Donald Trump's Cabinet Is Engineering the Great American Heist

Jack Holmes
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Esquire

A defense contractor running the Department of Defense. A self-styled tycoon who allegedly stole $120 million from his business partners. A coal lobbyist regulating coal. A senior Commerce Department official who once lobbied for whale hunters. Ivanka.

Donald Trump’s improbable ascension to the American presidency was a Bat Signal to some of the most accomplished grifters and scoundrels this fine country has to offer. They jumped on the nearest airplane-preferably private, and paid for by someone else-and jetted off to Washington, D.C., to carve out their piece of the action. The United States and its territories have always been home to some of history’s great scammers, fraudsters, confidence men, and snake-oil salesmen. It is a relentless feature of the national character in a country built by people trying to make a buck, however they could, on the ragged edge of civilization. It’s just the very greasiest operators don’t often pry their way into the Cabinet of the United States president. More rarely, still, do they capture it-and the Executive Branch of government.

“This is the Teapot Dome scandal on steroids,” Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University and a CNN contributor, told me. He’s referring to the orgy of bribery and crony capitalism that devoured the presidency of Warren G. Harding in the 1920s. Harding’s crew, known as the Ohio Gang, featured oil-industry insiders who proceeded to operate in public office on behalf of their old friends in the business. For Brinkley, the 45th president has a similar recruiting strategy.

“Donald Trump understands people that are greedy,” he said. “When he’s dealing with the public lands and the environment, he wants people that are into making cash out of resources, not preservation. He doesn't trust preservation. It's because they have ethics. He trusts people who see that there's gold in them there hills.”

And it seems he’s found them. As we embark on a third year of The Trump Era, a new group has filtered in to populate the most senior levels of his government. The Class of 2019 is different in kind to the right-wing oddballs and ravenous feeders at the public trough that went barreling into the administration in January 2017. Often, those characters flamed out early, and now they’ve been replaced.

The folks taking their place are The Operators, the Beltway veterans with deep ties to the industries they are now tasked with regulating. They have been in government, then out of it, and now they’re back in. They know what the people who write the big checks want, and they know how to make it happen. They also know the rules you just can’t break, and have the patience and discipline to mostly stay out of the headlines until it’s time to eat. Many key departments of the Executive Branch are now run by cutouts of the industries they’re tasked with regulating, and have set out to redraw the rules to suit the interests of their former-and likely future-employers. In effect, they are tasked with destroying these departments.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Take Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA administrator, who succeeded Scott Pruitt after he was run off the mountain by an avalanche of scandal. Wheeler worked for Senator James Inhofe, the brilliant mind who brought a snowball on the Senate floor to disprove the existence of climate change. According to The New York Times, the senator's many protégés, a group that also includes Pruitt, are loosely known as "the Inhofe mafia." They tend to favor radical deregulation to match the prerogatives of industry and dispute the scientific consensus on climate change. Wheeler then moved to EPA under President George W. Bush. And then he went to collect, lobbying for coal giant Murray Energy, which paid his firm hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from 2009 to 2017.

Unlike Pruitt, “Mr. Wheeler tends to eschew the limelight,” The New York Times reported. “His career was built around quietly and incrementally advancing the interests of the fossil-fuel industry, chiefly by weakening or delaying federal regulations.”

Many believe he’ll be more effective than Pruitt, who himself rolled back dozens of environmental rules in his relatively short tenure. Wheeler certainly was productive in private practice. Shortly before he was confirmed as the number two at the EPA in 2017, he successfully lobbied the Department of Interior to shrink the size of the Bears Ears National Monument on behalf of a client, Energy Fuels Resources, which sought to exploit uranium deposits there.

Speaking of Interior, there’s a new sheriff in town now that Ryan Zinke’s been put out to pasture. The other department chiefly concerned with safeguarding the American continent’s natural wonders is now headed by David Bernhardt. The new acting secretary had so many conflicts of interest when he took his first job, as Zinke’s number two, that he had to carry around a card listing all of them. The Washington Post assured us it was a “small” card featuring 22 former clients whose business he shouldn’t get involved in. Bernhardt lobbied on behalf of players in the oil, gas, and agricultural industries, all of which routinely have business before the Department of Interior. The extraction companies are particularly interested in drilling on public lands, and Bernhardt is now in perhaps the best position possible to make happen.

