Trump’s behavior set the low standards for finances, and senior officials took their cues from him. These officials include then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (abusing air travel), then-Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin (same), Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt (whose alleged missteps include renting a place to stay from a lobbyist and spending $43,000 on a soundproof booth and about $120,000 on a European trip), Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson (nepotism, a $31,000 dining room set), Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (abusing air travel), Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (retaining stock that posed a conflict with his duties) and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (same). There also is the long list of grossly unqualified and incompetent advisers (multiple communications directors, multiple chiefs of staff, batches of West Wing officials, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson).
Blame the transition if you like, but Trump was the one who would not tolerate previous dissenters, the one who selected the grab bag of characters who’ve come and gone and the one who made clear that financial ethics are unimportant.
Then there are the people whose independent views and/or style were too much for the insecure president to handle (e.g. H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn) and the ones who got wrapped up in the Russia scandal. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced out after 23 days on the job. Attorney General Jeff Sessions misrepresented his Russia connections to Congress and was involved in firing James B. Comey under false pretenses. Hope Hicks was caught up in the drafting of a false explanation for the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Kremlin-connected figures.
Some of the worst of Trump’s nominees have failed on both substantive and ethical grounds. Pruitt, for example, is a climate change denier for the most part, advocated withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and threw independent scientists off advisory committees. He is also a multiple offender on the ethics front. In addition to renting an apartment from the wife of a lobbyist (the EPA insists this was perfectly acceptable), BuzzFeed reports:
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s adult daughter stayed in a different room of the same apartment, according to ABC News, though it’s unclear whether she had a different rental arrangement. And Pruitt’s security team apparently knocked down a door in the condo, located a few blocks from Capitol Hill. …The details of Pruitt’s former housing — which cost him $50 a night on the nights he stayed there, according to Bloomberg News — is just the latest example of his behavior in office raising eyebrows. Pruitt has already drawn public criticism, as well as internal review and congressional scrutiny, for his expensive practice of traveling with a large security detail and flying first class, as well as for spending $43,000 to install a soundproof phone booth. He was also reportedly recently called out in private by the White House for ethics concerns.
Carson, meanwhile, is dismantling his department’s anti-discrimination mandate and is also involved in ethical scandals including a whistleblower suit arising out of his lavish furniture purchase and ongoing questions about the participation of his wife and his son in department business.
And let’s not forget Jared Kushner, who revised his security clearance application several times, got his temporary security clearance yanked, met twice during the transition with Russian figures (one to discuss a back channel of communication and one with the head of a sanctioned Russian bank) and, after entering office, got huge loans from two financial institutions after meeting with their representatives about government business. His expertise in the Middle East is non-existent, and at least four foreign governments were reportedly convinced they could use his financial predicament to manipulate him.
Wouldn’t you know — millionaires, billionaires, relatives and generals who have not served in high civilian posts aren’t necessarily the best people for senior roles in an administration, especially one in which the president has virtually no policy expertise. Contrary to the positive spin that Trump is now getting the Cabinet he wants (was he not president before this?), he’s in fact getting the dregs, the cranks, the Fox News personalities and the even more unqualified hangers-on to backfill posts. Some of the worst of the worst — Carson, Pruitt, Kushner — remain. With the possible exception of Mike Pompeo replacing Tillerson at State, the quality of his senior advisers generally is going down (e.g., Ronny Jackson for Shulkin, John Bolton for McMaster). Don’t expect it to improve with the Russia investigation ongoing and Trump’s habit of humiliating appointees well known.
Experienced, ethical, sober and self-respecting public servants don’t want to work in this White House. Trump spinners who assured us during the campaign that everything would work out because stellar people would be there to help were horribly mistaken.