President Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” But after less than 13 months, more than 40 percent of the people he originally picked for Cabinet-level jobs have faced ethical or other controversies. The list has grown quickly in recent weeks.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt are that latest to have their questionable travel practices probed. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that an inspector general's report determined Shulkin and top aides misled ethics officials about expenses for a controversial 10-day European trip Shulkin took with his wife. The Post also reported Sunday that Pruitt has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on first-class travel; since then his agency has said it obtained a waiver for him to fly first-class for security reasons.
The two of them join three other Cabinet-level officials who have faced ethical questions over their travels. Four other initial Cabinet-level picks have also been confronted with ethical or personal controversies — including in recent weeks now-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly (an original Cabinet pick) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
In total now, nine out of the 22 people Trump initially picked for Cabinet-level posts have found themselves facing scrutiny over their actions.
Here's a quick summary:
- Former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price: Resigned over frequent use of charter flights
- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke: Mixing official travel with political events
- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin: Requesting a military jet to fly him and his wife to Europe for their honeymoon, a trip to Fort Knox where the couple viewed the solar eclipse
False statements (2):
- Kelly (who was initially Trump's Homeland Security secretary): His handling of the Rob Porter scandal including reportedly telling staff to spread falsehoods, making false statements about a congresswoman
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Recused himself from the Russia investigation amid controversy over whether he lied about contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign
Personal controversies (2):
- Labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder: Withdrew over concerns about past employment of an undocumented housekeeper and later-recanted domestic violence accusations from an ex-wife
- Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson: Disregarded department lawyers' warnings about letting his son organize a “listening tour,” which officials warned might have been used to advance his children's business dealings
Not all of these are created equal — nor are they all scandal-level situations. But they do highlight what has been a pretty rocky first year-plus for the Trump Cabinet. The repeated travel controversies, in particular, suggest the administration isn't running a particularly tight ethical ship or that there is a ton of overcompensation for Trump's promise to “drain the swamp.”
While President Barack Obama's claims to have run a scandal-free administration are over-the-top, most of the problems within his administration stemmed from alleged incompetence rather than impropriety. The two biggest ethical issues to come from that administration would seem to be Hillary Clinton's use of private email as secretary of state and then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch's ill-advised tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton even as the Justice Department was investigating his wife. (Lynch later said she would accept the FBI's recommendation in that case rather than make her own determination.)
Hillary Clinton also had the deadly attack in Benghazi, but that was more about an alleged failure. So too were the Veterans Affairs scandal that led to Eric Shinseki's resignation and the botched Obamacare rollout that did in then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The worst travel ethics problems faced by Obama's administration involved a top deputy in the Commerce Department rather than the secretary.
There are certainly other ways for Trump to drain the swamp. But his Cabinet picks are proving a particularly stark example of where that effort has come up short.
Correction: This post previously said Shulkin took part in doctoring an email. In fact, the inspector general found that he otherwise misled ethics officials.