclosure a week after the Nov. 3 election, according to Politico. Goldstein is on a Department of Homeland Security Review Team, while Maher was added to the National Security Council Review Team.” [Daily Caller, 12/14/20]
    • Far-Right Outlet Breitbart Warned That Biden’s Goldman Sachs Picks Would Advance “Globalist Goals”. “Biden’s Goldman Sachs additions to his transition team come as reports have speculated that he will choose Wall Street insiders for a number of cabinet positions. On the campaign trail, President Trump warned that Biden was “the one that takes all the money from Wall Street” while his donors tended to be police officers, business owners, homemakers, truckers, construction workers, and drivers. In total, Wall Street spent about $74 million to elect Biden in the presidential election. Trump, on the other hand, took less than $20 million from Wall Street executives and employees, as his economic nationalist agenda stood in direct opposition to the financial industry’s globalist goals for more world economic integration.” [Breitbart, 12/16/20]
  • On Janet Yellen’s Wall Street Speeches:
    • The Daily Caller Reported On Janet Yellen’s Lucrative Corporate Speaking Gigs. “ Yellen has made more than $7.2 million in speaking fees from large corporations including Citi, Goldman Sachs, Google, National Bank, and others, financial disclosures filed at the end of 2020, ahead of confirmation hearings, showed. In total, she gave more than 50 speeches to the companies. Yellen made roughly $1 million giving nine speeches for Citi alone, and more than $800,000 speaking to Citadel. Citadel was founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, a Republican mega-donor who donated $36 million to former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s campaigns and has donated hundreds of thousands to political funds run by the libertarian-leaning Koch brothers. He has also given locally to Democratic candidates like Rahm Emanuel and Rod Blagojevich.” [Daily Caller, 1/1/21]
    • Conservative Radio Host Mark Simone Claimed Janet Yellen’s Paid Speeches To Wall Street Showed That “Progressives Got Played.” “Turns out Janet Yellen cashed in big last year, making many millions in ‘speaking fees’ from Wall St. and big tech. Sounds like a perfect fit for Hunter Biden’s father’s administration.  Progressives, you got played!” [Twitter, Mark Simone, 1/1/21]
  • On Tony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, and Pine Island Capital Partners:
    • Liberty Nation’s Andrew Moran Said Tony Blinken and Lloyd Austin’s Involvement With Pine Island Capital Partners Had “The Foul Stench Of Cronyism”. “ Before the 2020 election, Pine Island submitted a prospectus to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). ‘We believe that with our access, network and expertise, we are well-suited to take advantage of the current and future opportunities present in the aerospace, defense, and government services industries,’ the document stated. Austin’s name was identified in the original SPAC proposal, but Blinken’s was removed when he took a leave of absence from the firm. Since the initial SPAC pitch, it has raised more than $218 million, and two power players on The Street picked up ownership stakes before Blinken and Austin were officially announced as administration picks. The Biden transition team verified that both men plan to divest from Pine Island, but the foul stench of cronyism has already tainted the countdown to Inauguration Day.” [Liberty Nation, 12/13/20]
    • Right-Wing Tabloid The Daily Mail Argued That Pine Island’s Investors Would “Profit From The Pandemic”. “Three figures likely to play key roles in Joe Biden’s government are linked to an investment firm that looks set to cash in on the COVID pandemic, it has emerged. Retired four-star Army general Lloyd Austin, likely to be named secretary of defense; Tony Blinken, Biden’s pick for Secretary of State; and Michele Flournoy, a senior defense official, all have equity in Pine Island Capital Partners. Security Exchange Commission filings obtained by The Daily Beast reveal that the investment firm, which touts its expertise from former government officials and well-placed insiders, intends to profit from the pandemic.” [Daily Mail, 12/7/20]
    • The Conservative Government Accountability Institute Argued That Democrats Would Be Hypocrites For Supporting Pine Island-Connected Nominees. “This revolving door has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, especially from Democrats. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), both vocal opponents of increased defense spending, recently publicly advised Biden against nominating a defense secretary beholden to contractors. […] The sincerity of Democrats who sounded such alarms will be tested soon enough. Companies like Pine Island are betting that Washington’s revolving door will be fully operational in a Biden administration.” [New York Post, Peter Schweizer & Jacob McLeod, 12/11/20]

Big Pharma, Big Oil, and other corporate ties: Beyond Tech and Wall Street, conservatives have highlighted the Biden team’s ties to the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries as a “gotcha” attack, arguing the hiring of Steve Ricchetti, Cedric Richmond, and Jen O’Malley Dillon undermines promises Biden made to crack down on corporate wrongdoing

