David Shulkin spent a scandal-free year and a half as a senior Veterans Affairs official under president Barack Obama, and flew through the Senate in a 100-0 vote for his confirmation to run the department under president Donald Trump.
Just over a year later, Trump fired him yesterday following weeks of speculation and revelations that Shulkin had spent more than $122,000 of department money on a 10-day trip to the UK and Denmark in July 2017—which involved only three and a half days of meetings. A government investigation (pdf) into the trip found he had committed several “serious derelictions,” including bringing his wife on the trip at the taxpayer’s expense and improperly accepting free Wimbledon tickets.
Most administrations have to weather a cabinet ethics scandal or two; under Trump, they seem to be everywhere. But while there have been many high-profile firings, very few of them were due to ethics mishaps; in a New York Times op-ed today, Shulkin writes that he was fired for being “an obstacle to privatization” of the veterans affairs department.
Most of the senior officials accused of wasting public funds remain in government:
- Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin requested a government plane to take his wife on a honeymoon to Europe, and has come under fire for spending nearly $1 million on just seven trips.
- EPA administrator Scott Pruitt spent $168,000 on charter, military, and first class flights in his first year in office, despite EPA guidelines saying he should travel coach. The trips often included weekend layovers in his home state of Oklahoma. Pruitt splashed around $43,000 on a sound-proof phone booth (paywall) in his office.
- Interior secretary Ryan Zinke has been dinged for failing to keep (paywall) proper records of his travel, been criticized for booking charter flights, and taken helicopters costing thousands of dollars when he could have taken a car. He spent $139,000 on new office doors (following a slew of embarrassing headlines, he says he has cut their cost by nearly half.
- Housing secretary Ben Carson ordered a $31,000 dining set. The inspector general of Carson’s agency is also investigating whether Carson broke ethics rules by involving his son, the owner of a private equity firm, in government activities.
Is the White House that promised to “drain the swamp” seeing more moral slippage than unusual? Some of the same officials who denounced excess spending in the past have since been caught doing just that: For example, in 2009, congressman Tom Price decried members of the US congress who were using private jets as “just another example of fiscal irresponsibility run amok.” In September 2017, he resigned from his post as Donald Trump’s health secretary, after it was reported that he’d spent more than $1 million of taxpayer funds on his own travel in private jets.
“We haven’t seen anything like this—anything like this,” says Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “If you lined [Trump’s cabinet] all up and just took a random poke, you’d be far more likely than not to hit somebody who has engaged in some corrupt practices, or practices that have violated every norm that we have about how you use taxpayer dollars.”
Amy Siskind, who compiles a weekly list of changing norms under Trump’s presidency, says it’s overwhelming: “Every week without fail one of these guys is in there.”
The big question is: how have these scandals become so pervasive?
Many things that can lead to a culture of corruption in an administration. You can hire people with few ethical scruples. You can fail to educate them about ethics. You can fail to punish those who violate existing codes.
But rot often begins at the top. In this case, Trump refusing to divest from his business empire might set a bad example for the rest of the government, says Richard Painter, White House ethics counsel under George W. Bush. “Because the president himself has such a cavalier attitude towards his own conflicts of interest, the others working for him have a cavalier attitude themselves,” he said.
That’s created a culture of following the letter of the law—which is largely based on norms—rather than its spirit, says Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight.
“Just because you can buy a $31,000 desk, it doesn’t mean that you should,”he says. “That message has to start at the top with the Trump administration and needs to trickle down through cabinet secretaries and then to career public servants: ‘We’re here to clean up Washington, not to expose problems in the system and exploit those gaps.'”
Forgetting frugality may be exacerbated by Trump’s tendency to hire other businesspeople, like former Goldman Sachs partner Mnuchin, who are used to a luxury executive lifestyle. “We’ve always had ‘Goldman Sachs goes to Washington’—that is not new but there’s even more of it in this administration,” says Painter. “Businesspeople can become very good public servants, but they have to become public servants. They can’t go into public service flying around on private jets and promoting their businesses.”
Correcting that attitude requires stringent ethics oversight, but Walter Shaub is a cautionary tale for anyone hoping to put that in place. Appointed as director of the Office of Government Ethics in 2013, he lasted six months of the Trump presidency before he quit, declaring (paywall), “I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point.”
He later said he left because he “reached a point where I didn’t think I could actually achieve the mission effectively.” Translation: the Trump administration refused to listen to ethics advice.
The White House did not reply to emailed requests for comment on its ethics oversight.
