Trump vows to impose 'lifetime' ban on F-35 officials seeking defense industry jobs

By Tony Bertuca / December 16, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump continued his public criticism of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during a Thursday night speech in which he promised to impose a "lifetime ban" on Pentagon acquisition officials involved in the aircraft contract from subsequently working in the defense industry.

"Take a look at the F-35 program," he said during a speech in Hershey, PA. "The people that gave out those contracts -- give me a break. We're going to impose a lifetime ban on people that give these massive contracts out, or even small contracts. You want to work for the United States, you work for the United States. You are not going to work for the people that build these planes."

Meanwhile, the F-35 joint program office has scheduled a special media roundtable for Dec. 19 to discuss the status of the program.

Trump first targeted the F-35 with his Twitter account earlier this week when he criticized the program for its "out-of-control" costs.

Andrew Hunter, a former Pentagon acquisition official who now works as an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Intentional Studies, tweeted Thursday that Trump's concerns for defense contractor conflicts of interest is "touching," and told Inside Defense that existing ethics laws are adequate to prevent such conflicts and already amount to a lifetime ban.

"The current rules say you can't represent someone else to the government regarding particular matters that you worked on in government, ever," Hunter wrote in an email. "In other words, it is already a lifetime ban. That means no one who worked on F-35 can switch sides and work for Lockheed on F-35 and represent back to the government."

However, Hunter noted, current rules do not prevent a government official who worked on the F-35 from ever working for Lockheed.

"Most commonly when this happens you might see someone going to work in a different business unit," he wrote. "For example, someone who worked on F-35 might go work the part of Lockheed that does space or maritime systems."

Hunter said imposing a lifetime ban would be bad for the Pentagon and bad for the defense industry.

"Given the relatively small number of major defense companies, you can quickly be locked out of future employment entirely if the ban is applied to an entire company that you may have worked with on only one particular matter," he wrote. "I'm not sure what is motivating President-elect Trump's tweets, but I am concerned that the policy it seems like he's advocating could really discourage good people from joining his administration to do acquisition."

But Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight, said government ethics laws are not only inadequate because of how subjectively they can be applied, but also cynical in that Washington culture "thinks you're a total schmuck if you don't go through the revolving door."

"We don't think government ethics laws are adequate -- a lot hinge on whether someone was significantly involved as a decision-maker, and a lot of opinions have been quite narrow in post-government employment restrictions," she wrote in an email.

"I am disappointed by so many news stories that take as fact that you can't attract quality people if they can't cash out on their public service later," she continued. "I think it's an extremely cynical and unfair characterization of why people go into public service."

Smithberger said POGO favors a two-year cooling period for all Pentagon acquisition officials seeking jobs in the defense industry.

"A lifetime ban goes much farther than we've seen Congress be willing to go," she wrote.

But POGO is "encouraged that Trump has identified what we consider to be one of the key problems at DOD -- too many officials who are more focused on their next job than performing effectively and ethically in positions of public trust," she wrote.

Neither Trump nor his presidential transition team has provided further details on how such a lifetime ban for acquisition officials would be imposed, but Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman told reporters during a Dec. 16 conference call that the incoming administration plans to address F-35 costs as well as to look more broadly at "other deals" where the government may not be getting a fair price.

"I would expect this to be wide-reaching and impact all of government as we look to come up with better deals," he said. "And I would think that's another thing that we continue to see is some of these deals that have been in place, we're going to look for opportunities to go back through and make sure that we're not getting taken advantage of in a number of different places, that we are fighting for the taxpayers."