The Crookedest Administration Ever: mapping the major misdeeds
THE DEFENSE GOT ONE THING RIGHT at Donald Trump’s Senate trial. The case against him was thin, his team kept saying; and so it was, compared to the enormity of this administration’s other offenses.
Set aside the hate-mongering and the stream of conspiracy theories and demagogic bombast. Trump has brought us a breadth and brazenness of corruption unseen in the far-from-innocent annals of our nation’s history. In three years as president, he has transformed the executive branch into a giant favor factory, populated with the agents or willing partners of virtually every special interest. Add up all the routine, daily outrages—the quasi-bribery and quasi-extortion, the private raids on public funds, the handouts to the undeserving, the massive flow of cash, jobs, and freebies back in return—and Trump’s attempt to squeeze a little re-election help out of the fragile government of a desperate Eastern European country does not loom particularly large in the reckoning.
Adding it all up is a challenge, though. It’s hard to fathom the depths of the kleptocracy when there’s so much happening on the surface to divert us. The corruption most directly in our faces involves the looting and skimming and self-dealing of the president and his family. Our first hotel-owning president has inspired a parade of foreign diplomats and domestic lobbyists to pay tribute with overnight stays that are functionally indistinguishable from bribes. The Secret Service has blown over half a million dollars on golf carts protecting a leader who has spent nearly one out of every three days of his first term at one of his resort properties, which get free advertising on top of the revenue from lodging his guards and retinue. Ivanka Trump snags a valuable set of Chinese trademarks on the same day she dines with Xi Jinping. Kellyanne Conway hawks Ivanka’s products in TV interviews.
But the personal corruption of the Trumps themselves perversely masks the sliminess perpetrated by literally thousands of presidential appointees, from Cabinet officials to obscure functionaries. Amid all the distractions, it’s hard to focus on the more consequential crookedness and follow out the plotlines of all the sordid stories, and grasp the brutal consequences visited upon countless people. We lunge from scandal to scandal without ever filling in the bigger picture, or taking proper account of all the knaves, thieves, and corporate stooges and their handiwork.
ART BY PETER AND MARIA HOEY
Hard, but worth doing—an undertaking commenced here and continued and expanded online at https://prospect.org/mappingcorruption, with an interactive, agency-by-agency exhibit of the major offenses thus far committed. Only by traveling to the far corners of this swamp, looking through the muck, and drawing up a map of the territory—the stories both known and unknown—can we begin to understand our times.
CONSIDER THE ISSUE of immigration. At its mention, some Americans conjure up images of dark-skinned interlopers threatening to steal our jobs or live idly off our public services, while others are more likely to think of children cruelly separated from parents and desperate asylum seekers stuck in Orwellian turnaround. Either way, we tend to overlook a big central fact of today’s immigration policy: the huge sums of money drawn from the U.S. Treasury in the name of guarding our borders, and deposited into the coffers of a booming private-prison industry.
The two giants in that field, GEO Group and CoreCivic, run a combined 41 facilities housing more than half the detainees held in custody by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit, known as ICE; as of mid-2019, GEO and CoreCivic had collected an estimated $2.9 billion for their services—a huge haul reflecting a remarkable reversal of their fortunes, directly traceable to Trump and his homeland security team.
A cloud had descended over their line of business before the 2016 election. After a succession of scandals involving substandard medical care, deaths, suicides, sexual abuse, and exploitative labor practices, the Obama Justice Department had announced a phaseout of the private sector’s role in the federal prison system. While the Department of Homeland Security pointedly excused itself from the new policy, it nevertheless posed a serious threat to the industry’s future. And the industry responded: Just a day later, a GEO subsidiary gave $100,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. GEO-associated executives and entities went on to contribute another $350,000 for transmittal to Trump and other Republican campaigns, plus $225,000 to help finance the Trump inaugural festivities. When Jeff Sessions got tapped for attorney general, GEO Group hired two former Sessions Senate aides, David Stewart and Ryan Robichaux, to lobby on its behalf. A month after Inauguration Day, Sessions revoked the Obama-era guidance, by which time GEO’s stock market value had doubled, and CoreCivic’s was up 140 percent. “Thanks to President Donald Trump,” CNN observed, “America’s private prisons appear to be entering a golden age.” And thank President Trump they did, in the form of roughly $1 million in contributions to his election and re-election campaigns, at last count.
The payday lending industry made a parallel comeback, courtesy of the Trump administration’s decision to cancel an Obama-era plan to protect borrowers from being sucked into long-term debt at triple-digit interest. An estimated $2.2 million donated by payday groups to the Trump campaign and inaugural committees during the 2016 election cycle spurred this shift, and payday lenders weren’t shy about their intent. The Washington Post caught Mike Hodges, CEO of the mega-chain lender Advance Financial, telling industry peers that money put into the Trump cause would mean access to top administration officials. “I’ve gone to [Republican National Committee chair] Ronna McDaniel and said, ‘Ronna, I need help on something,’” Hodges said on an industry webinar. “She’s been able to call over to the White House and say, ‘Hey, we have one of our large givers. They need an audience.’”
The turning point for payday loan executives came when Richard Cordray, the Obama-era head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, stepped down, and Trump’s top budget official and noted CFPB-phobe Mick Mulvaney stepped in to replace him. The validity of Mulvaney’s appointment was contested, since it went against the fairly explicit succession provisions of the legislation creating the bureau. The White House took care of that problem by having its Office of Legal Counsel provide a supportive memo. Its author, Steven Engel, had been the lead attorney for a payday lender in a dispute over charges that the CFPB would eventually drop—after Mulvaney took charge.