  • On Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Biden personnel:
    • The Daily Caller Reported On Jeff Ricchetti’s Ties To Pharmaceutical Manufacturer Vaxart, Which Is Under Federal Investigation. “A vaccine maker under investigation for misrepresenting its involvement in Operation Warp Speed has hired lobbyist Jeff Ricchetti, whose brother will be the top White House counselor to Joe Biden. Ricchetti’s firm, which he founded with his brother Steve, the incoming Biden adviser, registered as a lobbyist on Nov. 1 for Vaxart, a California-based biotechnology company that specializes in developing oral vaccinations. According to lobbying disclosures filed with Congress, Ricchetti will lobby for Vaxart on ‘Legislative and regulatory policies regarding oral vaccine development and funding.’ Vaxart disclosed on Oct. 14 that federal prosecutors in California had subpoenaed the company as part of an investigation into whether it misled investors over its participation in Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration-led program to develop a coronavirus vaccine.” [Daily Caller, 12/16/20]
    • The Daily Wire Cast Cedric Richmond And Jen O’Malley Dillon’s Hirings As Hypocritical. “Joe Biden is already filling his administration with people linked to the oil and pharmaceutical industries even though he campaigned on being tough on those sectors. […] Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) was one of the top recipients from the oil and gas sector this election cycle. He will serve as a senior adviser in the White House Office of Public Engagement, Fox reported. […] Finally, Biden has named his campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, to be his deputy chief of staff. O’Malley Dillon is the co-founder of a firm that Vogel reported represents pharmaceutical and private equity companies. It should come as no surprise that Biden would fill his cabinet with insiders who represented the very industries he has denounced and said he would take on. Some of these very same industries donated heavily to his campaign.” [Daily Wire, 11/18/20]

Blinken, Haines, and WestExec: Of particular interest to Republican lawmakers and pundits has been the story of WestExec Advisors, a secretive consulting firm founded by Michele Flournoy and Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken. Conservatives have criticized Blinken and other WestExec partners like DNI nominee Avril Haines for using the firm to sell corporate clients and foreign governments access to high-level government offices and the regulatory policy-making process. We expect the WestExec controversy to become a much larger focus for Republicans in the coming months, especially after financial disclosure forms released on New Year’s Eve revealed the list of Blinken’s WestExec Clients

  • On Blinken, Haines, and WestExec:
    • GOP Members On The House Oversight Committee Called For An Investigation Of WestExec Partners Tony Blinken And Avril Haines’ Consulting Ties To China. “Blinken co-founded WestExec in 2017 at the end of the Obama administration and the firm promotes itself as bringing senior national security government experience to the business community. GOP lawmakers want to know if he did any work related to China and any financial ties he may have through that work. […] GOP lawmakers are asking for any and all information related to whether Blinken had any dealings with a foreign government during his time at WestExec, details of foreign clients, compensation for such work, whether he plans to recuse or divest himself from a corporate board or entity, and if he faces any conflicts of interest. A companion letter was addressed to Blinken at WestExec at its headquarters in Washington, and three of the other co-founders and managing partners. The letter requests records related to Blinken’s time at the agency as well as Avril Haines, who worked at the company until July.” [The Hill, 12/18/20]
    • Fox News Reported That WestExec Had Removed References To Work With China From Its Website After Biden Won The Democratic Nomination. “WestExec Advisors, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm, has reportedly scrubbed its work with China from its website as its history receives more scrutiny in the lead-up to Joe Biden’s presidency. Several of Biden’s cabinet picks have worked for the firm, including its co-founder, Anthony Blinken, who is the nominee for secretary of state, and a former WestExec principal, Avril Haines, who is the nominee for director of national intelligence. Web archives show that as recently as late July, the firm was touting its success in helping U.S. research universities accept donations from China, expand foreign research collaboration, and welcome foreign students in key STEM programs while remaining a “trusted partner for DOD-sponsored research grants.” In early August, the firm said it had helped a leading American pharmaceutical company and a multibillion-dollar American technology company gain market access to China. Both references were removed in early August, just a few weeks before Biden formally accepted the Democratic nomination for president.” [Fox News, 12/2/20]
    • The Daily Caller Covered The Release Of Tony Blinken And Avril Haines’ Financial Disclosure Forms, Which Revealed A Partial List Of WestExec’s Clients. “Blinken, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, had clients including Blackstone, Facebook, Bank of America, Uber, and Boeing, among others, through his role as an advisor for WestExec Advisors, according to Politico. WestExec paid Blinken $1.2 million over the past two years, with $250,000 to $500,000 still owed to him for his 2020 work. […] Avril Haines, Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, served as a principal and consultant at WestExec, and her disclosures showed a $180,000 “consulting fee” from Palantir, a company founded by pro-Trump Peter Thiel.” [Daily Caller, 1/1/21]
    • The Daily Caller Wrote That Biden’s Transition Website Failed To Disclose Anthony Blinken’s Ties To The Consulting Firm WestExec. “President-elect Joe Biden’s transition website does not disclose that his secretary of state pick, Tony Blinken, co-founded a corporate consulting firm in 2018 that he allegedly used to cash in on his experience working in the Obama administration. Blinken co-founded WestExec Advisors in 2018 following his service as Biden’s national security advisor from 2009 through 2013 and former President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor and deputy secretary of state from 2013 through 2017. […] Blinken’s biography on Biden’s transition website does not mention his involvement with WestExec.” [Daily Caller, 11/23/20]