Photo credit: Getty Images

The Post brought us one example of how he just might. In his old job, Bernhardt lobbied on behalf of the Westlands Water District. The firm makes its money providing water to California’s agriculture industry, but must "compete with state and federal officials’ push to supply it to municipalities and imperiled species as well." Bernhardt represented WWD when it unsuccessfully sued the Department of Interior over the Endangered Species Act-in effect, to free up more water for agriculture-and was part of a conservative group tied to the water providers that challenged scientific findings on what species were endangered.

Then he joined Interior. Two weeks after his mandatory one-year recusal period under the Trump ethics pledge ended, Zinke tasked him with drawing up a new plan for water distribution...in California. Bernhardt has been quite clear he wants to divert more water towards agricultural interests. The plan seemed to spring into action as soon as he was released from the pledge, in a way that just happens to align with the interests of his former client.

“Because of his extensive history of lobbying, he appears to be so driven by the interests of his former clients, and industry and special interests, that it's really hard for somebody with his background to turn off the lobbyist mindset and now represent the public interests,” Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former ethics official in the Bush and Obama administrations, told me.

Maybe Bernhardt truly believes that the agriculture interests out west deserve more water. Maybe there’s an argument some species are overprotected by the law-though that would require some evidence. But the very nature of Bernhardt’s deep ties to the industries he’s now regulating-and, it seems, aiding-give rise to questions over whether he’s acting in the public interest.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Over at the Department of Defense, the man running the show is now Patrick Shanahan, who spent 31 years at a defense contractor selling weapons and equipment to, among other clients, the Department of Defense. So what if Shanahan has no military or foreign policy experience? He spent three decades at Boeing! Trump knows full well what Shanahan’s strengths are, praising him as a “good buyer” of military equipment after he appointed him on an interim basis. There were already questions about whether Boeing was exercising undue influence at the Pentagon after the firm scored three multi-billion-dollar aircraft contracts despite massive delays on a recent Defense project. Trump also has a personal relationship with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.

Even if Shanahan won’t favor his old colleagues over their competitors at, say, Lockheed Martin, this is the military industrial complex equipped with rocket propulsion. We already spend $716 billion every year on defense-more than at least the next seven countries combined. Do we think we’re going to start spending less now that Shanahan has unparalleled influence over the budget and acquisitions the Pentagon requests from Congress?

At the heart of all of this is a legitimate collapse of ethics in American public life, and with it, perhaps, the concept of public service itself. The idea that you would enter the government to serve the interests of the American people-or, even more outlandishly, human beings who aren’t even American-seems headed towards extinction. Rampant ethics issues and conflicts of interest have barged into the space, a daily testament to the towering power of American greed. Many of these cases do not rise to the level of breaking the law. Ethics statutes are narrow and specific. But many who take a job with this administration seem to see public office as a means to enrich themselves. That can happen immediately, through abuse of the public purse or accepting sweetheart deals. Or it can happen later, by taking a gig with industries you looked out for while in office. The latter is a process, long known as the “revolving door,” which has spun into Trumpian overdrive.

“Why does anybody come into this administration?” Canter asks. “Well, it's because they're going to come in, do the industry dirty work, and walk out with the expectation that they will receive some sort of job in the private sector with enhanced remuneration.”

Trump is not the first president to employ recently-former lobbyists, or to send his aides off into the private sector to rake in the big money when they’re done with government. But this rabid, shameless greed is rapidly becoming one of the few unifying principles of his administration. Like so many Republicans before him, Trump promised to run government like a business. But a business looks out for its own interests-not those of the wider public. Besides, he never said it would be an honest business-or that he’d stop running his old one at the same time.

The alarms signaling someone had broken into the vault went off almost as soon as Donald Trump settled into his highly implausible role as President-elect of the United States of America. Beyond the first murmurs of The Russian Connection, the new chief’s massive conflicts of interest thanks to a sprawling, opaque business empire presented a major problem. There was not, nor has there ever been, any indication he was interested in solving it.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Donald Trump, American president, has sought to monetize his office with brazen efficiency. He made a big show of "divesting" from his business at a pre-Inauguration press conference featuring a big old pile of Definitely Not Blank Pages in manila folders that he would not allow reporters in attendance to examine. We learned almost immediately this was a sham: Trump was handing over management of his empire to his sons, who quickly gave the game away and said they’d be giving Pops regular updates on how things were going. Trump the Elder retained full ownership.

