Donald Trump was always wary about draining the swamp.
“I told this story, I hated that expression,” he said in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the eve of the election. “I said, ‘No way I’m going to say that. That’s so hokey.’ I said it and the place went crazy. I said it to another place and it went crazy. Then I said it with more confidence and the place went wild. Now I love the expression, I think it’s genius.”
Now that he’s president-elect, it seems like Trump is leaning more toward his original feeling. You don’t hear much talk about draining the swamp coming from Trump Tower, and many of the actions pursued by Trump and his confidants suggest they’re perfectly happy with the state of the swamp.
The phrase was Trump’s shorthand for fighting cronyism in Washington—the malign machinations of the establishment; the corruption of crony capitalism; the revolving door between lobbyists and Washington; the undue influence of big business on government policy. Yet there are many indications that was just campaign puffery.
“I'm told he now just disclaims that,” Newt Gingrich said Wednesday on NPR. “He now says it was cute, but he doesn't want to use it anymore .... I'd written what I thought was a very cute tweet about ‘the alligators are complaining,’ and somebody wrote back and said they were tired of hearing this stuff.”
Gingrich added, “I've noticed on a couple of fronts, like people chanting ‘lock her up,’ that he’s in a different role now and maybe he feels that as president, as the next president of the United States, that he should be marginally more dignified than talking about alligators in swamps.”
One has to give the former speaker of the House credit—it isn’t every politician who could, with a straight face, suggest that attacking corruption would be an undignified course of action. In part, Gingrich seemed to be referring to the messaging itself—the vocabulary of alligators and swamps—but it also seems likely that Trump’s team would want less conversation about corruption altogether.
For good reason. First, there are Trump’s own conflicts of interest, which remain vast, multifarious, and generally unaddressed. The president-elect canceled a news conference planned for last week to talk about how he’d resolve his business dealings. His team has said he’ll handle them in January, but they’ve set no date, and given that Trump’s general M.O. has been to filibuster issues until he no longer talks about them, some skepticism is warranted about that.
On Wednesday, Politico reported that Trump is considering a “half-blind” trust as an answer to concerns about how his remaining business interests could affect his decision-making as president. Josh Gerstein reports:
In a typical blind trust arrangement approved by federal ethics authorities, an incoming official’s investments are transferred to an institutional financial manager who oversees them without reporting details to the owner. Assets that risk a conflict of interest are sold off over time and replaced with assets the official is not informed about.
In essence, the half-blind trust allows Trump to treat the assets as no longer his, while still allowing him to know about how his businesses are faring and to reap revenue from them. It’s unclear whether federal ethics authorities would sanction the arrangement.
As I’ve written before, there’s no real path for Trump to separate himself from the Trump Organization, because it’s not a traditional business: What it’s selling is Trump’s surname and reputation. Trump has previously suggested that he’d solve his conflicts of interest by handing the Trump Organization’s management off to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, while his daughter Ivanka advises him in government.
But the Trump kids are on the hot seat over the last few days too. On Tuesday, the Opening Day Foundation abruptly changed a fundraiser that promised access to Trump on January 21, the day after Inauguration Day, as well as a chance to hunt or fish with Donald Jr. and Eric. After attention to the bill, Opening Day removed references to the Trumps from the fundraiser. The Trump campaign issued a statement distancing itself: “The Opening Day event and details that have been reported are merely initial concepts that have not been approved or pursued by the Trump family. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are avid outdoorsmen and supporters of conservation efforts, which align with the goals of this event, however they are not involved in any capacity.”
In keeping with the pattern, the Trump definition of “not involved in any capacity” is somewhat different from the plain reading. As The New York Times noted, the Trump brothers had been listed as members of the board of directors of the Opening Day Foundation, until they were removed in a filing on Wednesday.
Last week, the Eric Trump Foundation pulled the plug on an auction that offered a chance to have coffee with Ivanka Trump, after bidders had offered nearly $73,000 for a 45-minute meeting. That, too, was canceled after public scrutiny.
You don’t have to be a candidate who railed against influence peddling to imagine the interest that donors might have in both these cases: the chance to buy access to the president-elect or his children, who have been heavily involved in his transition team and help lead the business from which he shows no sign of divesting. The fact that the money would have gone to charitable causes doesn’t change that a bit, as Trump, who used his charity as a tool of politics, often using money he’d raised from other people, should well understand.
