The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration is in an unethical league of its own

President Trump.
President Trump. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

One of the great non-mysteries of the Trump administration is why Cabinet members think they can behave like aristocrats at the court of the Sun King. The Department of Housing and Urban Development spent $31,000 for a dining set for Secretary Ben Carson’s office while programs for the poor were being slashed. The Environmental Protection Agency has been paying for Administrator Scott Pruitt to fly first class and be protected by a squadron of bodyguards so he doesn’t have to mix with the great unwashed in economy class. The Department of Veterans Affairs spent $122,334 for Secretary David Shulkin and his wife to take what looks like a pleasure trip to Europe last summer; Shulkin’s chief of staff is accused of doctoring emails and lying about what happened. The Department of Health and Human Services paid more than $400,000 for then- ­Secretary Tom Price to charter private aircraft — a scandal that forced his resignation. 

Why would Cabinet members act any differently when they are serving in the least ethical administration in our history? The “our” is important, because there have been more crooked regimes — but only in banana republics. The corruption and malfeasance of the Trump administration is unprecedented in U.S. history. The only points of comparison are the Gilded Age scandals of the Grant administration, Teapot Dome under the Harding administration, and Watergate and the bribe-taking of Vice President Spiro Agnew during the Nixon administration. But this administration is already in an unethical league of its own. The misconduct revealed during just one day this week — Wednesday — was worse than what presidents normally experience during an entire term. 

The day began with a typically deranged tweet from President Trump: “Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. . . . Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!” Translation: Trump is exercised that the Justice Department is following its normal procedures. Sessions fired back: “As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor.” Translation: The president is asking him to act without “integrity and honor.” 

President Trump's nepotism has compromised U.S. standing in the world, says Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. (Video: The Washington Post)

This is part of a long pattern of the president pressuring the “beleaguered” Sessions — a.k.a. “Mr. Magoo” — to misuse his authority to shut down the special counsel investigation of Trump and to launch investigations of Trump’s political foes. Because Sessions won’t do that, Trump has tried to force him from office. The president does not recognize that he is doing anything improper. He thinks the attorney general should be his private lawyer. The poor man has no idea of what the “rule of law” even means, as he showed at a White House meeting Wednesday on gun control, during which he said: “Take the guns first, go through due process second.” This from a supposed supporter of the Second Amendment. 

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But wait. Wednesday’s disgraceful news was only beginning. Later in the day the New York Times reported that Jared Kushner’s family company had received hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from companies whose executives met with him in his capacity as a senior White House aide. The previous day, The Post had reported that officials in the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico had discussed how they could manipulate the president’s son-in-law “by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.” Oh, and don’t forget that during the transition in 2016, while Kushner was trying to refinance a family-owned office building, he met with a Russian banker close to the Kremlin and with executives of a Chinese insurance company that has since been taken over by the Chinese government. 

Little wonder that the previous week Kushner lost his top-secret security clearance. The wonder is that a senior aide with such dodgy business dealings was allowed access for a full year to the government’s most sensitive secrets — and that he still works in the White House. This is the kind of nepotism that plagues dictatorships and is a defining characteristic of Trump’s kleptocratic rule. 

Jonathan Capehart, Fred Hiatt, Christine Emba and Molly Roberts of The Post Opinions section discuss Trump's attack on Jeff Sessions and democratic norms. (Video: The Washington Post)

Of course, we are still only scratching the surface of administration scandals. This is a president, after all, whose communications director quit on Wednesday after admitting to lying (but insists her resignation was unrelated); whose senior staff included an alleged wife-beater; whose former national security adviser and deputy campaign manager have pleaded guilty to felonies; whose onetime campaign chairman faces 27 criminal charges, including conspiracy against the United States; whose attorney paid off a porn star; and whose son mixed family and government business on a trip to India. Given the ethical direction set by this president, it’s a wonder that his Cabinet officers aren’t stealing spoons from their official dining rooms. Come to think of it, maybe someone should look into that.

Read more on this issue:

The Post’s View: Kelly says the White House will ‘do better’ on security clearances. That’s not enough.

William D. Ruckelshaus: Pruitt is turning his back on transparency at the EPA

Dana Milbank: Hope Hicks told the truth about lying for Trump. Now she’s gone.

Randall D. Eliason: Mueller’s indictment only scratches the surface of a widespread conspiracy