Thanks to lax public disclosure laws for the president, Trump only needs to report on which shell companies he owns-not the specifics of who’s pouring money into them. Needless to say, he hasn’t gone above and beyond to provide the American people with transparency. Certainly, he’d never follow the lead of every other presidential candidate since Watergate and release his tax returns.

Forbes dug into it, however, and found the president is raking in at least $175 million per year from corporate tenants leasing space in his buildings alone. The magazine’s non-exhaustive list includes 36 different entities that have “meaningful relationships” with the United States government. It also includes China’s largest bank. There are also Trump’s foreign licensing deals, “which allow foreign tycoons and hucksters, many with connections to their local governments, to pay the Trump Organization more than $5 million a year in order to profit from the president's name in far-flung locales.”

Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY - Getty Images

Beyond all that, Trump owns a bunch of hotels, including his D.C. outpost where foreign dignitaries-including from the Saudi government-just happen to spend large sums of money, and where lobbyists have begun to congregate like moths to a flame. T-Mobile announced a merger that required the Trump administration’s approval, the Washington Post reported, and nine T-Mobile executives had reservations at Trump’s hotel the next day.

It is the epicenter of the New Swamp, a shining testament to the fact Trump’s pledge to Drain said Swamp-to extinguish the influence of lobbyists and special interests with his superpower, Being Rich-was the greatest scam of all. As if to drive home the point with a middle-finger flourish, the National Park Service closed all of its sites around the National Mall during the government shutdown-except the historic clocktower of the Old Post Office Building, which now just so happens to be the site of the Trump International Hotel.

The conflicts carried by ex-lobbyists leading EPA and Interior and the Pentagon, grave as they are, pale in comparison to the president’s. His powers are vast, but perhaps more importantly, he seems completely unable to separate his own interests from those of the country. They are one and the same, which might explain how Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington identified 1,400 conflicts of interest-interactions that involve "the government, those trying to influence it, and the Trump Organization"-during his first two years in office. All this is closely tied, of course, to his attitude towards reality, the contours of which he believes can be constantly molded to suit his interests. Trump has never before had to be accountable to voters or even shareholders. His companies have always been privately held, and he’s employed stooges to carry out his will and make his visions real-until, of course, the company goes bankrupt. There is no truth, only what you can get enough people to believe while you slide out the back door.

The consequences can be horrendous when they run up against the reality of governing the world’s most powerful country. They were perhaps never more so than when he hand-waved away the huge and growing body of evidence that the assassination of U.S.-resident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was ordered at the highest level of the Saudi Arabian government-by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman himself. Publicly, Trump dismissed the atrocity killing of a Washington Post writer on the basis that Saudi spends a lot of money on American weapons. And, of course, he distorted how much money the Saudis have spent on weapons and how many jobs the deals have created.

But the established fact that the Saudis are putting money in Trump’s pocket through his hotels prompts a fundamental question: is his laissez-faire attitude towards a journalist’s murder really based in his concern for the interests of the American public? Is it a product of his baseline hostility towards the free press, which has a nasty habit of uncovering unflattering things about him? Or is it a direct result of his own financial interests?

Photo credit: Noam Galai - Getty Images

This is just one example of how the president’s conflicts of interest are unprecedented in scale, and he is completely entangled with foreign money. This has led to growing speculation that he is in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits public officials from accepting gifts or payments from foreign actors. That’s the subject of a lawsuit currently winding its way through the courts. At issue, really, is whether the United States president has corrupted his government and put the national interest up for sale. No Russia needed.

Soon after he took office, President Trump instituted an ethics pledge via executive order. It seemed to outline strict criteria to combat the revolving door, and the Washington lobbying culture Trump had called The Swamp and pledged to Drain. He had specifically railed against lobbyists and the politicians in thrall to them on the campaign trail, and now he was going to make good. In fact, it was much like the Obama ethics pledge eight years before it-except in all the ways it wasn’t.