LIKE CON MEN everywhere, our president relies on misdirection, using words to distract from deeds. Every bit of airtime or mental space claimed by one of his performances is attention deflected from his government and the actions of his appointees—the former coal lobbyist charged with protecting our air and water, the pharma executive guiding health care policy, the oil lobbyist at the Department of the Interior, the Raytheon lobbyist at the Department of Defense, the telecom lawyer chairing the Federal Communications Commission, the ex–Goldman Sachs lawyer (married to an ex–Goldman Sachs executive) heading up the Securities and Exchange Commission, the ex–Goldman Sachs partner directing the Treasury Department, the shipping heiress running the Transportation Department, the private equity tycoon holding down the Commerce Department, and the auto industry lobbyist over at Energy. That’s a partial list.
“One of the overarching narratives of the Trump administration is the total handover of the levers of government to corporations, and particularly the empowering of corporate representatives to oversee the very companies they worked for,” says Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, the venerable and still-toothy ethics watchdog. “That is the defining story of this administration, and it’s been badly underreported and underappreciated due to the whole Trump circus. It’s more extreme than anything we’ve seen. It’s all-pervasive. It includes a lot of examples that look like parodies.”
Personnel is policy, the saying goes, and it has never been so horribly true. Holding the post of secretary of commerce, for example, is Wilbur Ross, whose private equity firm paid a $2.3 million fine in 2016 over undisclosed fees charged to investment partners, and who went on to be described by Forbes magazine as “among the biggest grifters in American history” for siphoning an estimated $120 million from unhappy former associates. Ross made his name and fortune by seizing control of financially shaky companies, clearing their debts for pennies on the dollar, and unloading the remaining assets for a quick buck, sometimes after walking away from worker health and pension obligations. For nearly a year after his confirmation, Ross retained his ownership in a shipping company named Navigator Holdings, tied to Russian oligarchs and members of Vladimir Putin’s family. The Commerce Department is deeply involved in commercial shipping matters; the department logo features an actual ship. Just the same, before selling his stake in Navigator, which happens to own “the world’s largest fleet of natural gas carriers,” Ross personally negotiated a deal to facilitate the export of American-produced liquefied natural gas to China. The ethics officer who signed off on Ross’s continued investment got a promotion.
Betsy DeVos came to the administration’s notice through her work as a leading Republican donor and bundler, drawing on the fortune made by her father-in-law, Richard M. DeVos, from the multilevel-marketing giant Amway. At the Education Department, she gave a bunch of top jobs to people formerly employed by the likes of Career Education, Bridgepoint, and DeVry—for-profit college companies that had paid fines or made settlements over charges of deceptive marketing and inflated job-placement statistics. She and her team have treated that industry with remarkable solicitude, insisting that the defrauded former students of Corinthian and ITT go on making loan payments and maintaining the flow of federal funds to some of the smarmiest for-profit schools still on the scene.
Meanwhile, DeVos’s policies have left tens of thousands of teachers, nurses, police officers, and others unable to realize any practical benefit from a congressionally mandated program of public-service loan forgiveness. DeVos would appear to wield more than a typical Cabinet officer’s clout in this administration, to judge, anyway, by the fate of a presidential demand for measures to ease the impact of $1.5 trillion in ballooning student debt on millions of recent college attendees and the state of the economy. DeVos, whose department would have to implement this directive, has essentially ignored it; and Trump, whose re-election prospects depend on her money and Michigan campaign ties, has done nothing to force the issue. So the president of the United States is blocked from his desired goal by a functionary whose wealth confers political protection.
DeVos has achieved a certain cartoon-style celebrity through her hapless confirmation testimony and evident scorn for the public schools. By contrast, the pervasive corruption of the Interior Department under David Bernhardt has received comparatively little notice. Bernhardt was a longtime partner with the Denver law and lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, collecting at least $4.5 million from a roster of mining, oil, and gas clients. He replaced one of the administration’s penny-ante grifters, Ryan Zinke, who had become too much of an embarrassment by trying to spend $139,000 on six new office doors in addition to using government resources for travel with his wife. Bernhardt would soon disclose 20 separate declared conflicts of interest, deciding in what he must have imagined as an expression of transparency to carry the list around with him on an index card. It is far from clear, however, that his list had much effect on his conduct.
Under his leadership, Interior has moved to grant a long-term water supply contract to the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, a big former client of Bernhardt’s and a supplier of water to large almond growers and other agribusinesses in Northern California, potentially at the expense of San Francisco residents who depend on the same source of supply. As deputy secretary in 2017, Bernhardt pushed to weaken protections for fish in order to justify giving more water to Westlands—an issue on which he had recently lobbied. Documents released by Friends of the Earth show Bernhardt taking part in multiple meetings on the issue, even when the rules said he shouldn’t.
In all, Bernhardt’s department has opened a million acres of California land to fracking and oil drilling, while taking friendly action on a total of 25 measures sought or supported by former clients, according to the Center for Western Priorities. In addition to this stream of services to those he once represented, Bernhardt’s tenure has been a windfall for his former (and possibly future) firm. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has quadrupled its revenues during his time as a Cabinet secretary. No one should be concerned about any of this, Bernhardt assured The New York Times, because “Everything I do, I go to our ethics officers first.”
Elaine Chao arrived with a shorter list of conflicts, but with a remarkably easygoing posture toward ethics. She would be leading the department that regulates international shipping while her father and other family members ran a huge international shipping business that builds ships in Chinese-government-run facilities and has received hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from a bank tied to China’s authoritarian regime. At the same time, she would be overseeing the distribution of federal transportation funds to states and localities across the country while her husband, Mitch McConnell, served as Senate majority leader. To make matters even messier, the financial fortunes of the couple rested on the shipping business: In 2008, McConnell and Chao had received a gift from Elaine’s father valued at between $5 million and $25 million, according to federal disclosures.