Right-Wing Reporting on Progressive Opposition to Revolving Door: The right-wing has also used revolving-door controversies surrounding Biden’s nominees as an opportunity to exploit good-faith criticism from progressives. Right wing media, including Breitbart and The Daily Caller, have quoted leftists’ concerns with the Biden Administration to argue that Biden represents a return to oligarchy. Their narrative conveniently overlooks the blatant corruption and corporatism in the Trump Administration. Cherry-picking the left’s critiques is obviously a bad-faith frame on a serious issue, but it shows an overreliance on Wall Street and Big Tech is a vulnerability for the Biden Administration on both sides of the aisle.

  • On the left’s criticisms of Biden nominees:
    • Breitbart Published Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Criticisms Of Biden’s Corporate Cabinet Picks, Reporting That She Viewed It As A “Total Rejection Of Left-Wing Populism.” “During an interview with The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill of the Intercepted podcast, Ocasio-Cortez was asked about Biden’s choice to give cabinet positions and transition team spots to Washington, D.C. insiders, McKinsey consultants, Big Tech employees, and Wall Street executives. Scahill called Biden’s transition team a ‘corporate revolving door’ while Ocasio-Cortez noted Biden’s seemingly total rejection of left-wing populism that has, in some cases, allied with right-wing populists on issues of stimulus checks for Americans and ending foreign wars.” [Breitbart, 12/16/20]
    • The Daily Caller: Biden Picked “Corporate Executives” For His Cabinet Over The Objections Of The Left-Wing Groups, Including The Revolving Door Project. “President-elect Joe Biden has tapped multiple corporate executives to fill various government openings over the objections of numerous progressive organizations. […] Biden’s advisory team helping his transition with White House’s Office of Management and Budget, however, includes executives from Amazon Web Services, Lyft, Airbnb. Additional advisors have ties to WestExec Advisors, a corporate consulting firm co-founded by Antony Blinken, his nominee for secretary of state, and Michèle Flournoy, who was floated as a possible secretary of defense. ‘This puts us at a state of high alarm,’ Jeff Hauser, who runs the Revolving Door Project, a group dedicated to limiting the appointments of lobbyists and corporate executives in government, told The New York Times in November.” [Daily Caller, 12/29/20]

The bottom line? These emerging narratives show the political potency of the revolving door as a for the right-wing to attack the Biden administration and discredit the efforts that reformers have made to restore ethics and transparency to the institutions that Trump has undermined. If these revolving door concerns go unresponded to, they could become a major liability for Biden and Democrats in the 2022 and 2024 elections. 

But Biden need not sit idly by while conservatives cynically co-opt concerns about corruption. As we have previously explained, were Biden to adopt an iron-clad ethics pledge to rule out conflicts of interest among his appointees, he would reap major political dividends and effectively silence right-wing critics

Recent polling finds that strong majorities of Americans across the political spectrum view the revolving door as a major problem in government, and over 56% of voters support banning corporate lobbyists and executives from serving in the next administration. Adopting sweeping ethics pledges — such as banning appointees from holding individual stocks or requiring divestiture from assets posing conflicts of interest — would go a long way towards ensuring good governance and public trust in the Biden Administration. So too would strong restrictions on what matters revolving-door appointees can participate in while in government, and for how long they must avoid revolving back into industry. 

Adopting the ethics reforms that we and leaders like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have been calling for will help Biden go on the offense, standing up for good governance and transparency while challenging Trump and his followers on their utter disdain for ethics in government

It may prove to be the only way for the President-elect to unite the country and bring the era of Trumpian corruption to a definitive close.

READ MORE: A Strong Ethics Pledge Will Pay Political Dividends

PHOTO: “Tucker Carlson” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

2020 Election/TransitionCabinetExecutive BranchFinancial RegulationRevolving DoorRight-Wing MediaTech

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