“Most likely the Trump Pledge hasn’t been effective in preventing conflicts of interest or revolving door cases because its drafters omitted a key Obama provision that prohibited a former registered lobbyist from being appointed to an agency he lobbied for two years,” Canter said. “In addition, the White House appears to be interpreting some of the Pledge terms more loosely than the language of the Pledge would reasonably suggest is permissible.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

Soon, that became very clear indeed. The president’s personal standard of ethics quickly filtered down to the people he hired to run the various departments of the Executive Branch. The most cartoonish bureaucrats in the budding oligarchy showed their hands early. This included the Snakes on Planes-the secretaries and department heads who got themselves into travel scandals almost immediately. They seemingly took their confirmation by the Republican Senate as a cue to live high on the hog on the American taxpayer’s dime.

There was the first Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, a former congressman who spent $1.2 million on air travel-$480,000 on private jets, and another $700,000 to use military aircraft-in his 231-day tenure, the shortest in the history of the office. He was run out of town having volunteered to pay the money back-well, $60,000 of it, anyway. His departure also largely spared him further examination over a sketchy deal to invest in a biotech stock.

Flyin’ Tom was joined in the bright blue skies by Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and Montana congressman whom Trump tapped to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Zinke was caught taking a $12,000 charter flight home on an oil executive’s plane, which was kind of an issue as he was simultaneously looking at opening up federal lands to drilling. A commercial flight would have been around $300. He also took private flights between Caribbean islands. He later disputed the term “private jet” on the basis the planes had propellers.

Zinke was also linked to a Montana real-estate deal involving the chairman of Haliburton, the oil-services giant that could stand to benefit from the Interior Department opening federal land for exploration. The department’s inspector general opened one of several different probes into Zinke regarding the Montana land deal, and eventually referred the probe to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution. Perhaps he should’ve followed through on the reported plan to replace the inspector general with someone from Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. Like Carson, Zinke embarked on an incredible office renovation project. His included spending $139,000 on doors, a sum he later quite generously offered to cut in half. Zinke was forced out amid White House fears that the rising Democratic House could investigate him into oblivion.

This kind of ethics issue was also a specialty for Scott Pruitt, the disgraced EPA administrator run out of town amid an avalanche of scandal. It became genuinely hard to keep track of the number of ethics probes into Pruitt by the end. Some estimates put it at 15. In an egregious example, Pruitt accepted a sweetheart deal from the spouse of an energy lobbyist to rent a house in a prime Capitol Hill location for peanuts. He kept a secret calendar in addition to his official books, but we soon learned that much of his time was spent getting wined and dined by executives and lobbyists from the industries he was tasked with regulating. Considering he’d come from the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, this might seem like a surprise-until you learn he once received a letter from an energy company complaining about EPA regulations, slapped his letterhead on it, and sent the letter on to the EPA as official correspondence from the Oklahoma attorney general.

These Eager Beavers who jumped at the chance to live large while they were still in office fit a certain profile. “Coming out of the business sector, Trump didn't have a lot of key advisors on his presidential campaign,” Brinkley saif. “He wasn't really beholden to friends of past political battles. Hence, he just kind of willy nilly selected a Cabinet by people that seemed to be early supporters of his or were considered hard-right.”

Many of his Cabinet chiefs were oddball political animals like Carson or Zinke. Some were rapacious predators out of the financial-services industry, like Steven Mnuchin or Wilbur Ross. Some were Trump’s kids. But all too often, what linked them were Fyre Festival-levels of unscrupulous greed. They just could not resist securing the perks as soon as they got through the door-one factor in why there is already a 60-plus-percent turnover rate among senior officials in this administration.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Some, of course, have survived. Alternate Archaeologist Ben Carson has survived despite spending $31,000 in taxpayer cash on a dining table for his office at HUD. Reports he might have used his position for his son’s personal financial gain have largely died down. Elaine Chao continues as Transportation Secretary despite questions over whether interviews she gave with her father while in office helped the family business. Rick Perry continues to run the Department of Energy-which he once pledged to disband as a presidential candidate (oops!)-although McClatchy raised concerns about his son’s energy investment firm, which has an opaque ownership setup.

