Th­eswamp Run­neth Over



Don­ald Trump vowed to end D.C.’S crony­ism and cor­rup­tion, but ethics ex­perts say his ad­min­is­tra­tion is the sleazi­est ever.

Now, in the last weeks of his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Don­ald Trump needed one more stir­ring slo­gan. And since he was badly trail­ing Demo­cratic can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton, it would have to be a mar­ket­ing marvel wor­thy of Mad Men’s Don Draper, one that en­cap­su­lated the vague yet com­pelling prom­ise of his can­di­dacy—its wor­ship of Amer­i­can ideals and its to­tal break from them.

On Oc­to­ber 17, 2016, the Trump-pence cam­paign re­leased a five-point plan for ethics re­form that fea­tured lob­by­ing re­stric­tions. The plan was called “drain the swamp.” Trump tried out the phrase that day at a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He used it the next day at a rally in Colorado. “We’re go­ing to end the gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion,” he vowed, “and we’re go­ing to drain the swamp in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.” He then re­cited a litany of ac­cu­sa­tions re­gard­ing Clin­ton and her pri­vate email server, call­ing her “the most cor­rupt per­son to ever run for the pres­i­dency.”

“Build the wall” had been the raw open­ing cry of Trump’s cam­paign. “Make Amer­ica great again” was its cho­rus. “Drain the swamp” was its clos­ing num­ber. But while talk of a bor­der wall thrilled Trump, he was ap­par­ently never too worked up about the fes­ter­ing bog that was the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. He ad­mit­ted as much in an Oc­to­ber 26 rally in Char­lotte, North Carolina: “I said that about a week ago, and I didn’t like it that much, didn’t sound that great. And the whole world picked it up.… So ‘drain the swamp,’ I didn’t like it. Now, I love it, right?”

“Drain the swamp” fit per­fectly with Trump’s con­stant com­plaints about the “rigged sys­tem,” thereby ex­cus­ing what some said was go­ing to be a his­toric de­feat. As the cam­paign con­cluded, Trump turned him­self into a mar­tyr for Amer­i­can democ­racy, wag­ing a prin­ci­pled but doomed cam­paign.

But a funny thing hap­pened on the way to a “third Obama term.” Win­ning en­dowed the things Trump said dur­ing the cam­paign with an im­port they’d pre­vi­ously lacked. And while many un­der­stood that his “rigged sys­tem” was just an ex­cuse, “drain the swamp” sure sounded like a prom­ise.

So as the pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tion ap­proached, an­tic­i­pa­tion bub­bled through the sul­furous nexus of Capi­tol Hill politi­cians, spe­cial in­ter­est groups and their K Street lob­by­ists, the me­dia, the es­tab­lish­ment and just about ev­ery­one else who had dis­missed Trump and his slo­gans as a pub­lic­ity stunt. There was now a ques­tion, rather ur­gently in need of an an­swer: Was he se­ri­ous about all that “swamp” stuff?

Not re­ally. For­mer House Speaker and Trump sup­porter Newt Gin­grich ad­mit­ted to NPR on De­cem­ber 21 that “drain the swamp” was never a prom­ise. “I’m told he now just dis­claims that,” he said. “He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it any­more.”

Some­one from the Trump cam­paign must have placed an an­gry call, be­cause the for­mer speaker soon tweeted that he’d over­stated the case. But that didn’t kill the story. That same day, Politico


won­dered if “drain the swamp” would be Trump’s “first bro­ken prom­ise.” It cited the ac­cess-ped­dling lob­by­ing firm of Trump’s first cam­paign man­ager, Corey Lewandowski, as well as the con­sult­ing firm with trou­bling for­eign ties run by his in­com­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Michael Flynn. “Trump and his al­lies have en­gaged in some of the same prac­tices they ac­cused Hil­lary Clin­ton of ex­ploit­ing and vowed to change,” Politico wrote.

Now, a year after the elec­tion, many ob­servers be­lieve the swamp has grown into a sink­hole that threat­ens to swal­low the en­tire Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The num­ber of White House of­fi­cials fac­ing ques­tions, law­suits or in­ves­ti­ga­tion is as­ton­ish­ing: Trump, be­ing sued for vi­o­lat­ing the “emol­u­ments clause” of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion by run­ning his Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.; Paul Manafort, the sec­ond Trump cam­paign man­ager, for al­legedly ac­cept­ing pay­ments from pro-rus­sia in­ter­ests in the Ukraine; Flynn, for undis­closed lob­by­ing work done on be­half of the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment; son-in-law and con­sigliere Jared kush­ner, for fail­ing to dis­close $1 bil­lion in loans tied to his real-es­tate com­pany; and at least six Cabi­net heads be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for or asked about ex­or­bi­tant travel ex­penses, se­cu­rity de­tails or busi­ness deal­ings.

An al­le­ga­tion, of course, not proof that there’s cor­rup­tion, but when has the Amer­i­can body politic ever awaited cer­ti­tude be­fore pass­ing judg­ment? “The most cor­rupt pres­i­dency and ad­min­is­tra­tion we’ve ever had,” says Ze­phyr Tea­chout, a Ford­ham Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor who au­thored a book ti­tled Cor­rup­tion in Amer­ica: From Ben­jamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Cit­i­zens United.

Trump sup­port­ers say cor­rup­tion charges are par­ti­san smear tac­tics. “Pres­i­dent Trump came to Wash­ing­ton to drain the swamp and is fol­low­ing through on his prom­ises,” White House deputy press sec­re­tary Raj Shah says, cit­ing Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der on ethics, the el­e­va­tion to deputy sta­tus of ethics lawyers in the White House coun­sel’s of­fice and “un­prece­dented steps to rein in waste of tax­payer funds.”

