A collage of photos of Scott Pruit, Betsy Devos, Ben Carson and Donald Trump.

Gage Skidmore, WH/Public Domain

State of Disunion

Gage Skidmore, WH/Public Domain

Trump’s Game of Cronies

The President. Pruitt. Mnuchin. Carson. DeVos. This is an administration defined by corruption and greed. And it is bankrupting our democracy.

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Donald Trump has been flipping this country the bird since the moment he was inaugurated, when he gave a miserable, dystopian speech that made our country sound like a hellhole. In that moment, the businessman-candidate signaled to the world the leader he would be: corrupt, compulsively dishonest, and narcissistic. In other words, unchanged, with the promise of becoming much worse.

His greed, corruption, and mendacity define him and his entire administration. But do not mistake this greed for the familiar ambition of a private-sector entrepreneur or industry titan striving to grow a business or amass a business empire. His is the greed of a thief and a huckster, wearing the Cheshire grin of the teacher’s pet who cheats when the teacher’s back is turned. This is the greed of a man who ran on the lying platform of “draining the swamp” while all the time planning to turn Washington into a Superfund site overflowing with corrupt kleptocrats, cronies, and carnival barkers—like Trump himself.

Trump didn’t invent corruption. (Here’s a reminder of some of the doozies from the George W. Bush administration. Spoiler alert: It features Halliburton.) But Trump is like nothing we’ve ever seen in the presidency before in terms of his naked, unresolved conflicts of interest, his commodification and whoring of his office for two-bit merchandising gimmickry and favor-currying, his constant visits to and touting of his own properties, his diversion of taxpayer funds into his own pocket (Secret Service is forced to spend money at his properties), his  vacations, and his installation of his unqualified offspring in the White House as “advisers.” Because he refuses to divest his ownership or put his holdings in a blind trust or even release his tax returns, we are unable to discern whether Trump’s inexplicable and unwavering support for Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, and other dictators and tyrants is driven unacceptably by his business interests in Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines, or by something even more sinister.

It’s clear that the business and personal interests of this congenitally self-interested and conflicted president and his bottom-feeding family are taking precedence over the well-being of the United States. And the GOP-controlled Congress does nothing to hold this family accountable. The Republican party has functionally abdicated its oversight role, instead engaging in backward-looking, partisan, faux-oversight of the actions of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and his presidential challenger Hillary Clinton, with the plain goal of constructing a false counter-narrative to feed its feral base to offset and “whatabout” the relentless wave of news about the Trump administration’s abuse of power. Rather than work with Democrats so that Congress can function as a co-equal branch of government to keep Trump in check, the GOP is his handmaiden. Instead of Congress demanding that Trump’s kleptocratic cabinet explain their flagrant waste of taxpayer funds and other ethical violations, it is Democrats alone who are demanding answers from Trump cabinet members—in effect begging them to stop abusing the public trust and instead to do their jobs. The GOP’s willful failure to oversee Trump or push back in any way on his abuses has not only allowed Trump from the get-go to violate multiple norms of basic governance—it has sent a clear message to both Trump and his cabinet. They recognize the lack of any check or balance as a green light to more corruption, and they act accordingly.

Likewise, Trump’s relentless promotion of his properties more than arguably violates the Emoluments clause, but the GOP has done nothing to stop it, or criticize it, or censure Trump. It should be Congress, not good government groups like CREW, seeking to stop these violations. The whole point of the Emoluments clause is to avoid foreign influence on the presidency, but perhaps worrying about its violation seems merely quaint in the context of a man who every day looks more and more like Putin’s puppet. Whether it is abruptly announcing that the U.S. will soon withdraw from Syria with no warning and over State Dept and Pentagon objection, or changing the RNC platform position on the Ukraine, or calling Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election a hoax, or refusing to implement sanctions on Russia, or trying to set up secret back-channel communications with Putin, or allowing secret meetings with Russian senior diplomat Sergey Kislyak in Trump Tower, or disclosing highly classified intelligence to Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office while disparaging the former Director of the FBI to those same Russian officials, or trying to open a hotel in Russia while running for president and then lying that he had no business or contacts in Russia, or lying about his past business relationship with Felix Sater, or constantly praising Putin and refusing to condemn Putin’s suspected murders of journalists and political opponents, or holding meetings alone with Putin with no American interpreter and no U.S. record of the discussions (in violation of U.S. national security protocol), Trump is plainly a compromised actor who has repeatedly demonstrated his unwillingness and inability to put the United States’ interests ahead of his own.

