Friday, December 21, 2018

The Festering Rot that is Corruption in the Trump Administration

Despite promises to "drain the swamp" Trump and his administration have been defined by ethics violations and rampant corruption. On the campaign trail Trump repeatedly vowed to end government corruption. Instead he has made it worse in ways that most could not have imagined.

Trump has been tied to shady deals, questionable financial partners, hush money, conspiracy, tax evasion, illegal payments, and conflicts of interest.

Although Trump has indicated that he does not trust his own government (DOJ, FBI, intelligence services, government scientists, etc) a report at the end of last year concluded that most Americans share the view that the White House is the most corrupt institution in government.

Corruption in the White House

Allegations of corruption against members of the Trump administration are ubiquitous. Headlines echo a resounding chorus of opinions and analyses that have all come to similar conclusions. According to Newsweek, Trump sits atop the most corrupt administration in US history  Zephyr Teachout, an expert on government corruption and a Fordham University law professor said Trump is at the head of, "the most corrupt presidency and administration we’ve ever had".

Reflecting on the Trump administration Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson concluded, "Never have we seen such utter chaos and blatant corruption". The New York Times described Trump as a "scandal ridden scoundrel", and Time described a White House "devoid of integrity". The Washington Post said, "Trumpism is rotten to its core and the stench of corruption is everywhere".

Presidential historian Robert Dallek says there is something nefarious that distinguishes the Trump presidency. Dallek is quoted as saying, "no American leader has acted with more unadulterated self-interest as Trump." According to Dallek Trump is not just allowing corruption he is encouraging it. "The fish rots from the head," Dallek said.


In the first 6 months the Trump administration was plagued with complaints of ethics violation. During this time 6 members of his cabinet were accused of misusing public funds. Both Brenda Fitzgerald, the head of the Center for Disease Control and Tom Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, were forced out due to financial improprieties. Complaints were also leveled against Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury and Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

In the most recent 6 month period Trump lost 5 cabinet secretaries. Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt was forced to resign because of a number of ethics controversies. Pruitt will be remembered for enfeebling the EPA, but most of all he will be remembered for his deregulatory agenda and its deleterious impact on the health of Americans

David Shulkin the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs was forced to leave due to ethics violations and misuse of taxpayer dollars. Tom Price Secretary of Health and Human Services resigned in the midst of a controversy over his use of private jets for government travel.

Most recently Ryan Zinke, was forced to resign his post as Secretary of the Interior due to ethics investigations. Zinke will be remembered for selling off rights to huge swaths of public lands to fossil fuel interests.

Rob Porter, White House staff secretary, resigned over multiple allegations of domestic abuse. Others have resigned because they strongly disagree with Trump's policy decisions. Gary Cohn resigned over the tariffs. James N. Mattis, often referred to as the only adult in the White House, resigned recently in the wake of Trump's decision to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan. White House ethics lawyer Stefan Passantino also left the Trump administration. 

Indictments and incarceration

Although the Mueller probe is not over several former Trump employees have been indicted and a few are serving time.  Former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was arrested, he pleded guilty and was sentenced to prison. Sam Patten, a Republican operative and lobbyist pleded guilty to not registering as a foreign agent.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, was indicted and convicted on eight counts with more to come. He will likely spend the rest of his life in prison. Former Trump campaign aide and Manafort’s longtime junior business partner, Rick Gates was indicted on similar charges to Manafort but unlike Manafort he has cooperated and received a plea deal. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and he is awaiting sentencing.

Trump’s former lawyer and "fixer" pleded guilty to 8 counts including campaign finance violations where Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator. Cohen received a three year sentence. "The president is clearly guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors," said New York Times columnist Bret Stephens

Trump cheated to win the White House but the tentacles of corruption extend well into his presidency and may have even had a role in his stacking of judges on the Supreme Court.*


We have seen a number of indictments against Russians. A total of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies have been indicted as have Richard Pinedo, Alex van der Zwaan, Konstantin Kilimnik, and 12 Russian GRU officers.

Trump's son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner may be next. Kushner withheld information about his assets and his ties with Russian oligarchs. Trump himself is known to have shared intelligence with Russian diplomats and the evidence for collusion with Russia to win the 2016 election is expected to be among the findings contained in the Mueller report.

It is clear that the investigation is getting ever closer to Trump himself. It is almost certain that when the Mueller probe is released Trump and his inner circle will be exposed for their criminal malfeasance.

Why do we not see more Republicans publicly calling the president on his corruption? Perhaps Trump has acquired compromising information on them in the same way that Russia allegedly has kompromat on Trump.

On December 19th the Trump administration notified Congress that it will remove sanctions on a few companies punished for interfering with the internal affairs of Western governments and activities in Syria and Ukraine.  As reported by Newsweek one of the beneficiaries is the Russian bank VTB - frequently called Putin's piggy bank - which was allegedly going to finance Trump's now infamous tower in Moscow. As revealed by Cohen the negotiations for this project continued right up until June 2016, after Trump had already become the Republican Party’s nominee. According to BuzzFeed Trump’s company planned to give Putin a $50 million penthouse in the building.

So what

The situation is serious for both the president and this administration. As explained by Wired: "Trump faces a legal assault unlike anything previously seen by any president—at least 17 distinct court cases stemming from at least seven different sets of prosecutors and investigators. (That total does not count any congressional inquiries, nor does it include any other inquiries into other administration officials unrelated to Russia.)"

Corruption may end up being both the defining feature of Trump and his undoing. But what does this mean for the United States? The range of direct and indirect effects of corruption include the erosion of trust, impeding economic growth and undermining political stability. It leads to inefficiency and reduced government effectiveness. It also erodes the institutions of democracy. 

Some say that corruption is part of life and we should learn to live with it.  However, this view ignores the fact that corruption is a cancer that often kills its host. In a Business Insider op-ed, James Traub argued that America has become "decadent" and he explains how this is tied to corruption. He concludes that this is, "the last stage before collapse."


Trump's corruption was already widely known before he was elected and concerns intensified early in his presidency. These fears have been vindicated. The conviction of Cohen impugns Trump in campaign finance violations.  Trump has also been found guilty of misusing funds from his charity.  But this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Trump's exposure includes but is not limited to collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice, treason, breaching the emoluments clause of the Constitution, shady financial entanglements, nepotism, and numerous conflicts of interest.

Trump has power, but there are also checks and balances to that power. As explained in a New York Times opinion piece, it is unlawful for the president to exercise his power corruptly.  Federal statutes subject individuals to criminal penalties for the crime of obstruction of justice when they "corruptly" or by "any threatening letter or communication" try "to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice". In this this context, corruptly implies improper use that is "evil" or "wicked".

Once the Mueller probe is released Republican lawmakers can be expected to break ranks in a modern day reenactment of the Ides of March

* Deutsche Bank loaned Trump over $2.5 billion since 1998. The bank was fined $630 million for its role in a $10 billion Russian money laundering scheme in 2017. Justice Anthony Kennedy ceded his place on the Supreme court paving the way for Brent Kavanaugh. It is interesting to note that Justice Kennedy's son is a banker at Duetsche Bank.

Updated December 24, 2018 

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