In retrospect, it almost seems quaint: the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price over his affection for chartering flights at taxpayers’ expense.
Price may not have read his ethics manual carefully before taking office, but he certainly knew the playbook for political shame. On September 28, 2017, Politico capped off its investigation into Price’s frequent noncommercial flights with a report that the health chief had run up a tab of more than $500,000 for international travel on military planes. Less than 24 hours later, Price submitted a four-paragraph resignation letter, apologizing for creating a “distraction” from the president’s agenda.
The rest was perhaps the most normal scandal in Donald Trump’s Washington: a Cabinet official submerging himself in the “swamp,” getting caught, and resigning shortly thereafter.
If only Price had known how easy it might have been to hang on. How mere months later, then–Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt would indulge in a pattern of scandal and grift that made Price’s private planes look precious, but stay comfortably in his post until mid-summer. How the onetime Veterans Affairs head David Shulkin had taxpayers fund travel for his and his wife’s 10-day European vacation, which included sightseeing excursions and nice seats at Wimbledon. And most recently, how former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke enmeshed himself in a web of suspicious real-estate deals, one of which made its way to the Justice Department for review, and then publicly accused the incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee of being a drunk.
For Cabinet officials in the Trump era, one of the blessings of a White House constantly shrouded in scandal is that many shady dealings at the agency level go unnoticed. The day my colleague and I revealed that Pruitt had lied about giving substantial raises to his favored political appointees, Trump was confronting the news that FBI agents had raided the office of his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen. And in December, a similar narrative prevailed: For a while, officials had difficulty concerning themselves with the particularities of Zinke’s potential conflict of interest with a Montana land developer when other matters—such as Trump’s alleged knowledge of hush-money payments to a porn star—also demanded attention.
But such is one crucial effect of Trump’s tenure, which threatens to persist after he’s gone: the American conception of scandal. In the reality-tv-meets-tabloid political landscape that is post-2016 America, instructing aides to help land a Chick-fil-A franchise for one’s wife, as Pruitt did, doesn’t seem like such a big deal. The sheer volume of Trump-centric stories dropping each day, whether about the Russia investigation or staff shake-ups, means that accountability can be slow in its arrival. In past administrations, a Cabinet official who called a congressman an alcoholic would likely immediately head for the exit.
Part of the reason officials like Pruitt and Zinke were able to stick around long after their corruption was uncovered was because of their commitment to Trump’s agenda. Pruitt succeeded in unwinding many Obama-era regulations at the EPA, while Zinke opened up lands for development that past administrations had deemed off-limits. Which not only helped Trump look past their scandal-laden activities—it helped Republican lawmakers rationalize them, too.
That, coupled with the unceasing chaos of the White House, helps form the blueprint of success for a Trump Cabinet official: Feel free to dabble in some corruption—but not so much that it overtakes the West Wing—while pursuing this administration’s policy priorities relentlessly. Do that and, in the eyes of Trump, you’re on track to be a star.