When another of the Snakes on Planes, onetime Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, was forced out over a travel scandal, he was replaced with Robert Wilkie. The new guy’s main issue seems to be that he absolutely loves the leaders of the Confederacy. Sonny Perdue, who faced multiple ethics scandals in his previous gig as Georgia governor, has mostly avoided the spotlight so far. Alex Acosta, the Secretary of Labor, only made the news recently for his role getting billionaire child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein off with a slap on the wrist when Acosta was a federal prosecutor in Florida.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, one of the most controversial Cabinet nominations in recent history, has also held onto her place. The Michigan billionaire agreed to divest from 102 different financial interests that ethics officials flagged as potential conflicts when she entered office, courtesy of her extensive background in for-profit education enterprises. But she is still a co-trustee of three family trusts, only one of which has a clear ownership structure, and her department recently awarded a multi-hundred-million-dollar contract to a company to which DeVos used to have financial ties. It’s in the business of collecting on student loans. DeVos fought an Obama-era measure to forgive some student loan debt, and has generally fought protections on student borrowers.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Alex Azar, who replaced Flyin’ Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services, has stuck around for quite a while now. He’s surrounded himself with industry insiders from the insurance, pharmaceutical, and healthcare provider sectors. He’s also a poster boy for the revolving door: he left his post as deputy HHS secretary in the George W. Bush administration to become the top lobbyist for a pharmaceutical giant. His former employer, Eli Lilly, has skyrocketed the prices for its two insulin drugs-which diabetics depend on to survive-by 1,000 and 800 percent respectively over the last two decades. He then returned, courtesy of President Trump, to become the first Big Pharma executive ever to head HHS. Trump has regularly blathered about lowering drug prices.

And then there’s Wilbur Ross. Despite continual reports that Trump wants to shit-can the old codger because he’s Low Energy and keeps falling asleep in meetings, the financial-services tycoon persists. Except we’ve steadily learned that “tycoon” might be something of a misnomer. After all, Forbes found Ross might be one of the great grifters in American history, having allegedly stolen at least $120 million from his business partners through the years before he joined the Trump administration. Since then, the Commerce Secretary has repeatedly lied about divesting from holdings that ethics officials told him constituted conflicts of interest.

Photo credit: Getty Images

In one case, he lied on two different occasions about having sold a stock. In another instance, he lied about having sold off his holdings and waited until six months after the deadline to do so-by which time he’d made nearly $5 million on them. He also lied about his continued ownership stakes in a Chinese firm, a shipping company tied to Putin cronies, and a Cypriot bank tangled up in the Mueller probe. Maintaining foreign business interests while purporting to serve the American people? Very Trumpian. Just wait until you hear about how he lied about his wealth to Forbes in order to get onto their billionaires’ list. Two peas in a pod.

The Obama administration had some rare ethical hiccups, usually when-as in the case of some green-energy subsidy programs like the one that benefited Solyndra-it embarked on public-private partnerships. There are structural issues with that model that make these arrangements prone to crony capitalism.

“It's not the same degree, but it tells you the problems when you have a policy initiative and you are bringing in profiteers to push your initiative forward,” Brinkley said. “It scared Obama. He was going to try to do an alternative energy grid, and Solyndra made him back off from it, because he saw the blurring of ethical lines.”

The great ethics debacle faced by Trump's most recent Republican predecessor was Vice President Dick Cheney’s relationship with Haliburton, a company that just happened to win no-bid contracts with the Pentagon and benefit from a war in Iraq that Cheney pushed-one which turned out to have zero legitimate basis. The administration-up to and including the president-was also deeply entangled with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The Bush folks were accused of firing U.S. attorneys for political reasons, and Bush aide Scooter Libby was sentenced to federal prison over the Valerie Plame affair. But even the Bush administration could not hold a candle to Trump’s when it comes to systemic ethics issues, and what’s called regulatory capture, at almost every level.

Before that, Ronald Reagan hired James Watt to essentially dismantle the Department of the Interior, a harbinger of things to come. His HUD Secretary, Samuel Pierce, was embroiled in an influence-peddling scandal while slashing the department’s budget. His EPA chief, Anne Gorsuch-mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch-was not particularly concerned with Environmental Protection. But if anything, Trump's Class of 2019 has proven Reagan lacked ambition-or at least was not sufficiently impervious to shame.

