The Most Corrupt Administration in American History

Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, promising to “drain the swamp.”

Corruption in the highest offices of the land is not unknown. American political history has witnessed numerous instances of greedy politicians with their hands in the public till. The money-grubbing of appointees in the Grant and Harding administrations stands out. Then, there is the corruption that undermines the rule of law and constitutional norms. Notable in this regard was the Nixon administration for the Watergate scandal when constitutional niceties were ignored and federal agencies — including the FBI and the CIA — were abused to cover up Nixonian crimes. A decade or so later, the Reagan administration flouted congressional strictures in the Iran-Contra scandal.

President Donald Trump has given us something new, an administration that combines both kinds of corruption — the misuse of public moneys and an attack on law — while mixing in dollops of malfeasance and incompetence. When all is tallied — either after Trump ends one term or two terms in office, or is forced out earlier as a result of congressional action or the results of the special counsel’s investigation — the conclusion will be obvious: Donald Trump ran the most corrupt administration in American history (not to mention vying for the honor of most corrupt campaign).

Tom Price was forced to resign because of travel at taxpayer expense.

It is hard to know where to begin as each day brings fresh evidence of the administration’s shadiness. Perhaps a good starting point is the unscrupulousness of the president’s higher political appointees. Numerous Cabinet secretaries have misused public funds. Trump campaigned promising to drain the swamp, yet Tom Price was forced out as Health and Human Services secretary after racking up more than $400,000 in travel bills for chartered flights in roughly half a year in office. 

Has Prices’s resignation deterred others? Not in the least! Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt spent $1,641.43 on a first-class ticket for a short flight from Washington, D.C., to New York City. (Note to EPA staff: The Acela train is much cheaper and more comfortable.) Pruitt was not finished with that wasteful flight. He and several staffers flew on a military jet from Cincinnati to New York to catch a plane to Rome at a cost of more than $36,000 in public funds. Pruitt’s office defended the travel extravagance because it kept him from supposedly uncivil passengers in coach critical of the EPA chief’s denial of climate change. (Pruitt says he now will fly coach on some flights.)

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke horseback riding.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have all faced similar accusations of overspending on air travel. The latter apparently spent $6,250 of taxpayer funds to helicopter to and from a meeting in Virginia to go horseback riding with Vice President Mike Pence. The Interior Department under Zinke, by the way, is raising entrance fees to national parks severalfold. And, let us not forget in the feeding at the public trough department the spending of $31,000 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on a dining room set for Secretary Ben Carson’s office. (HUD has announced an intention to cancel the order after public complaints.)

Much of this is simply frivolous and feeds the vanity of the officers in question. More serious are the conflicts of interest that plague the administration at the highest levels, starting with the president who has not divested himself adequately of his business holdings. Just this week a bizarre confrontation erupted in Panama City between the Trump Organization and the owners of a hotel branded with the Trump name. Panamanian authorities are investigating and seem to be taking the side of the hotel owners against the Trump Organization. If the American government responds in kind, where does that leave the president, who heads the government and is a party to the standoff? And, if the U.S. government does not respond, then is it failing to defend the interests of its citizens? And, on the subject of Trump hotels, scores of foreign diplomats apparently believe it is in their interest to stay in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., while conducting business with the Trump administration.

Any president sets the tone of his administration. That fact is even more obvious when high officials are the beneficiaries of nepotism. New reports indicate that first son-in-law Jared Kushner — who presides over practically everything in the White House despite a notable lack of experience in just about anything — met with a private equity billionaire and the head of Citigroup in the White House shortly before his family’s real estate firm received substantial loans from each. Kushner also reportedly dangled a job offer — a White House position — in one of the meetings discussing a loan. Perhaps innocent, but it does have the appearance of a serious conflict of interest. Other recent reports show that foreign officials in countries with which Kushner has a government policy role considered ways to manipulate his complex business arrangements and lack of foreign policy experience.

More importantly, why did Kushner continue to have access to highly classified material while never receiving top-secret security clearance? Kushner’s real estate holdings and other financial involvements may have slowed down the FBI’s background check, but his lying on security clearance forms (lies of omission are felonies) should have disqualified him early in the process. Kushner is not the only who had access to classified material without the proper clearance (accused wife beater Rob Porter was another). And, let us not forget that the president himself has been sloppy, to say the least, in his handling of classified and secret material (he revealed highly classified information to two high-level Russian officials he met in the Oval Office).

President Trump — with NBC anchor Lester Holt — admitting he fired Jim Comey because of the Russia investigation.

Which bring us to the main issue of corruption: Trump’s dealings with Russia.  At this juncture no one outside the special counsel’s office knows exactly where the Russia investigation is headed (Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller may not know the endgame yet, either). Just this week, NBC reported that Mueller’s team is asking witnesses pointed questions about Trump’s awareness of the hacking of Democratic emails before it was publicly known and what, if anything, was his involvement in their release. Mueller’s tack goes beyond obstruction to probe Trump’s potential liability in collusion with Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Still, Trump’s culpability on obstruction is palpable. The president has admitted firing FBI Director Jim Comey because of “this Russia thing,” and his role in the obfuscations over his son’s meeting with Russians in the Trump Tower during the campaign has been documented.

There is, of course, much more, but the corruptness of this administration is clear. What is not clear is where all this will lead, but it is probably safe to assume that the president has a strong incentive to campaign for Republican candidates to Congress. If, that is, they want him by their side. 

Posted March 2, 2016

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