Critics of the Chao nomination spoke of the danger of her participation in decisions benefiting either the family business or her husband’s political career. In office, she has abundantly justified both concerns. A New York Times investigation last year identified numerous actions taken by Chao or her department that could be advantageous to the family business; they included public appearances with her father and a planned joint trip to China to meet with government officials there. Under the secretary’s leadership, the department has moved to cut subsidies for cargo shippers that compete with her family’s business. Until June 2019, moreover, she had failed to sell her holdings in Vulcan, a manufacturer of road construction materials—a line of business profoundly affected by Department of Transportation policies. She took action to divest only after The Wall Street Journal revealed her continued stake.
Meanwhile, Chao set up a special pipeline for Kentucky transportation projects, overseen by a top deputy, Todd Inman, who had previously worked for McConnell. At last report, DOT had authorized grants in Kentucky totaling at least $78 million during the run-up to her husband’s 2020 re-election campaign. One highway improvement project went to a McConnell political stronghold, Paducah, that had been twice rejected for previous grant applications. Chao was not bashful about her role: “I try not to come empty-handed,” she quipped at a Lexington, Kentucky, event where she announced a $2.3 million grant to the local transit authority.
The list goes on and on. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has refused to commit to making a hypothetical vaccine for coronavirus affordable; Azar is a former executive with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, whose drug prices shot up during his time there. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was a founder or part-owner in more than a dozen agribusiness companies; he personally collected $278,000 in farm subsidies from 1996 to 2004. While in Wisconsin for a gathering of uneasy dairy farmers at a time of widespread distress and a surge in suicides in their ranks, Perdue implied that they should just get used to it, telling reporters, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson ordered a $31,000 dining set for his office. Scott Pruitt, the now-departed EPA administrator, spent $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth and dispatched aides to purchase him an old mattress from the Trump Hotel. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and proud crusader against “waste, fraud and abuse” in the Medicaid program, apparently had no problem with devoting $2 million of her agency’s budget to a personal PR campaign aimed at, among other things, getting designated one of the country’s top “Power Women” and gaining coverage in places like Glamour magazine.
To an extent uncontemplated by even the most business-friendly administrations of the past, Trump and company have filled decision-making posts at the subcabinet level with industry alums and apologists. Scott Angelle came to his Interior Department job overseeing safety and environmental enforcement after earning roughly $1.5 million on the board of an oil and gas pipeline company. Before that, he fought the BP-spill-triggered moratorium on Gulf Coast drilling while serving as Louisiana’s secretary of natural resources, a job from which he resigned when a brine company he was in charge of regulating created a giant sinkhole. Addressing an oil industry audience in 2017, Angelle gave out his cellphone number and advised his corporate listeners to communicate with him by phone in order to avoid leaving a paper trail.
One of Angelle’s colleagues at Interior, Assistant Secretary Doug Domenech, is a former oil and gas lobbyist who ran an industry-financed foundation dedicated to making the “forgotten moral case for fossil fuels.” The Justice Department’s first female associate attorney general, Rachel Brand, had been a lawyer or lobbyist for Google, T-Mobile, and the United States Chamber of Commerce, besides filing a friend-of-the-court brief that helped Citigroup dodge an admission of wrongdoing for its role in the sale and promotion of toxic mortgage bonds. (In February 2018, Brand left the administration to become a top executive at Walmart.) At the Department of Agriculture, Deputy Secretary Steve Censky had spent 21 years as CEO of the American Soybean Association, which lobbied against disclosure rules for products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Brooke Appleton, Censky’s chief of staff, had been a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association, to which she returned in February 2019. Kailee Tkacz, tapped to serve on a nutritional policy advisory panel, had been a lobbyist for the Corn Refiners Association, the National Grocers Association, and the Snack Food Association, battling against federal efforts to discourage excessive sugar and salt consumption.
In October 2019, ProPublica reporters attempted to count up the former lobbyists recruited into the Trump administration. They arrived at a working total of 281—one lobbyist for every 14 non-civil-service job openings, and four times more than Obama had hired during his first six years in office.
Nowhere has industry capture been more extreme than at the Environmental Protection Agency, where the résumés of key staffers glitter with the names of such past employers as Exxon, Hess, BP, DowDuPont, Dynegy, Bechtel, Duke Energy, and (in multiple instances) the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council. Even at EPA, however, it would be hard to find a more appalling case than Nancy Beck, named to head its office of chemical safety after holding a top job at an industry lobbying group, on whose behalf she had battled against an EPA proposal to halt the sale of a trio of chemicals linked to birth defects, nerve damage, and a disturbing number of deaths. Within weeks of her arrival, Beck was leading the charge against that proposal, based on the same arguments she had developed as a lobbyist, and over the protests of agency professionals who had been working on the issue. Was there a conflict of interest in there somewhere? Lest anyone think so, the EPA had its legal counsel compose a pair of “impartiality determination” memos citing Beck’s “unique expertise, knowledge and past experience” and the need to consider “all perspectives.” If the Senate goes along with President Trump’s wishes, Beck will soon be running the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
EPA is one of a number of agencies where public-interest advocates find themselves regularly dealing with officials who, in past lives, were working “directly to undermine the agencies they are now serving as managers,” says Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Agencies are increasingly making policy decisions without “the professionals even being in the room,” and putting out rules or guidance documents with no analysis or supporting evidence, he adds; instead, “It’ll just be ‘We’ve decided to do this.’
THE TRUMP administration’s sky-high turnover rate reflects, among other factors, its open hostility to dissent or indeed to an interest in facts. “You get the sense that … this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views,” Lewis Ziska told Politico, after the conclusion of two decades’ work as a plant physiologist at the Department of Agriculture. His resignation had been spurred, he said, by the experience of seeing his superiors blow off a study of climate change’s impact on the future of rice-growing and the 600 million people who depend on it.