But ac­cord­ing to the pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian Robert Dallek, no Amer­i­can leader has acted with more unadul­ter­ated self-in­ter­est as Trump. Dallek says that in terms of out­right cor­rup­tion, Trump is worse than both Ulysses S. Grant and War­ren G. Hard­ing, pres­i­dents who over­saw the most fla­grant in­stances of graft in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory. Grant’s stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion as a Civil War gen­eral is tar­nished in part by the Whiskey Ring scan­dal, in which Trea­sury De­part­ment of­fi­cials stole taxes from al­co­hol dis­tillers; mem­bers of Hard­ing’s ad­min­is­tra­tion plun­dered oil re­serves in Teapot Dome, a rock out­crop­ping in Wy­oming that has lent its name to the most no­to­ri­ous ex­am­ple of gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory. In both cases, the fault of the pres­i­dent was in his lack of over­sight. As far as Dallek is con­cerned, some­thing more ne­far­i­ous is at work in the White House of Don­ald Trump.

“What makes this dif­fer­ent,” Dallek says, “is that the pres­i­dent can’t seem to speak the truth about a host of things.” Trump isn’t just al­low­ing cor­rup­tion, in Dallek’s view, but en­cour­ag­ing it. He sum­mons a pun­gent adage: The fish rots from the head.

months of Trump’s ten­ure. He says this ad­min­is­tra­tion “came in un­pre­pared for the rig­ors” of work­ing within the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, “un­aware of the fact that there are many re­quire­ments and a cul­ture of ac­count­abil­ity to the pub­lic.”

Shaub blames a lot of the eth­i­cal lapses on White House coun­sel Don­ald Mc­gahn II, whom he charges with fos­ter­ing an any­thing-goes at­mos­phere by in­ter­pret­ing rules and laws in ways that al­lowed Trump to skirt them. “He has been the great en­abler. And he has been an am­pli­fier of the mes­sage that ethics doesn’t mat­ter.” Mc­gahn did not re­spond to a Newsweek re­quest for com­ment.

A se­nior White House of­fi­cial who was only au­tho­rized to speak on back­ground dis­puted the as­ser­tion that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has not made ethics a pri­or­ity. He says the lawyers work­ing on ethics is­sues in the White House are “not shrink­ing vi­o­lets” and points to the el­e­va­tion of their of­fice to deputy sta­tus, pre­sum­ably giv­ing those lawyers greater sway. The of­fice is headed by Ste­fan Pas­santino, deputy as­sis­tant to the pres­i­dent and deputy coun­sel to the pres­i­dent, who, upon his ap­point­ment, was praised by Howard Dean, a for­mer Demo­cratic pri­mary can­di­date for the pres­i­dency and gover­nor of Ver­mont. “I have a lot of con­fi­dence that he will be clear about what the eth­i­cal and le­gal bound­aries are in his ad­vice to the White House,” Dean said at the time.

One per­son who worked with Pas­santino in the early days of the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­scribed him as cour­te­ous and ea­ger about toil­ing in the gov­ern­ment’s em­ploy, a wel­come con­trast to the surly at­ti­tudes of some other high-rank­ing Trump of­fi­cials. At the same time, this in­di­vid­ual says Pas­santino was dili­gently fig­ur­ing out how to dis­man­tle reg­u­la­tions. He notes that among Pas­santino’s pre­vi­ous le­gal clients is Gin­grich, who was sanc­tioned by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives over eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions.

A telling episode took place on Fe­bru­ary 9, when se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion coun­selor Kellyanne Con­way went on Fox & Friends to de­fend Ivanka Trump, the pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter. Ivanka also runs a fash­ion busi­ness, but Nord­strom’s had re­cently dropped her line after protests by lib­eral ac­tivists who sought to have the de­part­ment store sever all af­fil­i­a­tions with the Trump fam­ily. Con­way de­fended Ivanka, speak­ing on live tele­vi­sion from the White House: “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would tell you.… I’m go­ing to give a free com­mer­cial here. Go buy it to­day, ev­ery­body.”

This seemed a fla­grant vi­o­la­tion of ethics rules, which pro­hibit elected of­fi­cials from en­dors­ing a com­mer­cial en­ter­prise. Shaub sent a let­ter to Pas­santino, in­form­ing him that “there is strong rea­son to be­lieve that Ms. Con­way has vi­o­lated the Stan­dards of Con­duct and that dis­ci­plinary ac­tion is war­ranted.” Pas­santino wrote back that Con­way “made the state­ment in ques­tion in a light, off-hand man­ner while at­tempt­ing to stand up for a per­son she be­lieved had been un­fairly treated and did so without ne­far­i­ous mo­tive or in­tent to ben­e­fit per­son­ally.” In a foot­note, Pas­santino in­ter­preted fed­eral rules to con­clude that Shaub’s of­fice, OGE, did not have over­sight over the ex­ec­u­tive of­fice of the pres­i­dent, mean­ing that he could not sanc­tion Con­way over the en­dorse­ment.

Shaub was stunned. “The as­ser­tion is in­cor­rect, and the let­ter cites no le­gal ba­sis for it,” he wrote Pas­santino. To him, this was ev­i­dence that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sought not only to dis­re­gard ethics rules, but to ac­tively dis­man­tle them. He quit OGE on July 6 and deemed the ad­min­is­tra­tion he was leav­ing be­hind “pretty close to a laugh­ing­stock.” He has been mak­ing sim­i­larly


SWAMP MON­STER On the cam­paign trail, Trump vowed to “end gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion” and “drain the swamp in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.” Clin­ton, his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, he of­ten im­plied, was the em­bod­i­ment of es­tab­lish­ment muck.

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