Fifteen months after storming into Washington’s “swamp,” more than a few high-ranking Trump administration officials have been caught lazing, spa-style, in its gooey waters.
The term “embattled” has now been thrown around so often in news coverage of Trump Cabinet secretaries’ assorted foibles, it’s practically been fused to the front of some of their titles. The President himself, perhaps for variety’s sake, referred to Jeff Sessions in a tweet last year as his “beleaguered” attorney general.
Some of the alleged (and confirmed) transgressions have been more damaging than others. The White House’s handling of the Rob Porter scandal might have been its darkest episode, an ethical failure leavened by bureaucratic incompetence. Mostly though, the administration’s scandals and embarrassments have been characterized less by furtive malfeasance than some kind of open disdain for (or ignorance of) basic ethical standards (or a lack of due diligence).
Here is a rundown, however incomplete, of some of the most glaring breakdowns.
Dr. Jackson’s other résumé
When his nomination was announced, critics zeroed in on what White House physician Ronny Jackson lacked – most notably, any experience to speak of in running a massive organization like the Department of Veterans Affairs. But as Jackson’s public vetting began, it was what he had done, allegedly, that ended up sinking him.
The charges included but weren’t limited to: excessive drinking, creating a “toxic” work environment, handing out prescription pain medications without proper documentation, wrecking a government vehicle after a going-away party, and drunkenly banging on the door of a female colleague during an overseas trip.
Jackson denied the allegations, but by early Thursday he’d withdraw his name from consideration, apparently free to go back to his current job, avoiding a public hearing.
Scott Pruitt’s rent is too damn… low?
Of all his colleagues, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt might own the longest list of ethical troubles. Here are three (of maybe five or six):
1. The rent: ABC News and Bloomberg revealed in late March he’d spent much of his time in Washington renting a room from a married pair of lobbyists (and donors), who charged him around $50 per night as his landlord – way below what anyone might expect to pay in pricey Washington, DC.
2. The booth: Pruitt’s EPA spent $43,000 on a soundproof booth for what he’s described as “secure communications.” That’s about $38,000 more than he is allowed, by law, to use for office improvements without notifying Congress, according to an Government Accountability Office report. On Thursday, Pruitt also admitted the booth does not actually qualify as a “Sensitive Compartmental Information Facility,” or SCIF, despite what he’d previously told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
3. The raises: When The Atlantic reported that the EPA had gone around the White House to secure raises totaling $80,000 for two staffers, Pruitt denied any knowledge of what happened or how. Until Thursday, that is, when he admitted under oath on Capitol Hill that, yeah, he might have known a bit more than previously disclosed.
The former White House staff secretary resigned in early February after allegations of domestic abuse from two ex-wives became public.
But that was only the start of it. Porter cast himself as the victim of “a coordinated smear campaign,” and White House chief of staff John Kelly issued a now-infamous statement calling Porter a “man of true integrity and honor” he’d been “proud to serve alongside.”
That kicked off a protracted scramble within the White House to answer what it knew about the Porter accusations and, more importantly, when it found out about them. Despite their initial protests that the charges were news to them, it soon became clear that, either willfully or not, concerns over Porter’s past had been known to some officials, including investigators at the FBI, for some time.
Professor Mulvaney’s lobbying lesson
Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, has been doing double duty as the interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, a regulatory body he openly thirsts to disarm.
In a talk with bank executives this week, Mulvaney offered some breathtakingly cynical advice for financial lobbyists.
“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” he said of his time as a representative from South Carolina. “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
The good news the for cash-poor was that, “if you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception regardless of the financial contributions,” but for anyone else, it was – and presumably remains for so many of his former colleagues – pay up or get lost.
While this hardly registered as news to many, Mulvaney’s willingness to share it live and on the record said – well, it said you’re more likely to get an audience if you give him money, which is a problem.
Ben Carson’s dining nightmare
And now the story of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s dining room set splurge, as told in three headlines and two memorable statements:
- February 27: HUD spent $31,000 in 2017 on new dining room set for Carson’s office
- HUD spokesman Raffi Williams: “Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased.”
- March 1: Ben Carson says he wants to cancel $31,000 dining room furniture order
- Carson: “I was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered. I have requested that the order be canceled. We will find another solution for the furniture replacement.”
- March 14: Emails show Ben, Candy Carson selected $31,000 dining set
Tom Price’s flights of fancy
Tom Price went from embattled to former Health and Human Services secretary last September, after reports of his profligate spending – more than $1 million for a couple dozen trips, including a flight from Washington to Philadelphia – began to bug Trump.
“I was disappointed because I didn’t like it, cosmetically or otherwise,” the President said. “I was disappointed.”
Less than an hour later, Price was out.
And the rest of the traveling secretaries
Interior Department boss Ryan Zinke, who has never been employed a geologist despite what he’s repeatedly claimed under oath, has a rich history of dubious travel on taxpayers’ tab, including one heavily scrutinized trip from Las Vegas to Montana. We might have known more sooner, but his office has struggled with its bookkeeping duties.
“Our investigation has been delayed by absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation and accountability,” Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote in a 2017 memo.
Then there’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. He and his wife, Louise Linton, enjoyed a memorable visit with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky last August, on the date of a solar eclipse that ran directly over the state – a coincidence, Mnuchin insisted – that ended with Linton in comment combat against another Instagram user.
His other questionable travel expenditures aside, Mnuchin and Linton also starred in one of the administration’s top public relations howlers, when they did this:
Zinke and Mnuchin have, so far, weathered their respective storms. Former Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin, a holdover from the Obama administration, obviously did not. Shulkin’s story is a double-whammy, with allegations he inappropriately accepted tickets to Wimbledon during one leg of a questionable overseas trip with his wife. Then, in seeking to justify the expenses, his former chief of staff doctored an email before presenting it to ethics officials.
After being pushed out of office, Shulkin accused the White House of using the ethics issues as a pretext for replacing him with a VA boss who would be more amenable to outsourcing veterans’ care to the private sector.
“There is no effort underway to privatize VA,” the agency shot back, “and to suggest otherwise is completely false and a red herring designed to distract and avoid honest debate on the real issues surrounding veterans’ health care.”
CDC boss goes up in smoke
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald stepped down as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late January after Politico found she had purchased tobacco stock not long after taking the job.
The CDC’s slogan, as CNN’s Debra Goldschmidt and Ben Tinker noted at the time, is “24/7: Saving Lives, Protecting People” – or, as it applies in this case, not investing in companies whose interests are directly opposed to the purpose of the agency you run.
The kicker? Per Politico, Fitzgerald “toured the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory, which researches how the chemicals in tobacco harm human health” a day after her buying stock in a company called, “Japan Tobacco.”