In the latest entry from the things-that-would-be-scandals-in-any-other-administration files, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is getting some criticism for a request he recently made for a government plane to fly him and his wife, Louise Linton, to Europe for their honeymoon. Mnuchin has said it was a way to make sure he had secure communications back to Washington; the Treasury Department says the request was withdrawn “after a secure communications option was identified during the Secretary’s extended travel.” (Was the plane going to park outside his hotel so that he could hop in to make calls? Who knows.)
This might not be attracting much attention were it not for other recent news about the couple’s highflying lifestyle. There was his wife’s notorious Instagram post of her striding off a government plane in glorious fashion-plate regalia, which led to a little spat with some plebe who had the temerity to question her in the comments. That involved a day trip the couple made to Kentucky, which some suspected was for the purpose of allowing Mnuchin and Linton to watch the solar eclipse. Mnuchin responded to that suggestion by explaining that as a Manhattan sophisticate, he wasn’t interested in gawping at the sun like some flyover-country Cro-Magnon mouth-breather: “People in Kentucky took this stuff very seriously. Being a New Yorker, I don’t have any interest in watching the eclipse,” he said.
This kind of thing has gotten administration officials in trouble before; John Sununu, who was George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, caused a scandal with his frequent use of military aircraft for personal trips and eventually had to resign (though other factors played in as well). But no one seriously thinks Mnuchin will suffer any genuine consequences for his use of government aircraft. After all, this is the Trump era, where getting yours is what it’s all about.
There truly has been a change in Washington in this new administration. It used to be that there were people in government who acted ethically, and people who professed to care about ethics and conflicts of interest but found ways to work around the rules. In the Trump administration, they’ve pretty much stopped pretending that ethics are something anyone should care about.
Two months ago, Walter Shaub resigned his position as head of the Office of Government Ethics, saying the Trump administration had made such a mockery of ethics rules that it was harming the ability of the United States to fight corruption around the world. “I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point,” he said. After his departure, things seem to have changed, because this week, Politico reported: “The U.S. Office of Government Ethics has quietly reversed its own internal policy prohibiting anonymous donations from lobbyists to White House staffers who have legal defense funds.” What could be wrong with lobbyists giving secret money to people who work in the White House?
Anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex understood that when Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, he was completely full of it. What may not have been as obvious was the way he would usher in a new era of corruption.
It starts from the top. The president himself hired his family members; continues to profit from a hotel near the White House where foreign dignitaries and political cronies know they can line his pockets by booking overpriced rooms and meeting spaces; charges the Secret Service to rent golf carts to get around on his frequent trips to his golf resorts; passes out ethics waivers like candy so that lobbyists can move into the administration and “oversee” the industries that paid them in the past and will no doubt do so in the future; and of course refuses to release the tax returns that would enable the public to see how he’s profiting from the presidency.
Whenever questions are raised about any of this, we’re assured that it’s all on the level, and before you know it everyone has moved on. Over time, the result is that none of us expect anything different. Of course Trump will use the presidency to enrich himself and his family members. Of course he’ll hire people whose government “service” is for the sole purpose of enriching the industries from which they hail. Of course those who work for him will see public resources as theirs to do with what they will. That’s just how things work now.
Which raises a disturbing question: When Trump leaves the White House, will he have so degraded every ethical rule and norm that future administrations will feel no need to exceed his debauched standards? As the OGE example shows, a lot of the rules that govern these questions are … flexible. Depending on who’s in those positions and what they think is acceptable, far different results can be produced. So when the next president hires his utterly unqualified son-in-law for a position of unparalleled influence, will anyone bother to object? When we find out that the next president is using the presidency to pad his bank account, will it be seen as a scandal, or nothing out of the ordinary?
It’s possible, of course, that the opposite could happen. The next president could campaign on a pledge to restore ethics to Washington, to cast the moneychangers from the temple and act with the integrity that this president so dearly lacks. The public could demand it, so great might their disgust with the Trump administration be, leading to a new era of reform.
We can’t know today which of those futures will come to pass. But it’s hard to be optimistic.