An overwhelming number of high-level Trump administration officials have been accused of corruption. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin expensed a pricey trip to Europe and found himself unemployed last week. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s condo lease cost only $50 per night and happened to be owned by a lobbyist whose client’s project was later approved by the agency. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price spent roughly $400,000 on private jets before he got the boot. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin both did the same thing, though not enough to be held accountable for it. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson tried to spend $31,000 of taxpayer money on a dining set for his office. And Wilbur Ross may not have properly divested his assets before becoming commerce secretary.
Are these improprieties just clear demonstrations of human nature or is low-level corruption specific and endemic to the Trump administration? There are two possibilities: (1) People always want more than they have, and some will exercise bad judgment to get it; and (2) People willing to work for Trump are, by definition, the type of people who are more likely to break the law.
From Tammany Hall to the Tea Pot Dome Scandal to Whitewater, government corruption is not new. Trump’s cabinet seems particularly susceptible, but they didn’t invent graft.
The president and his team’s stream of scandals and ineptitude certainly isn’t an effective recruiting tool. To take a high-level job in the Trump administration, candidates either have to be desperate for power or committed to a specific hard-line ideology, like opposing immigration or clean air. People who fit into the former category have cloudy judgment to begin with, and people in the later category believe the end always justifies the means. Both are a recipe for disaster.
In my opinion, the main reason my former boss Mike Bloomberg was so effective as New York City mayor was because he attracted, recruited and retained high-level talent. His administration was stocked with ethical people who had impeccable credentials and a constant flow of creativity. I also worked for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who ended up with a 14-year prison sentence. Rod paid no attention to governing and constantly caved to self-dealing. In a way, his not coming into the office for three months at a time and not knowing what was in the budget or what bills we signed made it easier to run the state. But it was still, to put it mildly, a problem, and he paid a steep price for it.
This much is clear: (1) The nature of the people attracted to the Trump administration makes them likely to run into ethical problems; (2) Corruption is not new; (3) While we shouldn’t tolerate corruption in public office, it’s possible the constant focus on finding wrongdoing makes governing even harder for an already inept administration; and (4) Nothing is going to change until change happens at the top.
We got what we asked for, and we asked for this by electing Trump. Leaders will or won’t tolerate their staff’s and appointees’ corruption and will or won’t recruit based on ethics and moral standards. The voting public claims to care about corruption, and it regularly bemoans and condemns illegal activity. But do voters care enough to consider corruption at the ballot box? So far, they haven’t.
Bradley Tusk is the founder and CEO of Tusk Holdings, the parent company of Tusk Strategies, Tusk Ventures, Kronos Archives, the Ivory Gaming Group and Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies.