White House wheel of fortune: Inside the Trump circus of corruption
Ben Carson’s furniture! Ryan Zinke’s “cone of silence”! Ivanka’s double-dealing! And that’s only the beginning
After Economic Adviser Gary Cohn's resignation in the wake of President Trump's impulsive tariff announcement and the abrupt dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, it's assumed that Trump's apparent decision to throw caution to the wind and follow his gut will lead to more firings, perhaps immediately. It's not as if he's being coy about it. Trump keeps saying that he's "almost" got the administration he wants, every time the press queries him about the massive turnover.
This has all of Washington on a sort of death watch, wondering whether the rumors that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is out are true. Then there's the greatest thorn in Trump's side, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who is in a pitched battle with his own staff.
Axios' Jonathan Swan quoted a White House staffer summing up the atmosphere these days:
This is the most toxic working environment on the planet. Usually tough times bring people together. But right now this atmosphere is ripping people apart. There's no leadership, no trust, no direction and [at] this point there's very little hope. Would you want to go to work every day not knowing whether your future career was going to be destroyed without explanation?
That is in apparent reference to the fact that people are being summarily dismissed and marched out of the White House without even being able to gather their personal items, almost on a daily basis. This is said to often be because of failure to gain security clearance, and then "serious financial crimes," in the case of Trump's personal assistant John McEntee -- who was fired earlier this week. (He was immediately hired by the 2020 Trump campaign as a "senior adviser," so his career seems to be on track.)
One thing Trump's game of musical chairs is accomplishing is that it's become almost quaint to worry about the massive amount of corruption within the administration. It is now so commonplace that when it becomes public there is a moment of hand-wringing in the press and then . . . nothing happens. For all the turnover in this administration, virtually none of it has been because of the self-dealing and profiteering that's reported virtually every day.
One cabinet member who was forced to resign over his nearly half-million dollars in travel expenses in the first few months of the administration was former HHS Secretary Tom Price. If anyone thought the president was making an example of him, it didn't take. Since then, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has also been taken to task for excessive travel costs and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt racked up huge bills for personal travel, insisting he needed the extra security of first-class travel because someone once shouted something insulting at him in coach. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a man worth $300 million, requested government planes that cost $25,000 an hour to fly him and his wife to their European honeymoon.
Meanwhile, the office redecorating costs are skyrocketing under the Trump administration. It was reported this week that HUD Secretary Ben Carson fibbed when he said he didn't know anything about the $31,000 dining room table that he and his wife ordered for his office (even as he is overseeing massive cuts to programs for poor people.) Zinke spent $139,000 to replace three doors, and Pruitt has built a $43,000 "cone of silence" for his office so that nobody overhears his top-secret environmental policy phone calls.
Carson and Zinke are still Trump favorites, and there's talk of promoting Pruitt to the Department of Justice if Trump finally gets around to firing Jeff Sessions. (What could be better for the country than a deeply paranoid attorney general?)
The wealthiest man in the administration is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and, according to this article by David Dayen at the Intercept, his conflicts of interest are massive -- even aside from his holdings in Russian, interests that look suspicious under current circumstances. After the release of the Paradise Papers, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., complained that Ross had seriously misled the Congress in his confirmation hearings and compared his financial statements to "Russian nesting dolls." He's never been more influential in the cabinet.
Then there are the Trumps and the Kushners. The emoluments issue seems to have disappeared, despite the fact that foreign governments are routinely spending massive sums at Trump hotels to curry favor with the president, and God only knows what they're doing at his foreign properties. Donald Trump continues to do almost weekly promotional appearances at this resorts and golf properties, charging people big bucks for access to him and pocketing the money. CNN reported on Wednesday that the Defense Department spent nearly $140,000 at Trump properties in the first few months of the administration on meals and lodging. Another $17,000 was spent at the troubled Panama hotel (now no longer under Trump management), for reasons that are obscure.
The Trumps have even tried to use the presidential seal to sell their cheap branded merchandise:
You can say one thing for Trump. He never leaves even one dime on the table.
I wrote about Donald Trump Jr.'s Indian adventure awhile back, selling foreign policy and condos in one whirlwind trip. Now it looks like Ivanka Trump herself is finally coming under scrutiny. She did not divest her holdings in the Trump Organization and is receiving more than a million dollars a year from projects with state-owned companies around the world, even as she works in the White House without proper clearance and travels the globe as a representative of the U.S. government. It's astonishing that she is getting away with this.
But that's nothing compared to her husband Jared Kushner, who secured loans for himself and his family in excess of half a billion dollars after meetings in the White House about possible infrastructure projects. Then there are the suspicions that Kushner pressured the government of Qatar to bail out his family debt and changed American foreign policy to punish the Qataris when they didn't come across.
This is just the corruption we know about. Some of it is penny-ante and some of it is massive in scale. There's skimming from the taxpayers and leveraging government policy for personal gain. As in a banana republic or a mob-run kleptocracy, it's pervasive in every part of the administration, woven into the fabric of everyday business. But because this presidency is such an epic disaster in every way, all of this looks like a third-order scandal.