One thing you can’t get in trouble for in this administration is the use of official powers to see to the needs or whims of the president. That has proved to be a sound survival strategy. Trump’s original attorney general, Jeff Sessions, lost his job for recusing himself from the Russia inquiry; his successor, William Barr, has made himself indispensable by ordering investigations of Trump enemies and squelching probes of Trump himself. Mnuchin, for his part, has worked with IRS officials to keep the Trump tax returns on lockdown, reportedly overruling lawyers who argued that the agency had no choice but to turn them over in response to a House subpoena.
The Treasury Secretary also had a hand in tweaking the rules of the Opportunity Zone tax credit so that it might be more readily available to rich real-estate wheeler-dealers. The beneficiaries we know about include Jared Kushner, former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, New York real-estate magnate and longtime Trump associate Richard LeFrak, former White House aide Anthony Scaramucci, and Mnuchin’s longtime friend, the convicted securities crook Michael Milken, who later secured a presidential pardon with Mnuchin’s further assistance.
By looking out for Trump, you gain a license to look out for yourself—that is the credo of this administration. Wilbur Ross accepted the task of cooking up a phony legal pretext for the White House’s effort to discourage Latino voting through the insertion of a citizenship question into the 2020 census, a plan stymied by the Supreme Court. In return for his dutiful service, Ross has been permitted to play a leading role in U.S.-China trade and natural gas export matters, despite his joint investment in the Navigator shipping company (along with a Chinese state fund) and natural gas concerns. In addition, he has conferred with leaders of state-controlled funds in Qatar, Japan, and Singapore, which had previously placed money with his private equity firm. He has also held official meetings with the CEOs of Chevron and Boeing while his wife owned shares in those companies valued at $400,000 and $2 million, respectively.
Officials of the Department of Homeland Security, including current acting Secretary Chad Wolf, have been steady cheerleaders for Trump’s cherished border wall, participating in promotional events that effectively double as re-election commercials. Meanwhile, a stream of DHS people have moved on to lucrative positions in businesses that rely on Homeland Security contracts. One of them, Scott Sutterfield, now an executive at LaSalle Corrections, previously ran ICE’s field office in New Orleans. During his time there, ICE began using eight new for-profit detention centers in Louisiana and Mississippi. Sutterfield then went to work for LaSalle, the company operating six of the new jails. Although he claimed to have recused himself from the contracting process, a colleague didn’t sound so sure. “Not extremely a lot,” said LaSalle Director of Operations Kevin Sumrall when asked if Sutterfield had been involved in decisions affecting LaSalle.
SINCE THE BEGINNING of his presidency, Donald Trump has managed to fend off two long official inquiries, one going as far as impeachment. Now that the goal is to win an election, some investigation-weary Democrats are counseling their party to go easy on the attacks and the whole subject of corruption, to concentrate on kitchen-table concerns and accentuate the positive in order to appeal to a small but theoretically crucial bloc of Trump-susceptible swing voters in swing states.
That way lies political disaster. “You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, Donald Trump taught us that,” says Richard Cordray, who has watched the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which he led for six years, get dismembered by Mick Mulvaney and other Trump hirelings. Cordray, who ran unsuccessfully statewide in Ohio twice (once for attorney general and once for governor), scoffs at the notion of the Midwest as a zone of comparative indifference to Trump political thievery. Voters everywhere react very badly to public officials “who steal from our pockets and stuff their own,” Cordray says.
There is plenty of evidence to support him. Since the financial crisis of 2008, polls show corruption climbing the ladder of voter concerns to a place near the top. Unfortunately, voters all too often set their corruption outrage aside out of a weary sense that things will be pretty bad regardless of which way they go. That perception was one of Trump’s triumphs in the 2016 campaign; it was achieved through a combination of his “drain the swamp” chants and his endless attacks on a Democratic nominee who had made herself conveniently vulnerable. He will no doubt deploy the same techniques again if Joe Biden is the nominee, pounding away at Hunter Biden’s high-paid corporate board gigs (emblematic, if truth be told, of small-time, bipartisan corruption that masks the much worse stuff), and ginning up whatever other scandals or pseudo-scandals come to mind. His assignment could be tougher if the Democrats end up making a different choice.
When corruption gets rampant and brazen, however, and when it is heavily concentrated in one political party, it makes for wave elections like those of 1974, 2006, and, indeed, 2018. Voters went to the polls in the most recent midterms with their heads full of tawdriness involving the likes of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, and proceeded to oust a record number of House incumbents from office. Many of those legislators lost to Democratic challengers running on strong clean-government platforms and rejecting corporate PAC dollars.
Afterward, Nancy Pelosi was one of a number of observers pointing to corruption outrage as the biggest driver of the outcome. This was so, they concluded, even though party leaders had been timid about the issue beforehand, pumping out advice and talking points with an almost obsessive emphasis on health care.
This time around, Democrats enter the 2020 campaign with the advantage of an agreed-on corruption-fighting platform (the already-passed House legislation symbolically dubbed H.R. 1), and with the chance to put the crimes of Trump & Co. front and center. They can do so not only on the campaign trail, but, thanks to their 2018 success, in House oversight hearings, following up on the work of media and watchdog organizations. More digging, with this administration, is bound to unearth more dirt.
They can, above all, follow the lead of Elizabeth Warren (in a valuable legacy of her unsuccessful campaign) by drawing the connection again and again between issue areas where obvious and widely supported policies keep going nowhere, and the industries whose corrupt influence guarantees that. Corruption, in addition to being a powerful issue in its own right, can help the party transcend debates over potentially divisive policy specifics: Progressives and moderates may disagree about Medicare for All and a public option, but they can unite behind the foundational need to rein in the self-interest of the drug, insurance, and hospital industries. Trump’s industry-laden Health and Human Services Department exemplifies this kind of influence, and should be held up as a model—one of a great many to be found in the executive branch of government under this president.
Democrats must summon the courage, most importantly, to make the leap from denouncing Trump’s over-the-top personal corruption to acknowledging and challenging the more generic and abiding money corruption that, with or without Trump, gives billionaires and rapacious corporations and financial interests way too much clout, at incalculable cost to the rest of us and the idea of democracy.
