Trump pardoned the flamboyantly corrupt former congressman Duke Cunningham, convicted of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion in 2005 and sentenced to eight years in prison. Cunningham completed his sentence in 2013. The matter might have been left to the history books—but Trump wanted the history books to record this last gesture of fellow feeling between a disgraced Republican president and a disgraced Republican member of the House of Representatives.
Trump pardoned the former Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy. Broidy came to public attention with the news that Trump’s onetime fixer Michael Cohen had arranged for Broidy’s former mistress to be paid off, in an agreement using the same pseudonyms Cohen had previously employed to strike a deal between Trump and the adult-film actor Stormy Daniels. In October 2020, Broidy pleaded guilty to lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of Malaysia as an unregistered foreign agent, agreeing to forfeit $6.6 million.
These are but a few of the final pardons issued by Trump at his own discretion, without having gone through the normal process of vetting and review; they add up to more such pardons than issued by any previous president. Also on his way out the door, Trump canceled a 2017 executive order that imposed a five-year blackout before former administration officials can lobby their former agencies. Trump’s former aides can now do exactly what Trump promised at the start of his administration he would never allow his people to do.
And of course he did! Obviously he did! Trump’s was a government of the crooks, by the crooks, and for the crooks. How on earth did this brazen and shameless practitioner of sleaze verging upon crime ever sell the idea that he was somehow struggling against sleaze?
The short answer is that, like “law and order,” “the swamp” is not an ethical idea, but a political weapon. In Trump-speak, “law and order” does not mean “obedience to the law by all people, the powerful as well as the powerless.” In Trump-speak, “law and order” means “racial deference enforced by police violence.” Likewise, in Trump-speak “the swamp” does not mean “use of public office for personal benefit.” Trump cannot mean that, just measured by the millions of public dollars he directed to his personal businesses.
In Trump-speak, “the swamp” means “paranoid delusions about what my opponents are doing in their imaginary heinousness that implicitly minimize the crooked things my supporters and I are actually doing in reality.” And yes, if you compare the actual malpractices of Trump and his administration with a fantasy of a global network of cannibalistic pedophiles engaged in ritual murder—well, yeah, by that standard, mere bribe-soliciting and peculation from the Treasury will seem the lesser evil.
Just as Trump supporters regard the act of voting by their opponents to be presumptively illegal, so they regard governance by their opponents to be presumptively corrupt. Corruption in Trump-speak does not describe real-world actions—like, for example, breaking your own word about how long your officials will refrain from lobbying. Corruption in Trump-speak is an attribute of identity—they are guilty because of who they are; we are innocent because of who we are—and nothing else matters besides this identity.