In normal times — whenever those were — this was the kind of thing that could seriously ding, or even derail, a promising political career. In these apocalyptic Trump Times, unfortunately, it’s the kind of story that can’t break out past Page A17, assuming your local newspaper is still in business.
A U.S. cabinet secretary, leaving Washington on a mission with little governmental purpose — to do a favor for his biggest campaign donor from his past life in elective office — sandwiched by a political fund-raiser where he hobnobbed with lobbyists for the billionaire Koch brothers, capped by a flight to his home in Montana on a private jet co-owned by a company he regulates, charged at an exorbitant rate that he then turns around and bills to his “marks,” also known as the American taxpayer.
That’s the stunt that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke pulled off in June, when his official governmental duty in Nevada was a motivational speech to the NHL’s new Vegas Golden Knights (because what young Canadian or Czech hockey player wouldn’t be fired up by a pep talk from an American bureaucrat?), who are owned by a finance executive who, with his employees, had raised nearly $180,000 for Zinke’s campaigns when he was a congressman from Montana. But Zinke had actually arrived in Nevada the night before, to take in a political fund-raiser where he sat with the lobbyists not just for the oil-rich Koch brothers but also — interestingly, in light of subsequent events in Nevada — the National Rifle Association.
After the hockey talk in Las Vegas on June 26, Zinke — according to reports — has plenty of time to catch the last cheap commercial flight that would have taken him home to Whitefish, Mont., for the weekend, but instead he chartered that private jet co-owned by an oil-and-gas company, for which the U.S. government was billed $12,375. Did I mention, by the way, that Zinke is the cabinet secretary who sees his mission as making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill on federal lands?
The whole thing stinks to high heaven, but most voters probably don’t know about it. For one thing, it’s hard for the Zinke story to break through when a madman at the American altar of high-powered weapons mows down 58 humans (just two miles from the Golden Knights’ arena), or when the 3.4 million U.S. citizens on Puerto Rico are experiencing a post-hurricane humanitarian crisis made worse by a government that lumbered to a slow response, headed by a narcissist emotionally incapable of feeling the island’s pain.
The other maddening thing is that the Zinke scandal seems almost bush league in the swampy World Series of corruption that is Donald Trump’s Washington. What’s $12,000 (well, it’s eight months of pay for a typical fast-food worker, but …) when one of Zinke’s former colleagues — the suddenly ex-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price — spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on cushy and utterly unnecessary private jet travel, including the most expensive jaunt from Washington to Delaware County in recorded human history. ($25,000? Seriously? I mean, I hate that tollbooth in Delaware, too, but c’mon, man.)
Maybe they were inspired by the folly of the guy who actually signs the checks, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who — spurned from the bat-guano crazy idea of using a military jet for his European honeymoon with his beautiful and utterly vapid Hollywood wife — did manage to fly the taxpayers’ Lear jet to see the total eclipse of the sun* sitting on top a mound of gold bars at Fort Knox along with the fabulously attired Louise Linton. Then there’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who apparently watched so many Get Smart** reruns that he spent $25,000 on his own “Cone of Silence” to hold his private talks on how to prop up his favorite toxic-waste dumpers — in addition to wasting money on a huge, unnecessary security detail and (surprise!) lavish jet travel.
Look, let’s start with a massive qualifier. The background noise of political corruption in American politics, on every level, is as loud as it’s ever been, and — to paraphrase a certain dotard-in-chief — “many sides” are doing it. That includes a Democratic U.S. senator, New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, who sits in a Newark courtroom trying to explain away the unconscionable selling of his office, and the rotting Democratic machine here in Philadelphia, as well as a Republican congressman from Western Pennsylvania who was fighting to block your right to an abortion while urging his mistress to get one. There are many reasons for this sad slide, from court rulings that make it easier for crooked pols to get away with it, to voter disgust with The System.
But historically, the presidential administration in Washington is the major leagues, and its top officials — vetted in Senate confirmation hearings — are expected to be above ward-politics-variety petty graft. Look at the casual, thoughtless waste of tax dollars on luxuries in the Trump administration, or the cozy ties with the businesses that officials are supposed to regulate — and then try to find comparable corruption in the presidencies of Barack Obama or (moral corruption of the Iraq War aside, if that’s possible) George W. Bush. So what gives?
One problem is the complete contempt that most Trump appointees have for the jobs they were appointed to do. At HHS, Price probably didn’t think twice about exorbitant jet travel because he was “saving” so much money by not promoting Obamacare that might allow poor people who’ve never flown on an airplane to get health care. But EPA’s Pruitt — who essentially called for dismantling the environmental agency before he was tapped to run it — is the poster child for this let-them-eat-dioxin-laced-cake attitude. Pruitt doesn’t believe in spending money on actually protecting the environment — neither does Trump, who wants to slash EPA spending by $2 billion, or 30 percent — but the dollars are there, so why not spend it on the EPA administrator and his earthly comforts? Meanwhile, most of the spending on Pruitt’s travel is for him to meet with various polluters to assure them they have a friend now in Washington. If you don’t believe that your mission is to serve the public, you’re not going to act like a true public servant.
But there’s a bigger problem behind the new spirit of corruption in Washington, and it is quite simply this: The fish stinks from the head. President Trump and the First Family have corrupted the White House on such an overwhelming scale — swamping the system of alleged checks and balances that were meant to prevent it — that it’s easy to understand how most of his underlings are getting away with it, and how Price’s travel scam grew so brazen to the point it was impossible to ignore.
Nine months into his presidency, Trump remains the owner of a large business enterprise that does business with favor-seeking foreign entities — a clear violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, an impeachable offense — and that he shamelessly promotes through his constant travels to his golf resorts — junkets that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars, some of which is billed to Secret Service or others who rent rooms or space in his properties and thus goes back into the president’s pocket.
This week, we got another wake-up call about how the First Family does business, with the stunning report by ProPublica that some Manhattan prosecutors wanted to indict Trump’s two oldest children, Ivanka and Don Jr., for alleged fraud in their seemingly dishonest promotion of a Soho condo project, only to be called off by their boss — Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. — who received sizable campaign contributions from Donald Sr.’s personal lawyer. Now, instead of wearing an ankle bracelet, Ivanka sits at the right hand of her father in the West Wing as a senior adviser. She works closely in the White House with her husband, Jared Kushner, whose family has been peddling a path to U.S. citizenship to Chinese condo buyers while Jared himself has desperately looked to a rogue’s gallery of international influence-seekers to save his doomed real-estate investment on Fifth Avenue — all while “Javanka” conduct government business on their private email server.
The First Family’s conflicts of interest are so massive that the system meant to regulate this baloney has shut down, aided by a friendly congressional GOP majority that doesn’t seem to care about presidential graft — let alone crotch-grabbing or nuclear-war Twitter threats — as long as there’s a pot of corporate-tax-cut gold at the end of the bloody, tarnished rainbow. Why would Tom Price or Ryan Zinke or Scott Pruitt expect to be treated any differently?
In the end, though, Price was treated differently — but only because of tireless, exhaustive, and fearless work by two journalists for Politico, who after a tip spent months and months combing through records and finally staking out the private jet terminal at Dulles to catch the then-HHS secretary in the act. The story of their effort is both inspiring and a little discouraging. Because the reality is there aren’t enough journalists left with enough hours in the day to expose all the corruption — when Congress won’t do its job, when whistle-blowers are bullied or ignored, and when the president uses his bully pulpit to decry investigative reporting as “fake news.” The scariest part of this is not that Americans are drowning in a swamp of corruption, but that almost no one can hear our cries for help.
* Dated Baby Boomer pop-culture reference (see video below)