As messy as things look right now, a referendum on corruption and clean government is the kind of election that gives the country, as well as the Democratic ticket, the best shot at a decisive victory. “Corruption is not a peripheral concern,” says Jamie Raskin, the Maryland congressman and constitutional law scholar. “It’s the very heart of what ails us … We have to elevate the anti-corruption agenda to the top of our political program.”
This article originally published in The American Prospect.
The Post-Impeachment Case for Elizabeth Warren
How will the decision to impeach Donald Trump ultimately play out for the Democrats? Who would be their strongest candidate for president? Those questions might be easier to consider together than separately. The wisdom of impeachment is likely to depend on the identity of the candidate.
The Republicans have stayed on script and stood by their man. We can count on the Senate majority to acquit him in the next several days. And what then? With the hearings and trial concluded, will the public, the media, and the Democratic Party lose interest in the Trump administration’s misdeeds, along with the particulars of the House’s indictment? If that’s how things go, impeachment could look like a bad political bet in hindsight.
But suppose these proceedings come to be seen as just one chapter in a continuing exploration of the crookedness of the Trump regime? Suppose the disclosures keep coming and the Democrats seize on them to turn their 2020 campaign into a crusade against corruption in the broad sense—against the corporate capture and bribery-adjacent behavior that, Trump or no Trump, block our country’s way forward on just about all the big issues facing us?
That is perhaps another way of asking: What if Elizabeth Warren winds up as the Democratic nominee for president?
Warren has made corruption her signature issue. In the summer of 2018, four months before launching her campaign, she introduced a sweeping clean-government bill. It would prohibit lobbyists from raising or donating campaign money, while greatly expanding the number of people defined as lobbyists; impose a lifetime ban on lobbying for former elected and high-level appointed officials; compel the release of the tax returns of all federal candidates and officeholders; and bar corporations from bestowing “golden parachute” retirement packages on executives heading into government, among other things.
In October 2019, Warren announced her decision to swear off big-money fundraising events. This was another significant move substantively as well as symbolically, despite the validity of Pete Buttigieg’s complaint about the cash Warren had already collected.
But the heart of her appeal as an anti-corruption candidate lies in the connections she draws between money corruption and one area of national policy after another. Climate change, racial justice, economic justice, worker rights and dignity—progress on all these fronts, Warren argues, demands a fairer political process, a more representative government, and measures to curb the runaway political power of big corporations, Wall Street, and the ultra-wealthy. “Giant corporations have bought off our government,” Warren said at a huge rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park last September. “Corruption has put our planet at risk. Corruption has broken our economy, and corruption is breaking our democracy.”
The debate over “electability” has been loud, long, and simplistic, focused on the backgrounds, ideologies, regions, and genders of the candidates, with almost no effort made to envision the campaigns they would run or how those campaigns might affect the thoughts and spirits of the electorate. That lack of imagination, it seems to me, has led to a serious underestimation of Elizabeth Warren.
The corruption frame gives Warren the vocabulary to describe the opponent she hopes to go up against. Donald Trump, in her telling, is “corruption in the flesh”; congressional Republicans are “fawning, spineless defenders of his crimes.” But Warren is far from fixated on the Trump gang; she treats their brazenness as no more than an intensification of the respectable and routine brand of modern corruption that involves the twisting of laws and institutions of government to benefit a favored few.
Republicans may be right in their ugly calculation that Americans don’t f-ing care about Ukraine, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ranted to Mary Louise Kelly of NPR last week. But systemic corruption is quite another matter. It was a potent issue for, of all people, Donald Trump in 2016, when a slice of the electorate took his drain-the-swamp talk semi-seriously; and it was crucial to the Democrats’ recapture of the House in 2018, after the hollowness of Trump’s vows had become widely apparent. In a pre–2018 election Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 77 percent of those surveyed rated “the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington” as a top issue, and the voters who felt that way came down heavily in favor of Democrats.
Since then, House Democrats have made a break with the past by rallying around legislation—the first symbolic act of their term in the majority—that calls for nonpartisan redistricting, disclosure of dark-money donors, and a matching-fund system for candidates who submit to limits on campaign contributions. With a forceful and credible anti-corruption candidate at the top of the ticket, some of the centrists and corporatists could be swept into the reform camp and perhaps even stirred to acknowledge and regret their past complicity in the problem. That could have a huge impact.
Warren was tagged early as the “I have a plan for that” candidate. In interviews and debates, she has been quizzed about the political and practical wisdom of her proposals for a wealth tax, a Green New Deal, and universal pre-K, among other ambitious things. On balance, her plans and words have served Warren well, despite her overcommitment to Medicare for All. They set her apart (along with Bernie Sanders) from the technocratic and corporate-friendly lineage of recent Democratic presidents and candidates, and they convey an urgency appropriate to someone who aims to enter the White House in a moment of climate-change awakening.
But Warren rarely spends much time in the weeds of policy when she’s out campaigning. “I have a story for that” would be a more apt catchphrase for Warren on the stump.
Many of her stories are about America’s past and about corruption and the struggle to overcome it. In Washington Square, her subject was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. From her temporary podium, Warren could point toward the 11-story building (now part of New York University) that once housed the factory on its eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. It was, as she said, “one of the worst industrial disasters in American history,” but the structure survived even as 146 people died, “mostly women, mostly immigrants, Jewish and Italian,” some jumping to their deaths to escape the heat and smoke, others falling with a section of badly engineered fire escape. The death toll was so high because the factory owners had locked an exit (to prevent employee theft) and refused to install sprinklers (to save money).
Labor activists and reformers had been sounding the alarm about garment industry working conditions and safety hazards for years. “But the fat profits were making New York factory owners rich, and they had no plans to give that up,” Warren said. So instead of fixing their problems, “the owners worked their political connections, they made campaign contributions and talked with their friends in the legislature. They greased the state government so thoroughly that nothing changed.”
