The last serious effort to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., came after Watergate, when Congress pushed through sweeping reforms inspired by the misdeeds of Richard Nixon’s administration and the backlash its criminal acts produced.
The new ethics rules and laws forbade some lobbying by former members of Congress and their staffers; forced elected officials and some of their family members to disclose their financial interests; limited the franking privilege; imposed limits on individual contributions to candidates for federal office; imposed reporting requirements on campaign spending; introduced public funding into presidential campaigns; and sought to limit how much candidates could spend on their own campaigns (a restriction the Supreme Court later struck down).
The same era witnessed unprecedented efforts to probe the national-security apparatus, culminating in efforts to expose bygone misdeeds and constrain the CIA, NSA, and FBI.
Put simply, there wasn’t just talk of cleaning up Washington; there was an earnest, successful effort to pass reforms that might plausibly decrease abuses.
What has Donald Trump done in comparison?
Some of his supporters still believe that he is draining the swamp, but they cannot point to any significant reform he has signed into law. They cannot point to a reform agenda he has sought to enact, only to be thwarted by Congress. They certainly cannot point to any investigative effort on a par with the Church Committee, the Pike Committee, or the Rockefeller Commission.
Trump’s interest in possible misdeeds extends no further than the specific Democrats he considers his most direct political adversaries, such as Hillary Clinton. For all his theatrics, he is not actually fighting corruption any more than a WWE wrestler is actually fighting his opponent. Put simply, there is no prospect that he will, in fact, drain the swamp.
For three years, he’s taken no step toward lasting change. And matters are only going to get worse, if you’re a Trump fan who actually wants the swamp to be drained.
Think of today’s partisan incentive structure. A president facing an impeachment inquiry is never a champion of measures that make it easier to ferret out official misconduct and hold the guilty accountable.
Like Nixon and Bill Clinton before him, Trump and his loyalists in the Republican Party will be using the bully pulpit to make sweeping assertions about the expansive powers of the presidency and the propriety of presidents keeping things secret from the public, even when whistle-blowers allege wrongdoing.
Indeed, they will attack whistle-blowers in an attempt to raise the cost of flagging corruption. They will seek to interpret what is unlawful as narrowly as possible. And when behavior is lawful but unethical, they will seek to dismiss complaints about it, as if denouncing politicians for being merely unethical is illegitimate.
Granted, like every politician Trump will try to expose the corruption of a few political opponents. He will point to Hunter Biden and rightly insist that he behaved unethically in Ukraine, exploiting his father’s public office to earn money he couldn’t have otherwise obtained. He will go further, urging foreign governments to investigate the Bidens; indeed, he already has. Meanwhile, the activities of Ivanka, Eric, and Don Jr., plus his own business dealings, will keep him from effecting any sort of broader legal or normative change that would curb efforts to profit from public office. He’ll attack Hunter Biden while bolstering the laws and norms that made him possible.
For all those reasons, there is no prospect of Trump really trying to drain the swamp, let alone succeeding. His focus will be protecting his presidency, a project utterly at odds with making it easier to expose official misconduct and graft.
In fact, when his tenure is over, there will be a dark irony to his supposed drain-the-swamp agenda. Its most notable instances of holding sleazy Americans accountable will involve men such as Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Michael Cohen, whose bad behavior might’ve escaped the attention of authorities forever but for their being dragged into the spotlight by Trump.
So pity the Trump supporters who want to drain the swamp. There is no prospect of their civic happiness. Insofar as their champion thrives politically, Washington, D.C., will grow only more corrupt. But if Trump is proved to have abused his power, the backlash may inspire reforms, as it did after Watergate. You can fight to drain the swamp or to defend Trump, but not both.