Trump Administration: The Most Corrupt and Unethical in American History?

Trump Air Force One
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One on May 19. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

"The plane is very much an extension of the Trump brand," Donald Trump told The New York Times of the Boeing 757 he took to calling "Trump Force One" during the 2016 presidential campaign. It was an outdated model, and, as the Times drily noted, "an odd choice for a man who put his net worth at $11 billion." But the plane was huge, and lined with gold on the inside, communicating to his supporters both might and prestige. It was a jalopy, but it did the trick.

Given Trump's goofy fixation on private jets as a symbol of luxury, it should come as no surprise that an astonishing number of his cabinet members are ensnared in scandals involving air travel, whether on private or civilian planes: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is in the mix, too, though for slightly different reasons.

What we have is a private jet presidency, a low-class orgy of first-class kleptocrats. Remember when people thought Trump would usher in an era of American totalitarianism? Remember when credible, serious people compared Trump to some of the 20th century's worst dictators? They, like the people who voted for Trump, believed what he said. How foolish. Even if Trump does yearn to become our Dear Leader, realizing that vision would take immense dedication, something neither Trump nor his minions have. The president obsesses over ratings, while his underlings grab what they can before Bobby Three Sticks (Robert S. Mueller III to you and me) starts handing out indictments like parking tickets.

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This administration includes some obviously decent, highly capable people, foremost among them Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, Chief of Staff General John Kelly and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Hope Hicks, the new communications director, is also well regarded by the journalists who work with her. But they are the exception.

Too many of Trump's cabinet members have taken to behaving like middle managers let loose in the supply closet for the first time, stuffing their pockets with notepads and pens, hoping the stern secretary doesn't notice. Oh, but she has. Inspectors general for federal agencies seem to be especially busy these days. Ethics lawyers, too.

Trump's gang of imitation moguls seems to have forgotten that it was supposed to be working for the "forgotten Americans." It's hard to make that claim when you use a private jet 24 times, as Price did, according to Politico. This cost a total of $300,000, and we paid for it. An HHS spokeswoman actually tried to defend Price's abuse of the public purse, telling The Washington Post that the flights were Price's way of "making sure he is connected with the real American people." But of course. Real Americans must delight in learning they paid $7,000 to have Price drop in on the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual conclave for the type of elites Trump supposedly disdains.

Then there's Mnuchin, a financier known as "the foreclosure king." He's worth an estimated $300 million. You'd think the guy could afford a Mint upgrade on JetBlue, if not a Learjet of his own. And he probably can, but why pay when you can get something for free? We recently learned that Mnuchin wanted to use a government airplane to shuttle him and his wife Louise Linton around Europe during their honeymoon. This would cost taxpayers $25,000 per hour. Some sane person denied the request, but months later, Mnuchin and Linton managed to finagle a government jet to view the solar eclipse in Lexington, Kentucky. Details of that trip would have perhaps remained secret, except Linton bragged about her luxurious lifestyle on Instagram, then lashed out at a mother from Portland, Oregon, who criticized the former actress for her ostentation. The spat attracted predictable attention and outrage. What were they doing in Lexington, anyway? That question, we'll leave to the Treasury Department's inspector general, who is investigating the matter.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., August 25. Mnuchin requested a government jet to take him on his honeymoon with his wife Louise Linton. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

"You don't see any shame here," says E.J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist and co-author of the new book One Nation After Trump, an urgent wartime dispatch that explains how civility, decency and dignity were expunged from modern American politics. "And that's really disturbing."

Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, is a zealous foe of the environment, but at least he isn't all that committed to his job. Observers see Pruitt making moves for a gubernatorial run in his native Oklahoma. It's hard to otherwise justify his apparent longing for the Sooner State. As of August, he had spent more than 40 days in Oklahoma, which cost you and me $12,000.

People do not like Pruitt, at least judging by the number of threats he has received. That's wrong, no matter how much people may hate his policies. But it's also wrong to turn high-ranking EPA investigators who are supposed to be delving into environmental crimes into your own security detail. Pruitt has done just that, managing to weaken the agency he runs while abusing its resources.

"This never happened with prior administrators," a former official of the agency's Criminal Investigations Division told The Washington Post, which first reported the news. "These guys signed on to work on complex environmental cases, not to be an executive protection detail." The Post report suggested that the EPA would spend $800,000 for "the security detail's travel expenses" this fiscal year.

DeVos, the Education Secretary, is a billionaire who uses her own private jet. That's progress on the ethical front, I suppose. But the U.S. Marshals who provide her constant protection send their bill to the same Americans who are paying for Price, Pruitt and Mnuchin to live out their fabulous fantasies of federal employment. So far, protecting Betsy DeVos has cost Americans $8 million.

That sum, already enormous, seems even greater when you consider all the Republican preaching about fiscal responsibility. Trump's budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, wanted Meals-on-Wheels eliminated. We don't have money for health care, we certainly don't have money for foreign aid or public housing. That would make us socialists. But, my God, we can't have Tom Price taking a train Philadelphia!

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with the president, attracts so many protesters that her security costs are soaring. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Is this the most corrupt administration in the history of the United States? Robert Dallek, the presidential historian, and the author of the new book, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, seems to think so. Runners up in that ignominious category, he told me, were Ulysses S. Grant, who presided over the widespread financial collusion that came to be known as the Whiskey Ring scandal, and Warren G. Harding, whose administration was marred by bribery over oil reserves, in what came to be known as the Teapot Dome Scandal.

Dionne, The Washington Post columnist, isn't surprised by the incompetence or corruption of the Trump administration, pointing to the president's refusal to genuinely cede control of his golf resorts or hotels, which have predictably come to function as cesspools of influence peddling.

"When, philosophically, you don't have a lot of respect for government as an institution," Dionne says, you aren't likely to show a lot of "respect or deference" for the rules and norms that limit the power of the presidency. So we are stuck with Trump and his hapless thieves, chased by inspector generals as if this were all some screwball comedy of the 1950s.

I almost miss former chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, and his ferocious nationalist convictions borrowed from obscure Italian philosophers. His vision of an isolated America was terrifying to many, but at least you knew he wasn't in the White House to pad his Vanguard account. At least he would have understood the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of men like Price, who've discovered that the swamp they promised to drain can be a pleasant place to live. Likely, they've known that all along. Now, they no longer have to pretend