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.