And yet Trump’s corruption goes even deeper than this. He has debased the very office of the presidency, turning it into a platform from which to pursue his own petty, personal grievances — typically in the form of uncreative, infantile insults and flagrant lies.  But in addition to the cringe-inducing spectacle of his puerility and lack of impulse control, Trump has also deployed the full weight of his office to attack and damage individual, private citizens, government employees, journalists, other public officials, broad classes of people based on their race, national origin, and religion, and American businesses. His conduct has been not only unseemly and unwarranted, but utterly disgraceful, vicious, abusive, and grotesque. This is its own form of corruption: his weaponization of the government against U.S. citizens and the vulnerable merely because he thinks he can.

In this vortex of narcissism and Republican complicity, the institutions, norms, traditions, and values of the United States have no place. Rather than uphold democratic values, the United States now tramples them. Rather than an ally, other nations see a nation unmoored from its principles and whose word is no longer good; instead of democratic values and an administration attempting to defend and propagate democracy and serve the public good, we have only degradation, corruption, cruelty, and an infinity of propagandizing lies.

So when Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin was fired on March 28, the explanation that was offered for his departure—that Shulkin had taken trips on the taxpayers’ dime—was not remotely credible. If Trump had any concern for corruption and conflicts, he himself would not occupy the White House. If Trump cared about corruption, cabinet members Betsy DeVos, Ryan Zinke, and Scott Pruitt, among others, would never have been appointed to their posts. When reports of Steve Mnuchin’s and Pruitt’s and Zinke’s many abuses of taxpayer funds began to surface, Trump would have put a stop to them. The only time Trump even pretends he gives a damn about anyone’s corruption or illegality is if he starts to believe it reflects badly on his own standing.

This has been the pattern since the very beginning:  Recall when Trump ignored warnings of Mike Flynn’s compromised status—which came from former President Obama and Representative Elijah Cummings—and made him the National Security Adviser anyway. It was not Flynn’s lies to the FBI, or his illegal calls to Russia, or his failure to register as a foreign agent of Turkey, or other misconduct and threats to national security that caused Trump to dismiss Flynn. Trump made it plain that he did not want to get rid of him; he put out the false narrative that Flynn was canned for lying to Vice-President Mike Pence, when in reality, he had known Flynn had lied to Pence for weeks before firing him. Trump would have kept him in the position had the truth of Flynn’s misconduct not been leaked to the press; Flynn was only jettisoned after the outcry of retaining a compromised National Security Adviser grew so loud that even he recognized he had no choice.

The White House spin on Flynn’s firing is part of a larger pattern that we have seen replicated time and again, one defined by lies. Whether it is Steve Bannon or Sebastian Gorka or Anthony Scaramucci (none of whom should have been near the White House), there is never a straight story given. The firings of acting attorney general Sally Yates, FBI Director James Comey, and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, all retaliatory, viciously orchestrated, and accompanied by reprehensible smears, were also “justified” by a series of flagrant lies. The attacks on the reputations and livelihoods of the latter three reflect a corruption that is deeper and darker than mere greed. These actions smack of abuse of power, witness intimidation, and obstruction of justice, and obviously occur against a backdrop of unconstitutional and potentially treasonous acts that are inconsistent with Trump’s oath of office and his duty to defend the Constitution.

It is against this backdrop that the firing of Shulkin must be assessed, and that the administration’s explanation — like so many of their explanations — must be rejected. Shulkin’s alleged misconduct is here. But Shulkin’s waste of taxpayer money, even if true (Shulkin claims his expenditures were pre-cleared and authorized), pales in comparison to the abuses that Trump’s other cabinet secretaries have engaged in, ranging from Zinke’s spending $139,000 on new doors for his office to Mnuchin’s spending nearly $1 million in taxpayer funds on eight trips (not to mention taking his dilettante wife along), to Ben Carson’s $31,000 dining-room table.

And then there is Pruitt, whose apparently bottomless abuses of taxpayer funds include a sweetheart rental deal in D.C. from a lobbyist whose firm has clients with business before Pruitt’s agency (for six months at a substantially below-market rate); a massive taxpayer-funded security detail that is costing taxpayers $2 million a year (and that has accompanied him on personal trips to the Rose Bowl and Disneyworld, and on multiple trips home to Oklahoma); travel expenses in 2017 alone that exceed $200,000 (in part because of his propensity to fly first-class or business-class, or via charter or military plane); and $25,000 to have a soundproof phone booth put in his office. Like Trump himself, Pruitt has also abused his authority by retaliating against public servants who challenge him, and rewarding those who support him (pushing through pay raises for cronies over even White House objection (and then lying about it). But even after all this has been revealed about Pruitt, as recently as April 3, Trump called Pruitt to assure him he’s doing a heckuva job, Brownie and has repeatedly publicly praised him.