From the Triangle fire, she moved on to an account of the organizing and advocacy that ultimately led New York state to rewrite its labor laws “from top to bottom.” Warren anchored this part of her story in the career of Frances Perkins, who had been a witness to the fire (coming out onto the street from a visit with friends nearby) and wound up holding high positions in Franklin Roosevelt’s gubernatorial and presidential administrations. As secretary of labor—the first woman to serve in any president’s Cabinet—Perkins had a hand in laws that abolished child labor, standardized the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, established a federal minimum wage, and gave us unemployment insurance and Social Security. “The Triangle fire was the day the New Deal was born,” Warren said. It’s “a story about what’s possible when we fight together as one.”
Warren uses history to illuminate both the possibility and the difficulty of change. The policy breakthroughs she cited in her Triangle talk, she pointed out, were the product of a quarter-century of inside and outside agitation. Several were part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which did not come until FDR’s second term, after the political ground had been plowed by first-term measures that empowered unions and delivered emergency relief to millions. “After we win in 2020, nobody gets to go home,” Warren said at a December rally in Des Moines, Iowa. “We all come back to push.”
She is running against cynicism as well as corruption. “Those with power—and those who do their bidding—dump an endless avalanche of excuses, misdirections, and distractions on the American people,” she said during a New Year’s Eve speech. “It’s all designed to get us to give up and resign ourselves to the way things are—with them in power and everyone else left behind.”
Drawing on her family history as well as our national history, she speaks as a baby boomer who benefited from the New Deal social compact. Two personal stories come up again and again. One involves the time her father lost his job and her mother decided to enter the workforce at age 50, putting on her best dress to interview for a lowly position at Sears Roebuck. That tale, as Warren presents it, is about someone rising to an occasion—“you do what has to be done to take care of the people you love”—but also about government’s crucial role as an instrument of justice, “because when I was a girl in America, a full-time minimum-wage job would support a family of three,” while now it “will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty.”
The other story is about Warren as a young mother getting a teaching certificate and a law degree from well-funded public universities that charged her just a few hundred dollars a year in tuition. “My daddy ended up as a janitor,” she likes to say, “but his baby daughter got the opportunity to become a public-school teacher, a law professor, a U.S. senator, and run for president!”
Warren has set out to convince us that our democracy can be reclaimed from big money and our government put to good use. That’s not easy for Americans to believe these days, but it’s a story we badly need to hear, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who could tell it better.
(Originally published in The American Prospect)
Death comes for the Republican Party
Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. We can stipulate that fact. We can acknowledge, just the same, that there are useful analogies to be drawn between Trump times and Hitler times.
In New York Magazine, Frank Rich mines the later-life stories of Hitler’s sympathizers and apologists for insights into the likely fates of their Trump equivalents. Goose-stepping Nazis are nowhere to be found in this wide-ranging article. The author takes his case studies from the more relatable ranks of French collaborationists, British appeasers, and America Firsters.
Officials of the puppet regime known as Vichy France shipped 76,000 Jews to German concentration camps. After the war they got little sympathy, Rich points out, when they pleaded that “things would have been far worse if they had not been working on the inside.” That is essentially the same argument, he adds, made by the Trump administration’s putative “adults in the room.” Former Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, for example, told the Los Angeles Times that he hoped to have his tenure judged by “what the President did not do” thanks to Kelly’s temporizing presence. “Good luck with that in the long-term court of public opinion,” Rich advises.
Like postwar France, postwar Britain was in no mood to rehabilitate the likes of Lord Londonderry, “whose entanglement with Nazi leaders and push for Anglo-German friendship in the 1930s,” according to Rich, “mirrors Trump, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and their posse’s infatuated courtship of Putin’s Russia.”
The America First movement originated in 1940 “as a campus-centric peace campaign, but was hijacked by a rancid mob of Hitler acolytes and peace-at-any-price dupes that included, most famously, Charles Lindbergh,” he continues. “Many of these Hitler enablers had elaborate rationalizations for their actions that mirror those of Trump’s highest-profile shills today. Robert Taft, the hard-right isolationist senator from Ohio, wrote the script for Better Trump than Hillary-ism nearly a century ago: America should not go to war with Germany, he argued, because ‘there is a good deal more danger of the infiltration of totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circles in Washington than there will ever be from the activities of the … Nazis.’”
By the mid-1950s, Hollywood thought America had lost enough short-term memory to be receptive to a biopic celebrating the pioneering aviator. Hollywood thought wrong. Even with Jimmy Stewart in the role, some theaters refused to book The Spirit of St. Louis, and Jack Warner later described it as “the most disastrous failure” in the history of his family business.
Lindbergh, at least, remains forever linked with the first transatlantic flight. Lacking any such lines of mitigation in their resumes, Steve Mnuchin, William Barr, Devin Nunes, Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell and their gang are likely to be remembered, in Rich’s view, more or less exclusively for abetting “a leader whose record in government (thus far) includes splitting up immigrant families and incarcerating their children in cages; encouraging a spike in racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic vigilantes; leveraging American power to promote ethnic cleansing abroad and punish political opponents at home; actively inciting climate change and environmental wreckage; and surrendering America’s national security to an international rogue’s gallery of despots.”
Will the whole of the Republican Party go down with the Trump ship in one of the next two presidential elections? This excellent article points to that conclusion, without exactly stating it. “All cults come to an end, often abruptly,” Rich observes, and “Trump’s Republican Party is nothing if not a cult.” That is a heartening and timely reminder.
“Saved Your Life!”
It was the punchline of a comedy routine. First you shoved another kid into the street. Then you yanked him back onto the sidewalk and spoke those mirth-making words. Trust me, it was considered quite the laugh riot by some members of my peer group when I was roughly twelve and making my way from home to junior high school in New York City.
Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy has brought back memories of that gag. One minute he’s raising the specter of armed conflict with North Korea; the next he’s announcing the dawn of a new age of peace and denuclearization and telling us about the “beautiful letters” that have passed between him and Kim Jong Un since they “fell in love.” America’s dealings with China have followed a similar course, jerking us into and out of a state of trade war a few times already.
And now Iran: hours after threatening to hit Iranian targets “harder than they have ever been hit before” and declaring cultural sites explicitly on limits (“They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people, and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It’s doesn’t work that way.”), the President informs us that Iran is “standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.” How exactly have the Iranians signaled their renewed civility? By not quite managing to kill any U.S. soldiers in their retaliatory attack on an American military target in Iraq. President Trump declares himself willing, in gratitude, to “embrace peace with all who seek it.”
Our salvation comes with an asterisk this time around, however. Iranian forces, we learn – while on high alert “at a time of crisis caused by U.S. adventurism,” as their foreign minister put it – have accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 people aboard.
That plot twist could complicate the reaction of our neighbors to the North. Friends and relatives of the 57 Canadians on the doomed flight will be eager to see the much-cited but still-secret evidence of imminent evil intent that led to the drone-killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani – the deed that set the current chain of events in motion. Ukrainians, too, may be stirred to question the necessity of that act, ordered by President Trump to the reported great surprise of his national security team. Even if they give America the benefit of the doubt, the people of Ukraine may wonder why the stars have once again aligned to turn their country into a fly-by victim of Donald Trump’s festering grievances. Last year, a shot aimed at Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden blindsided them; now they would seem to be collateral damage in a tussle between Trump and Nancy Pelosi. That would be a fair conclusion, at any rate, if we suppose that Trump’s unexpected order had anything whatever to do with a desire to distract from the impeachment proceedings and his crooked deeds.
The President has, in this latest instance, put his own stamp on the save-your-life joke. It starts out the old preadolescent way, with him shoving America out into the street; then a schoolbus swerves to avoid us and collides with a tanker truck, setting off a neighborhood conflagration. But hey, it’s not our lookout. We’re back on the sidewalk, safe and sound, thanking our dear leader for once again protecting us from harm. That’s how the story always ends when Donald Trump is telling it.
Help keep outrage alive when the curtain falls on impeachment
That’s the goal of a project I’m working on with the American Prospect magazine.
The scheme in brief: an online map of Trump Administration corruption. Using text, graphics and voice narration, we’re building an agency-by-agency exhibit of the most unfit appointees and the most egregious cases of self-enrichment, insider dealing, favors dispensed to fat-cats and nasty corporations, taxpayer dollars misdirected, and public duties neglected.
The aims in brief:
- Keep outrage alive by calling renewed attention to the rampant and brazen crookedness of the Trump gang — the stuff recently overshadowed by the Russia and Ukraine probes and the issue of foreign meddling in a U.S. election.
- Fuel the effort to end an epically dangerous presidency.
- Generate support for sweeping clean-government reforms to address the subtler, more humdrum forms of corruption — the corporate capture and bribery-adjacent behavior — that block America’s way forward on one big issue after another, with or without Donald Trump in the White House.
If you can help, please use the dedicated donation page on the Prospect website or write a check to The American Prospect, noting that it is for the Trump Corruption Project, and send to Jim Lardner, 4849 Connecticut Avenue NW #832, Washington DC 20008. Your contribution is tax-deductible either way.
Hail and Farewell, Bill Greider
Bill grew up in suburban Cincinnati. His father was a chemist, his mother a schoolteacher. He was a graduate of Princeton.
You learn these things from someone’s obituary. You probably wouldn’t have learned them from Bill. He did not have much to say about himself. His mind was too full of questions about the world and the country, and about how things worked, how they got that way, and what it would take to make them better.
The Princeton thing came as a bit of a shock to me. I had Bill pegged as the product of a mining or milling family. For me he was an exemplar of what journalism was like in the days before you had to have a college degree to practice it, back when reporters were too busy reporting to think about becoming TV celebrities or hanging out in the Hamptons.
I worked with Bill at the Washington Post for a while; years later I saw him fitfully in Vermont, a state he would get away to when he was willing to risk leaving his beat untended. His beat was America’s messy democracy and the wide territory between its theoretical and actual workings. That is the stuff you could learn from Bill.
I count myself one of the many journalists who loved him and welcomed the chance to hang out with him when he was smoking a pipe and in a mood to unwind. Knowing I would not again have the pleasure of his physical company, I spent an hour yesterday mucking around in his terrific book Who Will Tell the People, which came out in 1992 and abounds with enduring truths about the workings of government and commerce. Here, for example, is a passage from the chapter presciently entitled “Rancid Populism”:
The contemporary Republican Party seems brilliantly suited to the modern age, for it has perfected the art of maintaining political power in the midst of democratic decay. The party of Lincoln has become the party of mass marketing, applying marketing’s elaborate technologies to the task winning elections. From this, it has fashioned a most improbable marriage of power — a hegemony of moneyed interests based on the alienation of powerless citizens.
