It’s staggering to recall that one of Donald Trump’s main appeals to many of his voters was a pledge to “drain the swamp” and rid Washington of corruption. In only two weeks he has, instead, begun stocking the swamp with new and poisonous creatures, making it yet more deadly, much as sugar planters did in the Caribbean importing fleur-de-lance and other poisonous snakes to discourage slaves from making new lives for themselves by escaping into the jungle.
Trump’s cabinet, of course, may contain as many irreconcilable conflicts of interest as all the cabinets of the 20th century combined. Secretary of State Tillerson cannot do his job without becoming deeply enmeshed in the interest of ExxonMobil. Education Secretary DeVos, Health and Human Services Secretary Price, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Ross are ensnared with layers of inappropriate investments; Labor Secretary Puzder has made it clear that he wants to use his new position to reduce wages paid by his fast-food companies and only conceded on Feb. 1 that he might have to divest much of his investment portfolio to avoid future conflicts.
— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) February 5, 2017
Trump’s case for himself was “set a thief to catch a thief.” He argued that he alone of recent Presidential candidates had been so deeply engaged in manipulating the federal tax code, that he alone knew how to fix it.
Well. If only.
It’s not surprising that Trump has gone after Dodd-Frank financial regulations. There are features of those regulation that can honestly be argued to limit the ability of banks to provide useful services. So looking at Dodd-Frank, with the intent to give Americans access to better credit, isn’t per se outrageous.
But the first target of the Trump administration is a Dodd-Frank regulation which has absolutely nothing to do with financing average American citizens or businesses—it simply protects American oil companies when they bribe corrupt oligarchies in places like Africa. Following Trump’s lead, the Congressional assault on Dodd-Frank began by rolling back regulations requiring American oil companies to disclose the terms of their leases with foreign governments. If ExxonMobil signs leases with Kazakhstan, (as Rex Tillerson did), why should Trump object if Exxon has to tell the people of Kazakhstan the terms of the lease? More broadly, why should any American—other than those interested in Exxon—object? We wouldn’t allow our own government to sign a secret lease with, say, Rosneft, to develop oil off the coast of North Carolina. Why should the people of Kazakhstan be kept in the dark?
The answer, of course, is that if lease terms are public, it’s harder for corrupt officials to steal and if Russian oil companies, but not Exxon, can offer secret terms, corrupt governments may prefer to deal with Rosneft. And, if U.S. companies choose to skirt American law against bribery, they are less likely to face prosecution if the evidence is kept secret.
— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) February 5, 2017
So for investigators of the massive oil and gas corruption that curses the world, the swamp just got more dangerous, because the sunlight was just snuffed out.
Or look at the source of the rot in the DC swamp—campaign bribery. Trump was correct in his Inaugural speech—sitting behind him on both sides of the partisan aisle were a number of elected officials who in common English parlance had been bribed—making policy choices influenced by financial gain, albeit almost always for their campaigns, not their retirement accounts.
This is a long-standing abuse and problem. But it got much worse when the Supreme Court perfected, in its Citizens United ruling, the legal doctrine that not only wealthy individuals, but corporations, could play this influence game, because corporations were, after all, a funny kind of person—endowed with freedom of speech even though they are not citizens and cannot vote. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled this included the right to bribe real life, flesh and blood elected officials by financially supporting their campaigns, a doctrine that even a conservative Chief Justice like William Rehnquist had found repugnant.
So, given Supreme Court rulings, how do we drain the campaign finance swamp? You couldn’t realistically expect President Trump to have done this in his first two weeks. But you might be surprised to know that he has brought the architect of Citizens United, David Bossie, to help run Trump’s own “America First” Superpac. America First? Citizens United enabled foreign interests, using corporate laundering loopholes, to intervene in U.S. political campaigns legally. Bossie’s job is to make sure that Trump benefits maximally from that loophole. Bossie role’s makes entirely clear that Trump sees no problem with bribery—it’s business. He just wants his share. Trump’s real message is, “to steal the most, hire a thief.”
This should not be surprising. During the Progressive era, repeated efforts to clean up corruption by electing business leaders failed—because as Lincoln Steffens pointed out, the ethics of business success and those of clean politics are utterly different. Honest government is infused with an ethic openness and public service and depends on collaboration on behalf of “the general welfare.” Business jealously guards trade secrets, sees competitors as rivals and practices, in Donald’s immortal words, the zero-sum “art of the deal.” Previous efforts to clean up corrupt city and state government by electing business reformers mostly went on the rocks as a result. But previous business reformers mostly started out making a serious effort to drive out the grafters. Trump has started out making them his inner-circle—after all, he has no intention of solving his own conflicts of interest and, indeed, has thus far quite openly used the White House to fatten the coffers of the Trump Tower.
(Foreign governments understand this. Many are already taking care that Trump properties are fully occupied, that labor disputes or environmental requirements don’t slow them down and that the President is sufficiently happy with the treatment his businesses get that he would never add them to a list of, say, risky terrorist countries. None of those listed in the ban last week had Trump properties within their borders).
So it seems likely that the Trump White House will be more scandal ridden than any since Ulysses Grant—with the difference that Grant himself never feathered his own nest and Trump already is auditioning for “grafter in chief.” Investigators and prosecutors will do well out of the next four years—although Las Vegas is giving even odds that Trump doesn’t survive that long.