Most presidents come into office saying their administration will adhere to the highest ethical standards, and those who work for them will either be committed solely to the interests of the public or they’ll be shown the door. Donald Trump didn’t bother to say that, perhaps because the thought didn’t occur to him. In any organization Trump leads, there will always be two guiding principles: Show absolute loyalty to the boss, and then get yours.
Which means that public service, in the form of a commitment to setting aside one’s own material interests at least for a time and focusing only on working for the good of the American people, is for suckers:
Two senior Environmental Protection Agency political appointees — including one who personally supervises every grant the agency awards to or solicits from outside groups — got approval from the agency’s ethics office to continue to collect outside income while working for the Trump administration.
Letters from the EPA’s office of general counsel, which were released Monday by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, show that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s special assistant Patrick Davis and the deputy associate administrator for the office of public affairs, John Konkus, sought permission to work for private clients even as they occupied full-time federal jobs.
Davis asked to work “as the sales director of Telephone Town Hall Meeting,” according to a Feb. 3 letter from Justina Fugh, the EPA’s alternate designated agency ethics official, while the clients Konkus is consulting for were not made publicly available. Instead, Fugh’s Aug. 1 letter to Konkus states that he wanted “to take on clients to advise about strategy, mail and media production”: It mentions two “likely clients,” whose names are redacted, adding that he anticipated “getting more clients in the next six months.”
Oh, I’m sure he will. And why shouldn’t he? The president himself has made every effort to monetize the presidency for the interests of his private business. Should we expect his underlings to do anything different? The fact that the clients’ names will be kept secret is just perfect. Because I’m sure we can take them at their word that there won’t be any conflicts of interest, in an administration where the president gives a hugely influential job to his son-in-law, who then has meetings with financial firms that soon after give hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to his family firm.
Konkus, it should be noted, first came to some small measure of public attention when we learned last September that despite the fact that he had no experience in environmental policy, the GOP political consultant was put in charge of reviewing all the EPA’s grant applications, making sure to deny any that included the words “climate change.” I’m sure his past and future clients were most appreciative.
At this point, my conservative friends are saying, “What about Huma Abedin?” To which I’d reply, you were absolutely right to be outraged when it was reported in 2013 that in her last few months at the State Department, the longtime Hillary Clinton aide got approval to simultaneously do work for the Clinton Foundation and a consulting firm run by a former Clinton aide. That was needless and inappropriate, and so is what’s happening in the Trump administration. I assume you’ll express just as much anger at what’s happening now. Right?
Are these couple of guys in the EPA that big a deal? Perhaps not. But this is just the latest case, in an administration in which we’re disgusted but never surprised when one Cabinet official orders a $31,000 dining set or another insists on flying first class so he won’t have to deal with the grimy masses in coach.
It’s becoming clear that Trump has set about utterly degrading the very idea of public service. There have always been lots of reasons people join the government, some more noble than others. But at the very least, we shared the presumption that when you do work in government, you should set aside your thoughts of personal enrichment for a while and just act according to the best interests of the public.
In the Trump era, we’ve cast that notion aside. It obviously comes from the top — think about how many different people Trump has demanded loyalty pledges from, as though these government employees’ highest purpose is to do what’s best for him. His Republican allies have assimilated this idea; just consider the war they’ve waged on the FBI and the Justice Department, the foundation of which is the idea that if the country’s law enforcement agencies aren’t committed to supporting Trump, then they must be the locus of an anti-Trump conspiracy. Those are the only two options: Either you’re pro-Trump, or you’re anti-Trump. The idea that they could just be trying to do their jobs as public servants isn’t considered.
I can’t recall the president ever speaking to the idea of public service, and the very thought is as absurd as him making a tribute to marital fidelity. Seriously, try to imagine Trump giving a speech in which he encourages young people to choose careers in government, not because it’s a way to get rich but because it can be a noble calling. You can picture Barack Obama saying that, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush — because they all did, on a regular basis. Despite their ideological differences, they shared a belief that we need talented, patriotic people to commit themselves to public service. But you can’t picture those words coming out of Trump’s mouth, can you? His entire life has been a monument to selfishness, and he brought that ethos with him to Washington.
“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” Trump said proudly at a campaign rally in 2016. “I’ve grabbed all the money I could get, I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.”
Who could have imagined that the last part of that statement wasn’t going to turn out to be true?