Anyone who thinks Shulkin was fired (or that, as the White House now claims, he resigned) over his travel need look no further than Mnuchin, Pruitt, Zinke, Carson, and others to know that that rationale is a lie and a pretext to cover up the real reason. They continue to hold their jobs in the face of their flagrant abuse, waste, and conflicts of interest because they are executing on Trump’s corrupt agenda. Zinke has arbitrarily and likely illegally reassigned scientists to positions outside their areas of expertise in order to undermine them personally and the agency generally, possibly violated the Hatch Act, silenced discussion of climate change, and engaged in a series of questionable deals to benefit donors, the Trump family, and industry insiders. Carson, wholly unqualified for his job, has scrubbing fair housing language from HUD’s department’s mission and  rolled back fair housing enforcement. Pruitt, a climate-change denialist/apologist, has both gutted the EPA and transmuted it into an Orwellian nightmare, a revolving door of corrupt regulatory rollbacks to benefit donors and cronies in the fossil fuel and chemical industries by allowing them to pollute our air, water, streams, and crops; side-lining, gagging, and replacing scientists with industry insiders (many from the fossil fuel and chemical industries) hostile to the environment; scrubbing the agency’s website of references to climate change; sabotaging science, and among many other depredations.  (Pruitt is so bad that even Chris Christie, no friend of the environment, declared on April 1, 2018 that Pruitt should “never have been there in the first place.”)  These people retain their jobs precisely because they are corrupt.

And so when Shulkin asserts he was fired because he resisted privatizing the VA we should take notice.  If Trump’s attitude toward other these agencies is to be our guide—and there are many others, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Department of Justice has returned to privatized prisons as requested by Trump donors, and Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education has granted virtually the entire wish list of the predatory, for-profit fraudulent private college and student loan industry lobbies including by opposing states’ crackdown on predatory loan collectors) to which she has business ties (among other ethical conflicts)—the likelihood that Shulkin was indeed fired for his resistance to turning the VA into a cash cow for Trump donors is sky-high.

Nevertheless, these high-profile examples of taxpayer waste are significant. They are symbolic, and they resonate with us precisely because they demonstrate not only across-the-board contempt for taxpayers and the public trust, but shamelessness. These people do not even try to hide their corruption; they take from the agencies they were appointed to destroy, because that sort of entitled theft is merely a subset of what they were installed to do. For example, while we have not yet been treated to Rick Perry taking free trips to Wimbledon or Disneyworld on our dime, we know thanks to a whistleblower that he held a private meeting with a Trump donor, the CEO of a coal company, who gave $300,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee, after which the Trump administration took actions benefiting the coal and mining industries at the expense of public health, the alternative energy sectors, and the planet.

This rejection of democratic norms and of merit is the beating heart of this administration. It is in what these (nearly exclusively) men are doing to our country that is the deepest scandal; not merely what they are doing but also the way that they are doing it, with brazen corruption, disregard for the public good, and rejection of democratic processes.  There seem to be few exceptions to the general rule of corruption, cronyism, purges in favor of Trump loyalists, and rejection of expertise and commitment to the public interest.  Instead we have the incessant promotion of a conflict-laden, kleptocratic agenda that is fundamentally at odds with the general welfare.

It is important to recognize that because Trump’s agenda is itself deeply corrupt and rife with conflicts and detrimental to the public interest, the personal corruption he exemplifies and that we have seen reflected time and again in his appointees and many of those who worked on his campaign will never end.  The absurd installation of the thoroughly compromised Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser was a reflection of this corruption and disregard for the public interest, just as his appointment of an industry stooge like Scott Pruitt to transform the EPA into a proponent of environmental destruction is, just as his appointment of Betsy DeVos is, and on and on. Trump wants minions who push his corrupt agenda and not dedicated public servants in office. If our national security or public health or our institutions or our democracy itself suffers for it, so be it. He does not care.

So while I welcome the fact that, at long last, a few Republicans are calling for Pruitt’s resignation over his ethical conflicts, there is something fundamentally absurd about any Republican (much less Trump himself if it ever comes to that), demanding Pruitt’s head over corruption and conflicts of interest, while they are silent and supine in the face of Trump’s own. In the unlikely event Pruitt is removed, it will not be because he has crippled our fight against climate change and corruptly hijacked the EPA to serve industry interests; that is why Trump and the GOP put him there. It will not even be because of his personal abuse of his office. It will be because, like Flynn, he got caught and the public outcry became too great for him to remain.

We absolutely must keep clamoring to eject these vandals out of our government.  But remember that as long as Trump, the biggest vandal of them all, remains in office, unchecked by his party, the corruption and lies will continue. Because that is what this presidency is — a giant grift for the enrichment of Trump, his family, his cronies, and his donors. And democracy is its biggest, but by no means the only, casualty.

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