Theswamp Runneth Over
DONALD TRUMP VOWED TO END THE CRONYISM AND CORRUPTION IN D.C., BUT ETHICS EXPERTS SAY HE IS RUNNING THE SLEAZIEST ADMINISTRATION IN HISTORY
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
HE’D PROMISED TO BUILD THE WALL. TO MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. TO LOCK HER UP. “THEY’VE MADE A MOCKERY OF THE EXECUTIVE ORDER AND OF ETHICS IN GENERAL.”
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
“IT’S AN ETHICS CALAMITY OF A KIND WE HAVE NEVER SEEN IN MODERN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY.”
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.