A year after presidential candidate Donald Trump famously vowed to “drain the swamp” of Washington’s corrupting influences, more than two dozen federal agencies are now under congressional scrutiny over the travel spending of top Trump administration officials.
Beginning at a campaign rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin in mid-October 2016, and continuing through election day two weeks later, Trump repeatedly touted an ethics reform proposal he promised would “make our government honest once again.”
But as in so many other instances involving his legislative agenda, a campaign promise has proven to be one thing, the follow-through entirely another.
Time and again during his first eight months in office, Trump has had to fire or accept the resignation of a trusted ally. While many left for political reasons, rather than under an ethical cloud, the number of present and former officials being investigated by congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller is unprecedented in so new an administration.
The most recent resignation, of course, was that of Tom Price, who stepped down Friday as secretary of Health and Human Services, a week after Politico broke the story of his exorbitant travel spending.
As the controversy raged, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to distance the administration from it, saying the White House didn’t “have a role on the front end of approving private charter flights at the agencies.”
David Lublin, a government professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said Monday Price’s departure is just one of now-numerous examples of how President Trump’s rhetoric failed to match the reality of what goes on in his administration.
“I think we have plenty of evidence at this point that his rhetoric doesn’t match what he stands for and it’s more about rallying people than it has ever been about what he is going to do,” Lublin said.
Among those still under the gun for their travel expenditures are Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Mnuchin first came under scrutiny after it was learned he used a government-funded plane to travel to Fort Knox, Kentucky in August to view the total solar eclipse.
Zinke has also been roundly criticized for three chartered flights he took since between named Interior secretary, including a June 26 flight from Las Vegas to Montana that cost taxpayers $12,375.
But unlike some in the administration, Zinke hasn’t been meek in his response. During a recent speech before the Heritage Foundation in Washington, the interior secretary rejected the blowback, calling it “a little B.S. on travel.”
“From a narrower ethics perspective or from a ‘narrow the influence’ perspective – it’s a farce,” Lublin said. “The people he’s hired have all been exactly the sort of swamp runners he’s talked about.”
That includes “the Secretary of State [Rex Tillerson] who worked for a huge oil corporation … [and] people with ties to Goldman Sachs,” he added.
Several current and former members of the Trump administration are former employees of Goldman, the global investment banking and financial services firm. These include Mnuchin, White House economic advisor Gary Cohn, Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell, and until his resignation this summer, political adviser Steve Bannon.
And though he has yet to be confirmed, the man nominated to serve as undersecretary of state, Eric Ueland, is a former Sachs lobbyist, according to the Open Secrets website.
Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a D.C.-based nonprofit and self-proclaimed government watchdog, said in an email interview that while the promise to drain the swamp is “difficult to define in the best circumstances,” she is confident there’s nothing to commend the administration for on this front.
“If the evidence that multiple cabinet secretaries are using taxpayer dollars for personal convenience continues to mount,” she said.
Another Trump official whose spending habits have come under review is EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. The agency’s inspector general submitted a letter to Pruitt in August seeking information on his frequent trips to and from his home state of Oklahoma since becoming administrator.
Pruitt also reportedly spent at least $20,000 for flights from D.C. to Ohio and New York aboard an Air Force jet in June.
The EPA did not return multiple requests for comment by Courthouse News but an EPA spokesperson confirmed to CBS News last week that ethics officials were consulted when Pruitt opted to board yet another military aircraft in August in lieu of a commercial flight as he departed Denver to Durango, Colorado.
In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mnuchin fielded questions over Price’s resignation and his own controversy.
When asked if he regretted making requests for government aircraft, once for the Kentucky trip and again for an international honeymoon excursion with his wife which was ultimately withdrawn, Mnuchin told host Chuck Todd he did not.
Adding “every single one” of his trips was approved by the White House.
Todd asked if the plane to Kentucky was “a mistake.”
“No, I never said it was a mistake. It was approved by the White House and there were reasons we needed to use that plane that are completely justifiable and we look forward to the [Inspector General’s] report,” Mnuchin said.
Many outside the administration view such assertions with a jaundiced eye.
“The fact is, a lot of voters would look at this and say, ‘Who do they think they are and how stupid do they think I am?” Lubin said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the many brought to Washington by Trump come from a world with an entirely different world view than exists in Washington.
“They’re used to corporations that pay this kind of big freight but don’t understand that the government should not,” he said. “They think very highly of themselves and very little of us and the sad thing is, there are a lot of honorable officials who don’t do this, but the fact that they are popping up like pimples in the Trump administration is sad.”
Ryan Alexander said if more spending abuses emerge, the forced resignation of the officials involved may be unavoidable.
“There are probably two paths that need to be taken by the oversight committee,” she wrote. “First, they are in a position to put this in historical context. They can easily access the travel records of past administrations and taking the long view will help inform any response that either Congress or the administration might have,” she said.
“Also, they should look at the details of travel for each person being investigated. If that identifies a pattern of abuse or extravagance, then resignation may be appropriate. But if it shows a small percentage of trips in question were of questionable work-related purposes, or needlessly expensive, then another course of action is acceptable.”
Like full reimbursement, for one, whether or not the official stays in office, but the “response should be proportional.”
Lublin said in an ideal world, Americans would see justice done with both full reimbursements and resignations.
“But most of us would settle for one or the other,” he added. “Rather than draining the swamp, we’re seeing a rise in real questions of corruption in a way that we haven’t seen since the Clinton years, frankly,” he said. “During those years we had ethical quandaries because the Clintons have a tendency to walk the line where you can make the case that [some behavior] is okay, but also make the case that some of it was unseemly. “
Like the private email scandal which dogged Hillary Clinton’s entire presidential run last year, he said.
“This was something [Trump] claims was highly unethical, but now we find his son-in-law, among others, doing the same. The idea that he even cares about this promise in a way that anyone would meaningfully understand, just doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
Top photo | President Donald Trump seated with members of his administration, listens during a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)