There’s considerable disagreement in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet over the Iran deal, global warming, help for Puerto Rico, how stupid ardent anti-abortion Republican Rep. Tim Murphy was to text his girlfriend about having an abortion and whether Trump, as his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly put it, is a “moron.”
There is less disagreement over using your public office for private gain, and this is true whether or not you are already wealthy. After all, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin could afford to buy his own Gulfstream. In the new Washington, the rich aren’t rich enough and poor are undeserving until they prove otherwise.
That goes even in a natural disaster. As Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria, Trump took time out from golfing and tweeting two dozen times about football to question whether the citizens of Puerto Rico were working hard enough to find their own food and water and whether they realized they would be busting the president’s budget, laugh, laugh. When he finally made landfall five days later he tossed paper towels to the homeless, hungry, and thirsty, a tableau for which you can pick your own metaphor: treating them like dogs fetching a treat, dolphins jumping for bait, or Marie Antoinette letting them eat the quicker picker-upper.
No wonder Mnuchin is pushing a tax bill that mightily benefits the 1 percent after promising for months it would do the opposite. While Republicans are asking for an offset for every dollar of disaster relief to not add to the deficit, they’re asking for no such thing for Trump’s tax bill that will be paid for by magical economic growth.
It’s that attitude that allows Mnuchin to think he deserves, and Trump wouldn’t mind, if he took the equivalent of Air Force One on his honeymoon on the grounds that he needed “secure communications.” That didn’t fly but he did commandeer a military jet for a trip to Fort Knox, situated conveniently close to the best place to view the total eclipse of the sun. This type of thing is fiendishly difficult to find out about because travel can be held close for supposed security reasons but helpfully, his new bride, Louise Linton, boasted about the excursion on Instagram, with an annotated guide to who she was wearing as if walking the red carpet at the Oscars. She flamed an online critic who mentioned her $10,000 bag as “adorably out of touch.” Linton eventually apologized. We’ve heard no regrets from Mnuchin.
Mnuchin, it turns out has company. Three other Cabinet officials and counting are living large at 30,000 feet and no doubt below, although it is even harder to get their bills for wining and dining. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, known for trading health care stocks while passing legislation that would help those health stocks, flew privately just about everywhere, sometimes with his wife, often without staff, to places as close by as Philadelphia, as unnecessary as St. Simon, Georgia, where he owns property, and as self-serving as Nashville, where he has a son, all the while patching together meetings to justify any trip at all. Like Middle Eastern potentates, Mr. and Mrs. Price went to Europe, which cost about $500,000. Trump accepted the resignation of this “fine man” only because he got nailed and not least because he’s that most depressing of figures, a loser, whom Trump joked he would fire months ago if he failed to repeal Obamacare.
Trump sets the tone for his family and compromised Cabinet. He leads a louche life with a schedule so light it would make a slacker blush, with more time on the golf course than in the Situation Room. Why wouldn’t his appointees mix as much pleasure as possible, with as little business as possible, like the boss? You wouldn’t know it but there are rules that require officials to travel commercial and, what sacrifice, in coach. It’s unclear if Mnuchin, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (charter and military jets to his home in Montana, with his wife to Norway and to the Caribbean) and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt ($58,500 on charter and military flights) will meet the fate of Price. Don’t bet on it.
There are no rules for Trump himself. The Founding Fathers didn’t put many strictures on a president’s conduct, trusting in a sense of propriety, an oversight akin to their loose wording in the Second Amendment that made it possible for Stephen Paddock to amass an arsenal of assault weapons capable of a massacre and have rendered lawmakers so toothless they say we can’t do anything about it except maybe, perhaps, if the NRA won’t get mad about it, curb the use of so-called bump stocks which turned Paddock’s semi-automatics into machine guns.
There’s so much going on at all times it is hard to follow all the ways in which the taxpayer serves the president, not the other way around. His business continues full throttle under a revocable trust (its provisions can be changed at any time) that is more 20-20 vision than blind. Trump pledged not to talk about business but then Eric revealed that, of course, he would be talking business with Dad, providing him with timely profit reports. Remember that slight concession to remove one of the many conflicts arising from the president operating a hotel down the street from the White House and under a lease from the government? Trump was to donate income from foreign visitors to the Treasury to avoid violating the Emoluments Clause (officeholders may not take foreign payments). That tiny fix is gone because requiring guests to identify themselves would “diminish the guest experience.”
Then there’s nepotism. Rules against it were overturned by Trump’s Justice Department and now, irony of ironies, we learn that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have private email accounts (lock them up?) routed through Trump Organization computers. That’s been overtaken by a Pro Publica report this week published in The New Yorker (and with WYNC) that the first daughter and Donald Jr. were close to being indicted for real estate fraud in 2012 for telling potential buyers that condos in the troubled Trump SoHo were selling at a higher price and at a faster clip than they were. The children avoided prosecution after a quiet meeting between the New York District Attorney and Dad’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz, who later would flame out in a brief stint in the White House.
It’s impossible to keep up. Trump takes taxpayer-funded trips to his varied resorts at a pace no other president has come close to with Secret Service staying at those same resorts paying full freight. Watch as they buy fancy ski wear and lift tickets when accompanying Trump’s kids on their vacations. Walter Shaub, the mild-mannered head of the Office of Government Ethics, quit in frustration over the rejection of behavioral norms embraced by all other administrations and the laughable lack of transparency by all associated with Trump. They blithely sign disclosure forms under penalty of perjury knowing no one in the White House counsel’s office is going to stop them from amending them later if they get caught hiding something. Oops, I forgot a million dollars in the Cayman Islands. Or two.
Trump even creates his own foreign policy for profit. He went rogue on his national security team to side with corporate interests in the Gulf against Qatar. The Saudis are major purchasers of Trump apartments and are investing $20 billion in a U.S. infrastructure fund. A Trump property in the UAE earned Trump $10 million last year. He has no such interests in Qatar. The former Trump brand, while lucrative, pales next to the presidential seal. The way for lobbyists to get a meeting with the pertinent Cabinet secretary is to book a conference room at Trump International. By making cameos at events at Mar a Lago, Trump’s doubled his profits there from $15.5 million in up to $37 million for 2016-2017.
Journalist Michael Kinsley once said the crime in the capital is not what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal and surely that’s the case in the Trump White House. Trump is largely governed by his own sense of propriety which leaves him, and his Cabinet, a lot of room to indulge themselves. They have. Don’t wait for Trump to stop them.