Don’t mind any crocodile (or alligator) tears shed by bidders who can no longer participate in those auctions: There will be other ways to buy access to the Trump White House. Corey Lewandowski was Trump’s first campaign manager, but he was pushed out during an internal battle with Paul Manafort during the summer. He went on to become Trump’s mouthpiece on CNN, while reportedly staying in close touch with Trump. There was some speculation that Lewandowski would return to the fold with a White House job, or maybe even head the Republican National Committee.
But the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reported Wednesday that Lewandowski is instead likely to open a “government relations and political consulting firm” in Washington, with Barry Bennett, who advised both Trump’s and Ben Carson’s presidential campaigns. Why would someone hire Lewandowski? Probably not for his political expertise. Before Trump, he’d never run a campaign before and was barely a bit player in politics. And while Trump eventually won, the Lewandowski era on the campaign was characterized by chaos, missteps, and disorganization. What he can sell, of course, is more access to President Trump.
There’s plenty more conflict where this came from. Trump railed against Hillary Clinton’s ties to Goldman Sachs, in the form of well-paid speeches, but since his election has appointed Goldman Sachs alums as Treasury secretary, chair of the National Economic Council, and White House counselor. His nominee as secretary of state has spent his entire career working for a company closely intertwined with the Russian government. On Wednesday, he appointed as regulatory czar a man who stands to profit handsomely from reduced regulation.
For liberals, this is all proof that Trump was being disingenuous all along. He has little interest in draining the swamp and just fooled naive voters. But how does it look from Trump Tower? And how might Trump supporters react?
First, let’s back up a bit. Every administration comes in promising to clean up Washington in one way or another. How could they not? It’s good politics to rail against corruption. But those promises often run into friction once the candidates actually win. Take Barack Obama, who campaigned vigorously in 2008 on changing the way business was done in Washington. He didn’t just adopt it as a mantra in the final weeks of the campaign, like Trump. He was talking about shutting the “revolving door” between industry and government as far back as 2007. Not so much. The Obama administration deserves credit for ethical behavior—it’s been an unusually scandal-free White House—but the revolving door has hardly slowed.
This probably isn’t because someone made a conscious decision to abandon anti-corruption. It’s because the path-dependencies in any system as big as government are strong, and it’s much easier to tinker with the rules around the edges than it is rework the system—especially if you’d rather get other things done, instead of waging an all-out war with the people who depend on the status quo for their livelihood.
The Trump camp may not even see these moves as compromising. Trump argued throughout the campaign that his wealth actually shielded him from corruption, so it stands to reason that he’d think that other billionaires would be similarly inured to conflicts of interest, even though in reality they stand to profit and will likely to do so. In 1953, President Eisenhower nominated Charles Erwin Wilson, the former CEO of General Motors, as secretary of defense. During his confirmation hearings, senators pressed him on whether his stock in GM presented a conflict, since the company was a major Pentagon contractor. According to popular legend, Wilson replied, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”
What Wilson actually said was more revealing: “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” In other words, he wasn’t saying he’d help GM, and that would in turn help the U.S.; instead, he couldn’t possibly see any way that the two interests would diverge. This fallacy probably afflicts Trump as well.
Whether Trump’s supporters will be willing to buy it is a different question. Former U.S. Representative Joe Walsh has developed an amusing coterie of fans on the left for his critiques of Trump. Walsh has been particularly upset about the appointments of former Goldman Sachs staffers. As for the greater mass of Trump backers, there is reason to believe they may let the president-elect off the hook, and that reason is negative partisanship. First, many people likely heard the “drain the swamp” rhetoric not as a program of good government, but as a broadside against Hillary Clinton. With Clinton vanquished, who cares? (The “lock her up” chants have faded, somewhat, as well.) Second, they will now be more willing to overlook Trump’s own shortcomings because they still detest his opponents.
As gobsmacking as Gingrich’s suggestion that tackling corruption is un-presidential seems at first glance, there’s a wisdom to it. Bashing corruption is a good tactic for candidates, and voters gravitate to it as well. But once the votes are cast, both groups often find it’s better to just set that rhetoric aside and get down to the work of governing—even if gets some people’s hands a little grubby.