Except for three, Jim Mattis (Defense), Elaine Chao (Transportation), and Nikki Haley (United Nations Ambassador), there were warnings enough of serious missteps, abuse of public funds, conflicts of interest, and gross displays of incompetence which should have prevented apparently automatic and pro-forma majority confirmations. With this gang, our spoken vocabularies have required two not so familiar terms: kleptocracy and the emoluments clause. Both involving public officials lining their own pockets.
Tom Price, Trump’s first Secretary of Health and Human Services, was plainly an egregious Senate Advice and Consent debacle. Price arrived from Congress with a personal conflict-of-interest investigation underway in the House Ethics Committee. He’d knowingly invested in stock that would be boosted by legislation nearing passage in the House.
In five months, Price cost his department a million dollars for private or military jet travel, some between cities otherwise easily accessible. Private jets are expensive but military jets cost a whopping $25,000 an hour. Cabinet secretaries ordinarily travel coach on regularly scheduled flights. Obama’s first HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius just once took a small private jet on the last leg to an Alaskan destination with no commercial service. The first of this batch exposed for blatant abuse of office, Price resigned.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, his flag still flying, routinely traveled non-commercial, once flying back to Washington on a costly U.S. Park Service helicopter to go horseback riding with Vice President Pence. He actually spent $139,000 to upgrade three sets of double doors in his office, though claiming he’d negotiated the price down to a measly $75,000. What looks to be shady opportunism was awarding $300 million for rebuilding Puerto Rico’s post-Maria electric grid to a 2-man operation from Zinke’s hometown, withdrawn when the FBI launched an investigation.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has bilked taxpayers a million dollars for needless military and private jet travel, like his flight to the U.S. Bullion Depository in Fort Knox. Object? An ill-considered photo-op for him and his wife holding a newly printed panel of one-dollar bills sporting his signature. When called out, his wife chided us for little appreciating how the wealthy, not we peons, built America.
Wilbur Ross at Commerce, much lambasted by reputable economists, members of congress, and many business leaders for foolish policies, has deep financial entanglements with Russian oligarchs and the Chinese government, which he “forgot“ to disclose on FBI vetting forms. At the Center for Disease Control, Brenda Fitzgerald resigned after six months for improper tobacco stock purchases and drug-monitoring programs and for using her staff for private business.
Both Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development) and Betsy DeVos (Education) routinely embarrass their departments and the country, displaying their unfitness for the offices they hold. Ben Carson outrageously tried to spend $31,000 for a dinette set for his HUD office. Publicly blaming his wife made it even more tacky. And our Attorney General Jeff Sessions has scarcely tried overcoming a long record of deeply ingrained racial prejudice and social justice bias.
Apart from the president himself, the EPA’s Scott Pruitt reigns as champion finagler. Dogged by suspicion of ethics violations and outright corruption, he barely squeaked by his Senate confirmation. On behalf of the department he seems committed to destroy, he cost us many hundreds of thousands on flights for himself and large security staff. Plus $3 million so far for the 24/7 security detail on a scale sometimes provided for visiting dignitaries. He spent $43,000 on a soundproof in-office booth for communicating with governments officials and corporate fossil-fuel bigwigs. Rebuffed by the White House, he raided the Safe Drinking Water Act emergency fund to give raises ($28,130 and $56,765) to a 26-yr-old personal errand girl and a 30-yr-old woman who seldom showed up. His known entanglements with lobbyists for fossil fuel interests, involving gifts received and given, are numerous, with more still likely to be unearthed.
Trump promised “all the best people.” Instead he installed over-privileged and over-rated sycophants, valued mostly for wealth and loyalty. Conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, says it this way: “Trump chose people like himself — rich, contemptuous of government, and skeptical of expert opinion. Trump values the opinion of rich people and generals and few others.” As of this writing, he’s sticking by Pruitt because he’s “useful.” Like Congress does Trump.
The administration’s spin is that these deplorable performances make for “bad optics.” Really? Try bad morals and bad ethics. I believe Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton sincerely expected that we, as a body politic, would reject Donald Trump and his ilk. As a matter of political reckoning they’ve so far been proven wrong. But it‘s a close call. And finding hope in the better angels of our nature isn’t the worst way to be wrong.
Jennie Young of Elizabethton is a retired language arts teacher.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessary reflect those of the Johnson City Press.