Is this Washington’s golden age of grift? Or politics as usual?

September 18, 2018
In The News

Too many bills in Congress have boring, easily forgettable names. But when Rep. Ted Lieu introduced an ­anti-corruption bill last week, he chose a catchy title: The E. Scott Pruitt Accountability for Government Officials Act of 2018.

The bill, “honoring” the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, makes it illegal for senior government officials to use public office for private gain. Not slap-on-the-wrist illegal. Up to five years in prison illegal.

“The Executive Branch isn’t some get rich quick scheme, but many Trump cabinet officials sure act like it,” the California Democrat said in a statement when the bill was released. “The drip, drip, drip of grifting from Trump’s appointees is corroding our Democracy by undermining faith in our institutions.”

Grifters is such a harsh term. Are we, as many claim, in the Golden Age of Grift, thanks to a shameless president and his cronies? Or is this all political posturing and outrage, like so many scandals that came before?

Pruitt, who was forced to resign this summer, is the subject of more than a dozen investigations into sketchy spending: The $3.5 million tab for a 24/7 security detail, the $50-a-night sweetheart condo rental, the first-class travel, the staff runs for ­Ritz-Carlton moisturizer — all paid for by taxpayers. (Pruitt, in his just-released 2017 financial disclosure report, denied that he received improper contributions or personal gain.)

President Trump, flanked Vice President Pence and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, speaks in the Cabinet Room of the White House. He’s shattered Washington norms — which his supporters love and detractors disdain. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Then there’s Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, accused — among other things — of using that relationship to squeeze millions for his lavish lifestyle. Tom Price, the former secretary of health and human services, resigned after using taxpayer-funded charter flights (no TSA lines for him!), also an issue for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson raised eyebrows by allegedly diverting business contracts to his son. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was reprimanded by the Office of Government Ethics for failing to sell off his stock holdings before taking office. And — breaking news — FEMA head William “Brock” Long is facing a possible criminal probe into misuse of government vehicles for personal trips.

A Gallup poll released in May asked Americans what they thought about this administration’s ethical standards. A whopping 59 percent rated them “poor or not good”; only 37 percent deemed them “good or excellent,” the lowest ranking since the poll began more than 30 years ago.

Voters, it appears, still think Washington is pretty swampy.

It would be easy to dismiss Lieu’s bill as a political stunt, but Democrats believe this administration’s personal self-enrichment is a winning talking point in the midterm elections.

It might be hard to parse the intricacies of blind trusts, but it’s easy to understand a Cabinet secretary flying in first class. Or, say, a president holding a $100,000-a-person fundraiser at a hotel he owns and that is operated by his sons — as Trump did last week at his namesake property in Washington.

“There is polling that shows — it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an independent — you really dislike corruption,” Lieu says. “I think Donald Trump actually had it right when he ran on a campaign of draining the swamp. . . . The problem is that when he got into office, he became the swamp.”

Trump’s first Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was ousted amid spending scandals. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

 Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been accused — among so many other things — of using his political relationships to squeeze millions for his lavish lifestyle. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Let’s be honest. Corruption is a perennial part of American politics. Historians love to regale audiences with tales of the bad old days.

A few greatest hits from the recent past: Former FBI director William S. Sessions was fired for using government planes and cars for personal travel. John Sununu, former chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush, was beset by charges that he abused federal travel rules — and finally bounced after taking a government car from Washington to a New York stamp auction. The 1991 trip was a mere technical infraction of White House rules but a public relations disaster.

When things have gotten really outrageous, there have been criminal charges: Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), one of the most powerful members of Congress in the 1980s, ended up in prison after using government funds to buy lavish gifts. Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) was sentenced to 13 years for taking hundreds of thousands in bribes — cold cash he stored (where else?) in the freezer.

But, more often, the only punishment is a hit to the reputation and resignation. Supporters claim that these infractions, although they may look terrible, are not criminal in nature or intent.

Which brings us to Trump, who shatters presidential norms every day, behaving unlike any of his predecessors. His supporters love it, but his indifference to the traditional rules of politics — where the perception of impropriety is as important as actual impropriety — has left millions slack-jawed. Trump skirts the line, crosses the line, erases the line.

His refusal to release his tax returns, to divest himself from his businesses without serious political consequences, sent a message to America: No big deal, says ethics guru Norm Ornstein.