The case of top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway is a prime example. When Conway endorsed Ivanka Trump’s business products on live TV, Shaub recommended (paywall) that the White House discipline her. Trump’s internal ethics counsel disagreed, and the president did nothing.
Later in the year, she twice weighed in against Democratic candidate Doug Jones in an Alabama special Senate election, and a special counsel investigation deemed that both times she had violated the Hatch Act, a law banning federal officials from using their office for partisan political influence. Painter says she “would have been fired for that” in the Bush White House, but it’s unclear whether Conway has received any punishment under Trump.
The message that sends is clear, Ornstein says: “If you believed that there would be no consequences for bad behavior, human nature suggests that lots of people will be very likely to engage in it.”
Conway is not the only one to have violated the Hatch Act: the Office of the Special Counsel, an independent oversight body set up in the wake of Watergate, also found UN ambassador Nikki Haley and White House social media director Dan Scavino had done so.
Absent proper oversight in the executive branch of government, it’s Congress’s role to excoriate officials for unethical behavior. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate have made few efforts to do that, ethics watchdogs say.
Shaub is ominous about the threat this lack of oversight poses. “Without Congressional oversight, we have lost a critical check on the executive branch’s departure from important norms, and in the absence of that check we are already witnessing early signs of a potential drift toward authoritarian tendencies,” he wrote in a lengthy statement posted on Twitter last week.
Many blame partisanship. “It’s just mind-boggling,” says Ornstein. “My guess is that if the House or Senate would be Democratic…[officials] would know that if they did this stuff on a repeated basis, they would get hauled up in front of Congress and suffer some serious consequences.”
Nonetheless, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken the chance to stick the knife into cabinet members when they sat for budget hearings.
When the top Democrat on a House Appropriations subcommittee probed Carson about his dining set, the former neurosurgeon gave various confusing explanations (paywall) for the expense. These included that the previous dining table was “dangerous,” that his wife had picked out the new design, and that neither he nor his wife were happy with the price.
Trey Gowdy, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee wrote to Ryan Zinke asking him to detail the expenses in a briefing. Zinke told a House committee that the doors cost so much because of historic building preservation guidelines, while bemoaning government procurement practices. “You have to follow such stringent rules, even though some of them don’t make common sense,” he said. “We’re bound by those rules. I don’t even have a choice.”
Pruitt’s travel expenses were unearthed by a bipartisan effort headed by Gowdy to get him to turn over his flight records, which were then leaked to the Washington Post (paywall). The EPA says Pruitt has flown first class since Spring 2017 because of security threats, after a protester made vulgar and threatening comments to him.
A Democratic congressman also has triggered an internal investigation into Pruitt’s installation of the secure phone booth. Previous EPA officials have made do with a secure facility on a different floor of the building, but Pruitt told the Post, ”It’s kind of hard to tell someone that’s reaching out that, to have a confidential secure conversation, I’ve got to go down two floors, and over two levels, and I’ll call you back.”
The media has played an crucial role in uncovering ethics violations. Politico spent months snooping Price’s flight patterns, ending in his firing. Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was forced to resign when Politico reported she had been trading stocks in tobacco companies while running an agency tasked with cutting cigarette use. Meanwhile, billionaire investor Carl Icahn quit just before the New Yorker published an investigation (paywall) into his conflicts of interest while acting as a special advisor to Trump.
But in a normal administration, many of the other scandals mentioned in this story would have dominated the news for days. Under Trump, constant controversy means it’s a surprise if government misspending makes the front page. It’s hard to blame anyone for that. As Shaub writes, “the shocks are coming too fast to hold anyone’s attention for long, and it becomes hard to focus the reaction in ways that are effective.”
Painter is optimistic that the federal government can still be cleaned up. “We went through Watergate and prior situations where there was a lot of corruption either in the White House or Congress or both, and we’ve come out of it,” he said, arguing that voters won’t tolerate much more of this.
His fellow onlookers are less bullish, worrying, instead, that corrupt behavior has become normalized, to a point that to recover would take a large backlash in the form of criminal indictments or an anti-corruption presidential candidate.
Ornstein has become fond of citing former senator and all-round polymath Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s essay “Defining Deviancy Down” (pdf), to show how quickly things can go downhill.
“There is always a certain amount of deviancy in a society,” Moynihan once said, paraphrasing his essay. “But when you get too much, you begin to think that it’s not really that bad. Pretty soon you become accustomed to very destructive behavior.”