It would have been easy to miss the stories late last week, what with a trade war in progress, a hot war with Iran threatened, and the president accusing his critics of treason.
But on Thursday, a report from the Government Accountability Office concluded that Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, broke the law in lavishly refurnishing his office. The same day, the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency said that former Administrator Scott Pruitt wasted nearly $124,000 of taxpayer money on excessive travel, including first-class airline tickets.
For the first year and a half of his administration, the petty corruption of Donald Trump’s aides was a leading story. During the spring and summer of 2018, there seemed to be nearly daily revelations about abuses at one department or another, from tony travel to soundproof booths. Then the issue sank from the headlines, for a variety of reasons. There were bigger stories, especially as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe began producing more indictments. Pruitt was finally forced to resign, which seemed to tie a bow on the corruption thread. Besides, a certain numbness sets in after so many cases of wasted money.
But it would be a mistake to believe the problem has gone away, or that it’s safe to ignore. Pruitt is gone from the government and on to an inevitable career in lobbying, it’s true. So is Ryan Zinke, the former secretary of the interior, who was embroiled in several scandals. They were preceded out the door by Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services. Price’s relatively quick and contrite resignation from office in his own excessive-expenses scandal now seems like a quaint throwback to an earlier era, when shame applied to Cabinet members. If he’d only understood how much the ground had shifted, he might have resolved to just stay in the job and weather the storm.
That’s what Carson did. In spring 2018, it emerged that Carson had spent about $45,000 refitting his office at HUD, including four grand for new blinds, more than $8,000 for a dishwasher, and nearly $32,000 for a dining-room table. In March 2018, Congress asked the GAO to investigate the spending. The good news for Carson: The blinds were okay. The bad news: The table and dishwasher broke the law.
Such behavior might be forgivable in the case of a hardworking public servant who begged pardon. But Carson is a multimillionaire in his own right, who infamously (if with laudable self-awareness) declared himself unqualified for his post, and who blamed his wife when the spending was revealed. Carson remains in the Cabinet. Now that the federal government’s internal watchdog has concluded he broke the law, will that change? It’s unlikely. HUD seldom captures the attention of the public overall, and Trump has made clear he has little interest in it except as a forum to enact his unrelated policy priorities.
Moreover, Trump has little interest in policing this sort of bad behavior among his aides. Historically, scandalous spending of taxpayer dollars was a one-way ticket out of government. Price, a veteran elected official, was acting on this understanding when he resigned. But Pruitt’s demise came only after the drumbeat apparently became such a distraction and nuisance that Trump became unwilling to deal with it any longer. It took nearly a year.
Still in the Cabinet along with Carson is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. In February, the Office of Government Ethics refused to certify Ross’s financial disclosure—a highly unusual step—because he hadn’t sold a stock that he claimed he had. Ross insisted the error was inadvertent. This would be more plausible if OGE hadn’t already had to warn Ross about inaccuracies in his disclosures, and if he hadn’t been caught lying to the press about his finances as well.
These are the most egregious cases. There’s also Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who became the subject of an inspector general’s investigation into multiple allegations of ethics violations less than a week after being confirmed. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta remains under scrutiny for signing off on what appears to have been a sweetheart deal with child-sex offender Jeffrey Epstein while Acosta was a U.S. attorney. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie did not disclose appearances to pro-Confederate groups during his confirmation process. There are reportedly Justice Department and inspector-general investigations into Zinke, who left the administration in January.
These scandals are peculiar because they mostly don’t directly involve personal enrichment—it’s not theft or embezzlement. Carson, Pruitt, and Zinke engaged in what I have labeled “conspicuous corruption,” a decision to travel and live lavishly on the public dime, in one’s own official capacity. It’s a style informed by President Trump’s ostentatious mien, and by the disregard with which the administration’s top officials seem to hold the idea of public service.
Any other president would likely have fired Cabinet officials facing the same scandals at Carson and Ross—out of simple political expediency, if not out of any moral conviction. But Trump sets the tone for his administration. He stands accused of personally profiting from his public work, especially through the Trump International Hotel in D.C., though other parts of his empire have struggled during his presidency. The shared problem is that because he has not truly separated himself from his companies, his work as president is inextricable from their ups and downs.
Ongoing violations like this remain one of the most important, and overlooked, scandals of this administration. The continued, unapologetic presence of Carson and his ilk in the Cabinet can seem like a sideshow to other, bigger issues—not least the ramifications of the Mueller report. In fact, they are connected. It’s not the sums of cash spent by these officials that matter most, though the money was not theirs to spend. If leading officials are willing to break the law and mislead the public about things as minor as interior decorating, and meet with few consequences, why would they hesitate to break the law and mislead on bigger issues?
If Ross is any example, they wouldn’t. The Commerce Department is currently embroiled in a court fight over whether the 2020 census will ask respondents whether they are U.S. citizens. Ross told Congress that he’d sought to add the question at the behest of the Justice Department, but documents revealed during the litigation contradict him.
Late in the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump began using the slogan “Drain the swamp” to represent his supposed intention to root out corruption and self-dealing in Washington. He confessed to crowds that when his advisers brought it to him, he didn’t like the slogan—it seemed “hokey”—but he decided it wasn’t hokey. He never decided he meant it, though, and the result is a Cabinet that exemplifies just what he promised to eliminate.