“Lessons, messages, shoulds and shouldn’ts come from the top. If presidential candidates and presidents get away with stuff, say it’s perfectly all right, not only do others take cues from that, it doesn’t result in the same level of outrage that it would have just five or 10 years ago,” says Ornstein, co-author of “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported.”

Ah, but then we face the critical distinction between what is lawful and what is ethical. Much of what passes for scandal in the current administration is primarily a breach of an unwritten code of behavior that usually prevents serious charges of corruption. So there are no laws specifically prohibiting owning hotels, promoting personal business, hiring your daughter and son-in-law, or withholding tax returns — because it never occurred to lawmakers that it might be an actual issue. Who knew?

“The framers saw we could have a president who was amoral, immoral or nuts,” says Ornstein. “They built in safeguards, and the first safeguard was an independent Congress.” But both House and Senate Republicans seem willing to look the other way as long as they get tax cuts and conservative judges, failing to hold hearings on behavior that would have doomed sticky-fingered pols in the past, he says.

Complicating the problem: court decisions over the past few decades making it tougher to win corruption cases. A jury convicted former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) in 2014 on federal bribery charges, but the Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 2016, ruling that accepting gifts and setting up meetings for an important donor was not an “official act.” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) walked away from a 22-count conspiracy charge in November after the judge declared a mistrial — the jury could not decide whether gifts and contributions from an old friend constituted bribery.

Now comes Trump and company — literally and figuratively — with their complicated financial portfolios, the gilded lifestyles of corporate robber barons and no visceral understanding of what it means to be a public servant, says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight.

“So many of these financial arrangements are not things normal Americans have ever even heard of before,” she says. “People can relate to Scott Pruitt getting a special deal because they know they couldn’t get a room in Washington for $50 a night. That’s what people get angry about. But they may be totally unconcerned about contracts that impact real public policy because it’s removed from their daily lives.”

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) leaves an arraignment hearing in San Diego, after he and his wife, Margaret, pleaded not guilty to charges that they illegally used his campaign account for personal expenses. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Watching the news over the past two years, it’s easy to conclude that someone in Washington is doing something unethical every single day. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has filed almost 200 legal complaints against Trump and administration officials, says this White House is “confronted by an extraordinary scale and scope of legal and ethics scandals. It is unrivaled in the modern era, and perhaps in the history of the nation, for a first-year administration.”

But Kevin Ring believes that the reality is more boring: Historically, things are less corrupt than they’ve ever been, thanks to existing ethics laws and regulations. “By any objective measure, things are better,” he says.

Ring is a former lobbyist and Senate staffer who served 15 months in prison for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. He does not believe what he did was criminal but admits he skated in an ethically gray area. “I knowingly participated in a wrong system. I did things that I shouldn’t have done.”

The problem lies between intent and the public trust — and whether there’s an existing law that addresses that gap. “So much of this is about motives and intent,” says Ring, who now heads a sentencing reform nonprofit. “It’s easy to say, ‘That’s corrupt.’ It’s not a hard thing to believe the worst about somebody.”

So, yes, the lack of transparency about Trump’s businesses, tax returns and emoluments are still fair game. “But the run-of-the-mill stuff always seems overstated,” says Ring. “That game has gotten us to the point where we think all of these guys are totally working for their self-interest, and I just don’t think most are.”

In other words: Team Trump is either the most corrupt in modern history, or all this is just more ideological attacks.

“I think part of it is the fact that we now are very tribalistic, and the nation is polarized,” conservative political analyst Matt Lewis said the day before Trump was inaugurated. “And, basically, the message goes out, you stick with your team, right? So I think some of it is just pure partisanship.”

The defiant response of Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) to his 60-count federal indictment of using campaign funds to pay for tuition for his kids, vacations, shorts and even pet bunny airfare echoed Lewis’s point. “This is modern politics and modern media mixed in with law enforcement that has a political agenda,” he told reporters.

In an effort to close the gap between a crime and an embarrassment, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last month introduced the (less colorfully named) Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, which makes some of the more egregious ethical lapses illegal.

Her bill includes a provision that requires the public release of tax returns by presidential and vice presidential candidates — but it probably won’t pass. Neither will Lieu’s legislation, at least in the near future.

“Not in the next couple months,” Lieu says. “But if we change the makeup of Congress, I believe this bill can get to the president’s desk.”

Or maybe not. The swamp is tremendously big and tremendously wet.