When Tom Price was pushed out of his cabinet job last month for sticking taxpayers with $1 million worth of private jet travel, the White House explained that his behavior was unacceptable in an administration devoted to draining the Washington swamp.
I wonder where the former health and human services secretary got the notion that it was OK to mix public service and personal privilege. The values of a presidential administration flow from the top. President Donald Trump has been signaling loudly through his personal behavior that it’s fine to use government service for private enrichment.
“Trump’s rhetoric about draining the swamp is breathtakingly phony,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, the good-government organization.
Unlike every predecessor for more than four decades, Trump hasn’t divested his financial holdings, only claiming they’re being run by his sons. His hotels in Washington and elsewhere are hustling foreign business. He doubled the membership fee for his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to $200,000 between Election Day and his inauguration.
He has weakened important restrictions on lobbyists serving in government after campaigning against the power of special interests, and turned the clock back on transparency.
The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog outfit, has filed more than 150 legal actions against the Trump administration. Many of these are freedom-of-information actions, but some are lawsuits charging that Trump is violating the emoluments clause one of the US constitution forbidding presidents from receiving payments from foreign governments.
Enrichment is a family affair. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, while holding a White House position, got trademark permits from China for her clothing and jewelry line, which she still owns. Her accessories also are made in India, which she’s scheduled to visit in November and meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner and his associates sought foreign investors in a financially troubled Kushner-family-owned building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. He has been given a wide-ranging portfolio in foreign affairs.
“Jared and Ivanka have all kinds of potential conflicts,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, is raking in $100,000 for speaking at a Texas university, a fee usually given to people who’ve actually accomplished something.
Price was cashiered. But not Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt or Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who have also shown a fondness for taxpayer-subsidized private flights. The Interior Department’s inspector general has launched an inquiry into Zinke.
Although the administration has toughened rules on lobbying by officials after they leave government, it has blown a hole in restrictions on lobbyists seeking government jobs. The No. 2 people at the Departments of Energy and Interior were previously major lobbyists for the industries they now oversee. Last Thursday, Trump nominated Andrew Wheeler, who has lobbied for Murray Energy Corp., a coal giant that has paid millions of dollars of fines for safety violations, to be the deputy EPA administrator.
By one count, 100 registered lobbyists had been brought into the Trump administration by June, with 69 working in the same terrain they lobbied. But the most egregious appointment may have been the billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who after being brought in as a special regulatory adviser then sought relief to benefit a company he owns, Bloomberg News revealed. He has since departed.
A runner-up would be Squire Patton Boggs, the law firm and Washington lobbying powerhouse, which in April formed what it called a “strategic alliance” with Trump’s New York personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Transparency is a four-letter word to the Trump brigade. A Washington watchdog group filed suit in August demanding disclosure of visitors to some White House offices, as was the practice under former President Barack Obama.
Then there’s the Trump inaugural committee. It raised $106.7 million but spent only part of that on the festivities. What are they doing with the rest of the money? Beyond a $3 million pledge for hurricane relief, it won’t say.
Now comes the mother of all possible conflicts-of-interest: the tax bill that goes to Congress this fall. Trump insists that the tax “framework” offered up in September by the White House and Republican congressional leaders shows that a Republican tax plan won’t benefit him. The facts about at least three of its provisions suggest otherwise. There’s a simple way to prove whether he’s telling the truth: Congress should require him to release his tax returns before acting on any bill.
By Albert R. Hunt
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.