The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s personal pilot to head the FAA? It’s the latest sign norms are breaking down.

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Axios has reported that President Trump is contemplating appointing a man named John Dunkin to head up the Federal Aviation Administration. Dunkin, it must be noted, does not possess the traditional resume for someone who would normally be considered for this position. He is not a current or former elected official, nor does he have extensive government experience.

So what makes Dunkin suitable for the position of ensuring the safety of the American aviation system? Well, one thing leaps out immediately. He has served as Trump’s personal pilot for more than two decades. As for his other qualifications, well, as one supporter told Axios:

“John Dunkin isn’t just a pilot,” the administration official told me. “He’s managed airline and corporate flight departments, certified airlines from start-up under FAA regulations, and oversaw the Trump presidential campaign’s air fleet, which included managing all aviation transportation for travel to 203 cities in 43 states over the course of 21 months.”

According to Axios, Dunkin told Trump that if a pilot was in charge of the FAA, flight delays would not happen.

Have you stopped laughing yet? I hope so. Because this is serious stuff. It might seem like a yet another bit of Trump nonsense and craziness, but the Dunkin saga highlights how the current administration is breaking down traditional norms of American governance on multiple fronts. Whether it’s ludicrously inappropriate presidential appointments, flouting of long-held governance customs or stuff that reeks of self-dealing, it seems as though there is a new example almost every day.

After all, the news of the possible Dunkin appointment comes mere days after CNBC reported that the Republican National Committee is paying rent to the tune of $37,000 a month for space for Trump’s 2020 campaign. The location? New York’s Trump Tower. (And making sure no politician’s family is left behind, the RNC is also paying the approximately $12,000 monthly salary of the Trump campaign’s deputy executive director, Mike Pence’s nephew John Pence.)

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This, apparently, is not illegal. “This is permissible and it’s being reported properly,” as Brendan Fischer of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center told CNBC. It is, however, concerning. As CNBC reports, the payments began shortly after public pressure forced the RNC to cease paying for the legal advice Trump was receiving related to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation.

All of these things, seemingly unrelated, add up to a whole. We have a president who is so unconcerned with even the appearance of traditional ethics that all his administration’s erosions of professional norms are bleeding into one another. The result? Each brings a day or so of outrage, which subsides, but then they continue, all contributing to the ongoing debasement of our political culture.

That Trump views the presidency as a combined personal piggy bank and employment opportunity for family and friends is hardly news at this point. Yet this co-mingling of Trump business interests, family and other personal relationships has become so the norm of the over the past year that we’ve all but become inured to it.

More examples: Trump has signed a tax-reform package that would, according to most observers, massively benefit the Trump family. (Trump has broken with modern precedent and still refuses to release his tax returns to the public for inspection.) At Mar-a-Lago, the initiation fee increased by 100 percent, from $100,000 to $200,000, shortly after he was elected president. Then there is the ongoing situation at Trump’s Washington hotel. Expected to lose $2.1 million in the first quarter of 2017, it instead earned a profit of almost $2 million in that period. As The Post reported last summer, “The hotel has emerged as a Republican Party power center and popular destination for conservative, foreign and Christian groups holding meetings in Washington.”

Then there are the other examples of friends, family and former colleagues getting appointed to positions they are simply not qualified for. There was Lynne Patton, the Trump family senior aide and Eric Trump wedding planner turned head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s office for New York and New Jersey. Then there’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the heir to a real estate fortune who still does not possess a security clearance but who has acted as a Trump envoy in the Middle East. And daughter Ivanka Trump, who is not known to possess any particular foreign policy expertise but met Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and reportedly briefed him on U.S. sanctions on North Korea.

This is not something that should happen in a healthy democratic republic. But it is happening here. We need to take notice. Actually, scratch that. We are taking notice. We need to do more than decry it in op-eds such as, well, this one. We need to demand that it stop. This is the sort of stuff that happens in banana republics, not the United States.