As men of commerce Republicans naturally understood marketing better than Democrats, and they applied what they knew about selling products to politics with none of the awkward hesitation that inhibited old-style politicians. As a result, voters are now viewed as a passive assembly of “consumers,” a mass audience of potential buyers. Research discovers through scientific sampling what it is these consumers know or think and, more important, what they feel, even when they do not know their own feelings. A campaign strategy is then designed to connect the candidate with these consumer attitudes. Advertising images are created that will elicit positive responses and make the sale…
Much of what currently passes for strategic planning within the Democratic party is actually a forlorn discussion about how to emulate the Republican party’s mass-marketing skills. The conduct of contemporary electoral politics is like what would happen if an automobile company decided to fire its engineers and let the advertising guys design the new model…”
Another aptly-titled chapter, “Hollow Laws,” explains its core concept thusly:
Symbolic legislation is passed with fanfare, self-congratulation and the knowledge that the real political fight has only just begun. The participants will decide later, elsewhere, what will actually happen. Citizens at large cannot usually see the details of these evasions, but they observe, in time, that nothing much seems to have happened…
While the news media focus on the conventional political drama of enacting new laws, another less obvious question preoccupies Washington: Will the government enforce the law? Does the new law enacted by Congress really have to mean what the public thinks it means? Or is there a way to change its terms and dilute its impact on private interests? Lawyers inquire whether exceptions can be arranged for important clients. Major corporations warn of dire economic consequences if the legal deadlines are not postponed for a few more years. Senators badger federal agencies to make sure the law is treating their clients and constituents with due regard.
Washington, in other words, engages in another realm of continuing politics that the public rarely sees – a governing contest where it is even more difficult and expensive to participate, where the supposedly agreed upon public objectives are regularly subverted, stalled or ignored, where the law is literally diverted to different purposes, where citizens’ victories are regularly rendered moot.
These words may sound gloomy. Bill was not. He was a radiant soul and a fount of warmth and inspiration — not exactly an optimist but always prepared to be pleasantly surprised by the course events took. He was a passionate believer in following a story where it led, experience having taught him that initial assumptions rarely came through the process intact. He felt the same way about our country: you could never be quite sure where it would go next.
Greatness where you least expect it — in a Christmas movie
Ebenezer Scrooge has been portrayed on screen by Michael Caine, Jim Carrey, Tim Curry, Albert Finney, Kelsey Grammer, Seymour Hicks, Rich Little, Bill Murray, Reginald Owen, Guy Pearce, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart and (somehow or other) Cicely Tyson. In animated versions, he has borne the mugs of Fred Flintstone, Mister Magoo, Scrooge McDuck and Yosemite Sam and carried the voices of Jim Backus, Simon Callow, Basil Rathbone and Walter Matthau.
For those in the know, however, one Scrooge towers over the rest…
I have been putty in Alastair Sim’s hands for 60 years or so. As a kid I would scour the TV schedule for a showing of his 1951 turn as Scrooge. The revisits have been less frequent lately, but I tuned in again yesterday, hoping to bring some company and holiday uplift into what was shaping up to be a lonely Christmas, with a son at work, a daughter in West Virginia, and nothing stirring, not even a mouse.
My effort succeeded. The movie does more than just hold up; it spills out new pleasures. I used to think of it as a transcendant portrait within a rickety frame. Profound apologies are owed, I now see, to everyone involved, beginning with the director, Brian Desmond Hurst. Online research tells me that he trained with John Ford, and this film reveals him to have been an excellent student, Fordian in his bold lighting, his careful casting of small roles, his loving attention to faces and expressions, his evocative use of folk music, and his readiness to be dark and funny at once. I look forward to checking out the rest of the Desmond Hurst o’euvre, above all On the Night of the Fire aka The Fugitive (1939), described as a pioneering British film noir.
Why, I am asking myself, was I so unappreciative for so long of so many of this film’s fine qualities? I’m going to pin the blame partly on the genre — Christmas movies don’t arouse thoughts of greatness — and partly on the fuzziness of old-time TV reception, which could not convey the blacks and shadows of such a work. Along with my apologies to the director and crew, I owe thanks to the good soul who has (perhaps illegally) uploaded the movie in a proper 1820×720 pixel rendering.
This time around, I was struck by, among other things, the work of George Cole as the young-adult Scrooge. His performance is not just moving in its own right but beautifully matched to that of Sim as the old-man Scrooge. I could say that Cole might almost be Sim’s son. Instead, I will drop the “almost” and raise the idea that they may actually have been father and son, a hypothesis based on physical resemblance and the fact that Cole turns out to have been placed for adoption around the time Sim befriended the young teenager who, when she reached a decent age, became his wife — a marriage that would last 55 years! Later on, Cole came to live with the Simses, remaining there on and off until he himself got married and built a house nearby, where he raised his own family. He and Sim appeared in 11 movies together. Cole eventually became a star of British TV, playing the detective Arthur Dailey in the series “Minder.” Also in need of checking out.
The other standout performances include Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Cratchit, and, for me the most striking, Kathleen Harrison as Scrooge’s housemaid, Mrs. Dilber. Harrison’s character is pivotal to two glorisously contrapuntal scenes. First comes a vision presented by the Ghost of Christmas Future in which she is part of a merry band of lowlifes ransacking the stray household assets of a dead man they hold in shared contempt, while Scrooge looks on, gradually connecting the dots and identifying himself as the departed.
A few minutes later, Harrison returns as the first fellow human to be encountered by Sim when he awakens from his night of transformative visitations. Here is where Sim soars to his highest heights. Bounding out of bed wrapped in a blanket, he takes a pinch of his own flesh, gazes at himself in a mirror, and, satisfied that he has survived, cavorts about with mad glee. Harrison is right there with him, initially baffled, then terrified, finally racing from the room in panic until they meet again for a final coda on the staircase. She’s terrific.
And Sim is operating in a stratosphere of brilliance that is nearly impossible to analyze or describe. But I don’t have to: you can check out this sublime sequence for yourself, 1 hour, 13 minutes and 30 seconds into the movie.
I love this performance from start to finish, and I suspect I would feel much the same way about the man. In 1959, Sim filed a lawsuit against H.J. Heinz for using an obviously Sim-like voiceover in a baked-beans commercial. He lost the case, possibly because he couldn’t claim any economic harm; his objection was not that they had failed to compensate him, but that he would never “prostitute his art” by advertising baked beans or anything else.
Why is this debate different from other debates?
Not just different but way better — for two reasons: the NBC/MSNBC team is (1) asking stimulating questions and (2) giving the candidates enough time to give real answers.