“It's by nature almost impossible for Trump to build an administration of quality,” Brinkley said. The people whom he can attract to work in his administration-and are willing to-just always fit a certain profile. “It's not about good governance or ethics or even dead-rock patriotism. It's about full-bore allegiance to him, to Trump.”

Brinkley compares the president to Henry Ford, the legitimate mogul and narcissist who plastered his name everywhere (that’s what kicked off the whole idea of car dealerships), and who could not stand when even his most valuable advisers got press time. He’d can them just for that. When people began to discuss former Defense Secretary James Mattis or Chief of Staff John Kelly or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as The Adults in the Room, they were soon headed out the door. They had loyalties to something other than the president.

Normally, public servants are concerned about protecting their reputations and life legacies. Canter, from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, calls this an understanding of “reputational risk.” Some, like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, come from more regulated fields like financial services and are sensitive to this. They are aware of the rules and how to avoid breaking them in a way that Trump, who has long operated in the shadowy confines of privately held business, has never had to be. Mnuchin had one episode where he took a military plane to Fort Knox in order to watch the eclipse, but has largely stayed out of the headlines otherwise-except for more straightforward self-inflicted wounds. That’s mostly kept him out of the path of Trump’s ire.

Photo credit: AFP Contributor - Getty Images

On the other hand, an understanding of reputational risk is what finally did in Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Trump’s first attorney general. In perhaps the only honorable act of his miserable public career, Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Justice Department’s probe into Trump’s campaign on the basis Sessions served in that campaign. It’s an obvious conflict of interest, and must be put to bed. Except if you work for Trump.

After publicly railing against Sessions’ decision for months-a severe attack on the rule of law and independent law enforcement-Trump demanded his resignation and installed Matthew Whitaker, a lifetime grifter. Not only did Whitaker abuse his former position as a U.S. attorney to threaten someone who called out the scam patent firm of which he served on the board, he also led a nonprofit devoted to “accountability, ethics, and transparency” in government and civics that raked in millions in donations while employing zero people. Now, Whitaker has rejected the recommendation of a Justice Department ethics official that he recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe.

It's Whitaker who is the cartoon emblem of what this administration has presented to the country as public service. While Canter was quick to point out many civil servants remain in government, faithfully abiding by ethics statutes, political appointees at every level of the Executive Branch are in laughable breach of most any principle of public service. ProPublica compiled a brilliant database of these mid-level types, many of whom are paid over $170,000 each in taxpayer dollars.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON - Getty Images

A senior official at the Department of Commerce, Earl Comstock, previously lobbied for telecommunications firms. The NTIA, a division of Commerce, makes policy on telecommunications issues. (Comstock also previously lobbied Commerce on behalf of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, an association of whale hunters.)

Robert Eitel, Secretary Betsy DeVos’s special assistant at Education, previously worked for a for-profit college operator. For two months, according to a report from the office of Senator Elizabeth Warren, he served in both positions simultaneously-making public policy that affected the company that was still actively paying him. Byron Brown is another of “the Inhofe mafia” who’s now deputy chief of staff for policy at the EPA. His wife is a top lobbyist for the Hess Corporation, an oil and gas company.

In all, 188 officials in the database are former lobbyists, and plenty have ethics waivers to absolve them of responsibility to conflict-of-interest rules. Many are part of a “deregulatory task force,” an administration-wide initiative to seek out regulatory rollbacks. 144 officials hail from conservative think-tanks, which often boast the same kinds of revenue streams as lobbyists-except it comes via “donations.” And 277 are good old-fashioned political allies from the Trump campaign.

It’s possible for political allies and think-tankers and even ex-lobbyists to serve ethically in an administration, but you need, in Brinkley’s words, “a police presence.” You need a czar or an ombudsman to pinpoint ethics issues and conflicts of interest. Trump, of course, isn’t interested in any of that. Not only does he not want to know, but when it does come to his attention, it’s dismissed as Fake News. An inspector general who finds wrongdoing on the part of his staff or associate is a political hack in thrall to Hillary Clinton. You know, like Robert Mueller-a registered Republican.

