Donald Trump’s presidency produced a long list of should-have-been scandals, incidents and revelations of sleaze so frequent that few garnered more than a day or two of notice. A year and half after Trump’s band of grifters left office, stories of potential or actual corruption continue to emerge, the latest involving son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin.
Like so many before it, this tale will likely fade from notice in short order. Which reveals something profoundly disturbing about American politics today: We are losing our ability to deal with corruption, to confront it and punish it, and perhaps most importantly, to deter it.
The New York Times reports that in the waning days of the Trump administration, Kushner and Mnuchin traversed the Middle East supposedly seeking investments in places such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for a government-established entity called the Abraham Fund, which was supposed to promote economic development in the region.
Yet the Times concludes: “With no accounts, employees, income or projects, the fund vanished when Mr. Trump left office.”
Kushner and Mnuchin did, however, win great benefits for themselves: Immediately upon leaving office, they both started their own investment funds, and money poured in from those same nations.
Were Kushner and Mnuchin using their positions to set up their future businesses? Were contacts cultivated — or promises made — while representing the United States, and if so, what were they? We’ll probably never know. There won’t be congressional investigations or much journalistic follow-up; it will likely just fall into the hole where we toss everything sketchy that happened during the Trump years, when self-dealing was the order of the day.
What this suggests is that the sheer volume of graft during Trump presidency gutted our capacity for treating potential or actual corruption as something that matters and must be addressed.
Some of this flows from the bargain that Republicans made with Trump. These days, Republicans use the word “corrupt" all the time. But they are rarely talking about someone who took a bribe, who made decisions benefiting patrons instead of the national interest, or who exploited their office to get rich.
Instead, to many Republicans these days, a “corrupt” official is someone who follows the law even when it doesn’t help Republicans. It’s an election administrator who resists insane right-wing conspiracy theories about voter fraud. It’s a Justice Department that refuses to help a president overthrow an election.
Trump himself throws the word “corrupt” around more than anyone. Yet he was without doubt the most corrupt president in U.S. history, using his office for financial gain, twisting U.S. foreign policy to target a political opponent, and issuing a wave of pardons for his cronies on his way out of office. To Trump, being “corrupt” just means you aren’t loyal to him.
And yet, as with so many aspects of his behavior, Republicans resolved whatever cognitive dissonance they might have had in supporting Trump by deciding not that he was innocent but that the things he did just weren’t problematic. They concluded that sexual misconduct, incessant lying, vulgar bullying, running scams to rob people of their life savings, and everything else he was guilty of just weren’t misdeeds at all. The word “corruption” lost all meaning.
But it wasn’t Trump who gave conservatives the idea that corruption isn’t something to be concerned about.
The conservative majority on the Supreme Court has been on a long crusade to narrow the legal definition of corruption to render it almost meaningless. We used to have a system of campaign finance laws that treated even the appearance of corruption as something serious, on the principle that maintaining public faith in the system was a vital goal.
No more. In cases dating back to Citizens United in 2010, the court has allowed money from corporations, wealthy individuals, nonprofits that conceal their donors, and many other sources to flow toward campaigns and public officials. Again and again, they have expressed the belief that such payoffs to elected officials are essentially nothing the law should worry about.
Just last week, the court ruled that a candidate can loan his campaign money, then get paid back in the full amount after the election by donors, who will be putting money right in his personal bank account as they seek his favor.
Under this regime, a senator would at this point practically have to take out an ad in the newspaper saying. “I have just taken a bribe from this corporation, in exchange for which I have given my vote on this upcoming bill” to be found guilty of corruption.
The self-dealing free-for-all of the Trump presidency assured that ethically challenged underlings that their misdeeds wouldn’t face legal consequences. Today, two of Trump’s sleaziest appointees — former interior secretary Ryan Zinke and former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt — are running for the House and Senate, respectively. They might win, because in the GOP, you can’t be corrupt as long as you hate the libs.
Republicans have pulled off a neat trick: They have convinced themselves both that everyone they disagree with is corrupt, and that the corrupt acts and practices their own side commits are perfectly fine. They have degraded our entire system, and there is no reason to believe it won’t get worse.