Scandal is the hallmark of the Trump administration, which increasingly seems to be rotting, like the proverbial fish, from the head down. President Trump himself daily serves up everything from the salacious to the ominous. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blows $12,000 to charter a private plane to fly from Las Vegas to Montana. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin takes a military plane to Kentucky and watches the solar eclipse. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose resignation should have been accepted months ago, is a standing punch line, blowing $43,000 for a private phone booth, flying first-class, handing out raises to cronies, exiling those who question him, all the while proclaiming his virtue. The media feeds on this. Not surprisingly, Democrats are talking about resuscitating their “culture of corruption” campaign theme from 2006.
The spectacle is appalling but focusing on it is mistaken. Just as Trump’s daily tweet rages obscure the real menace he poses, the unending stream of scandals involving Trump appointees diverts attention from the truly pernicious corruption of the administration. At a time when big money pervades our politics, this is the ultimate “pay for play” administration. What it has actually gotten done — primarily deregulation and tax cuts — benefits the few at the expense of the many, particularly the dispossessed and distressed whom Trump claims to champion.
The true scandal of Pruitt, for example, isn’t his sordid personal grotesqueries. It is, as actor and environmentalist Robert Redford pointed out, his utter contempt for the mission of the EPA, instead turning it from an agency dedicated to protecting our air, water and health into one serving the interests and profits of Big Oil and other industries.
Pruitt’s top deputy in the EPA toxic chemical unit, Nancy B. Beck, is a former executive of the American Chemistry Council. She has spearheaded a process that is reversing or weakening regulation on toxic chemicals such as the pesticide chlorpyrifos, essentially condemning more American children to unnecessary brain damage. Dow Chemical, which makes chlorpyrifos, contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural festivities. And now, big donors like the Koch brothers celebrate the regulatory rollbacks they have been able to achieve, such as a hold on safeguards that limit the amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxic chemicals.
Or consider that Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, donated $300,000 personally to Trump’s inaugural; the company chipped in $1 million to Trump’s super PAC. Murray’s lead lobbyist — Andrew Wheeler — is now Pruitt’s deputy. If Pruitt’s risible peculation finally brings him down, Wheeler is likely to take his place. The rollback of basic environmental protections will continue; the denial of climate change remains unshaken.
Trump set out to push what he called an historic effort for deregulation, appointing lobbyists and revolving-door industry officials to lead his “regulatory reform task forces.” There is no shame. As ProPublica reported: “At least 187 Trump political appointees have been federal lobbyists, and . . . many are now overseeing the industries they once lobbied on behalf of. We’ve also discovered ethics waivers that allow Trump staffers to work on subjects in which they have financial conflicts of interest.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, whom Trump named to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, raised eyebrows for telling a group of bankers and lobbyists that money talks, as if they needed to hear that. As a congressman, he said, he refused to meet with lobbyists unless they had contributed to his congressional campaigns. He offered this advice while mobilizing them to support his efforts to disembowel the CFPB, which since its inception in 2011 has recovered more than $12 billion for 29 million consumers who had been fleeced in credit-card or other financial scams. Upon being named head of the CFPB, he put a halt on hiring, stopped collecting fines, suspended rulemaking and ordered all active investigations reviewed. He canceled an investigation to a South Carolina payday lender that had previously donated to his congressional campaigns, and moved to suspend or weaken regulations of payday lenders, auto lenders and others preying on consumers.
This pattern repeats itself throughout the administration — most notably, in what Trump and Republicans consider their major accomplishment: the notorious tax deal. As Republicans admitted openly, they had to pass it or their donors would not answer their phone calls. Not surprisingly, the richest 1 percent will end up with some 83 percent of the benefit. And instead of a surge in investment, companies have largely used their tax breaks — as was predictable and predicted — for stock buybacks that benefit investors and CEOs with their stock options.
Trump, of course, campaigned on promises to “drain the swamp” in Washington. But the promise was a classic bait-and-switch. Trump views “the swamp” not as the entrenched interests and big money that have cleaned up by rigging the rules; he views the swamp as the public servants who labor to enforce the laws, helping to protect workers, consumers and the environment. “We have begun a historic program to reduce the regulations that are crushing our economy — crushing,” Trump said. “We’re going to put the regulations industry out of work and out of business.” When Stephen K. Bannon boasted about dismantling the administrative state, he was simply advertising to the predators that Trump would take the cops off the corporate beat. As Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, summarized: “This isn’t about increasing taxpayer returns, it’s about looting public resources, opening up more of everything for drilling, charging the industry less and pretending it’s all coming from outside experts.”
The serial scandals of top administration officials are villainous. But the deeper corruption of this administration is in plain sight. Trump and his aides are traducing a government and civil service already compromised by big money and entrenched interests. And the damage they are doing to everyday Americans is far more costly than the millions they make off with for themselves.