“I don't see any bright spots. It's just a deeply unethical administration in American history,” Brinkley said. “Trump likes people that are shameless in the pursuit of profit. He's a rogue capitalist without any sense of public service and duty to fellow citizens.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

The most stunning examples in that regard are The Kids. Jared Kushner, the Son-in-Law-in-Chief and a walking advertisement for nepotism statutes, followed Trump’s lead in carrying out a sham divestment from his private business. That real-estate business is in perilous financial straits, thanks in part to a disastrous deal to acquire 666 Fifth Avenue, and Kushner’s company has sought to address the situation-including by seeking foreign investment-while he serves in the White House. For instance, they sought investment from China while he worked on China policy. They sought capital from Qatar just weeks before Kushner backed a Saudi-led blockade of the country. Kushner also personally courted the Saudi crown prince, even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

It has gotten to the point that U.S. intelligence has caught operatives from foreign countries, including China, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Israel, discussing how to target the Dauphin for manipulation using his “complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.” For months, Kushner failed to pass a background check to secure a security clearance-he repeatedly omitted dozens of meetings with foreign leaders from the application forms-but was nonetheless given a constant stream of classified information.

His wife, Ivanka Trump, seems to appear in news stories alternately as The First Daughter or as a Senior Adviser to the President, based on whichever’s more convenient. But she also retains control of her business interests, including her stake in the Trump D.C. hotel that netted her $3.9 million in 2017. She made a big show of shutting down her U.S.-based fashion brand, but her company also applied for a number of trademarks in China and was granted them shortly before her father, the president, embarked on an inexplicable campaign to save Chinese company ZTE.

Photo credit: Kevin Peralta

She recently got approval on a second round of Chinese trademarks, and attracted the attention of a watchdog group over her involvement in both the federal government’s Opportunity Zones program and a real-estate firm that could profit off of it. Kushner is also involved with the firm. This week, we learned Ivanka's company had secured five more trademarks in China while her father's administration-in which, again, she is a Senior Adviser-is in trade negotiations with China. Together with her husband, they made $82 million her first year serving in the White House.

Also in January, we learned Ivanka will help pick the next chief of the World Bank. This, despite the fact that the New York Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, continues to seek a 10-year ban on the Trumps running any charitable organization in New York State after she-and her siblings, and her father-recently agreed to shut down their charity, the Trump Foundation, in connection with a lawsuit accusing the family of running it as a scam. In 1989, Trump the Elder appears to have used it to pay Junior’s $7 Boy Scout registration fee. This follows on Trump’s agreement to shutter Trump University after another lawsuit asserted that organization, too, was a scam. He agreed to pay the victims $25 million.

These are just a couple of the 17 separate investigations currently probing pretty much every organization Donald Trump has ever run. Trump University and the Trump Foundation have been shuttered. The Trump Organization, the Trump Campaign, and the Trump administration are all under the microscope. We learned, via The New York Times, that Trump participated in a multigenerational, decades-long scheme to commit criminal tax evasion. Some might call this a pattern, one that now incorporates his management of the national government of the United States. To really color in the picture, we now know his personal lawyer once hired a guy to rig two news sites’ polls at the beginning of the 2016 campaign-and brought a shopping bag full of cash to pay the guy off.

What seems increasingly likely, but which very few people are willing to truly contemplate, is that Donald J. Trump has always been the head of what amounts to little more than a criminal syndicate. His various organizations, profit and nonprofit, made it their business to stretch the law, find loopholes in it, or even break it. It appears he brought this business model 260 miles south, from New York City to the nation’s capital, and, like he always has, found people whose greed and paucity of ethics allowed them to serve him and his interests unflinchingly. He used to have Michael Cohen and Felix Sater. Now he’s got the termites swarming through the ship of state.

Trump ally Chris Christie wrote in an excerpt from his upcoming book that Trump is surrounded by a "revolving door of deeply flawed individuals-amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons." But Christie suggested that the president is somehow the victim of this arrangement-that he wants to lead an ethical administration and Drain the Swamp, but he's been dragged into the mire by his corrupt associates. The truth is very much the opposite: Trump is only interested in hiring associates whose essential corruption allows them to pledge undying loyalty to him. He hasn't hired ethical people because he has no use for them, and they probably wouldn't agree to work for him anyway. He and his crew have some new digs, but they’re playing the same old game. More than that, they know they can’t stay forever. Better grab what you can, while you can.

('You Might Also Like',)