Something is Rotten in the District of Columbia

Corruption in the Trump Administration

Andrew Rose, Scarlet Staff

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The steady stream of scandals emanating from the Trump administration is an excellent reminder of just how thin the line between tragedy and farce can be. The most recent example, involving Ben Carson, the incumbent Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is particularly apt. Under intense criticism for attempting to use taxpayer dollars to purchase a  $31,000 dining set, Carson did what any honorable man would do, and promptly blamed his wife. In a normal administration, Ben Carson would have been immediately dismissed. But the Trump administration is no normal administration, and Carson’s position is probably secure, at least for now.

This is not the first time a member of the Donald’s Cabinet has been caught with his or her hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke regularly charters helicopter flights at public expense. So far, Zinke has seen fit to leave taxpayers on the hook for flights used to visit tourist attractions, go horseback riding with Mike Pence, and even to commute to work when he wishes to avoid Washington’s notorious rush hour traffic. Scott Pruitt, the climate-change-denying head of the EPA, refuses to fly coach, and charges taxpayers for his first-class seats on commercial flights. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made millions as a Wall Street investment banker, and is one of the wealthiest Cabinet secretaries in American history. Nonetheless, he thought it appropriate for ordinary taxpayers to foot the bill for his flight to his European honeymoon destination. The embattled head of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, continues to face accusations of using public employees for private business.  Naturally, none of these men has been fired. Indeed, of the nearly half-dozen members in Trump’s Cabinet to have faced accusations of unethical behavior, only one has actually been removed from office. That dubious distinction belongs to the now former Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price.

After running up a $500,000 tab on private jet flights, Price generously offered to pay back approximately $50,000, about 10% of the total he bilked from taxpayers. Needless to say, critics were unimpressed, and Price was eventually forced out after weeks of bad press.

The sheer venality, incompetence, and greed of Trump’s Cabinet is without precedent (Grant’s and Harding’s administrations are the possible exceptions, though neither is really within living memory). It is no great mystery as to how this came to be. An old Russian proverb holds that a fish always rots from the head down. If the current administration is a dead fish, than President Trump is its putrefying head. The unprecedented avariciousness of his chief lieutenants is the product of the unprecedented avariciousness of the Executive himself. Prior to holding office, Donald Trump ran a fake university that scammed dozens of people out of their lives’ savings. In 2010, Trump diverted funds from a children’s cancer charity to his personal business. He had previously used other “charity” funds to commission a six-foot tall portrait of himself.

Moreover, the nature of Trump’s campaign was such that few credible people were willing to join his administration. Not too many credible, decent people are going to want to adopt a position of public subservience to a man who called Mexicans “rapists” and was recorded telling a hapless Access Hollywood reporter that his “star” status gave him license to grab strangers by the genitals. The result was that the hiring pool for Cabinet appointments was not unlike the dating pool in a bar at 4am; there were no good options.

When the leader of an organization is without any moral scruples, he is bound to act in a manner that leaves the entire organization compromised. In this area, at least, the Donald has not been a disappointment. In just over a year, Trump has managed to breed a culture of corruption within the Executive Branch. A fish rots from the head down, indeed. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the District of Columbia. In this case, that something is fleshy, orange, and incredibly mendacious.