President Trump should teach a course on populism – to his own Cabinet members.
Trump, of course, has promised to drain the swamp and make Washington more accountable to the people. Yet there’s nothing more swampy than government officials using taxpayer money for their own jollies, which seems to be happening at at least four prominent agencies.
Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is the beneficiary of a $31,000 dining set the agency sprung for, as his wife, Candy Carson, decided to spruce up HUD’s spartan furniture. Anybody out there ever spend $31,000 on a dining set? Seems like a lot. It’s more than half the typical family’s median income. Maybe that’s why federal rules require special Congressional approval for any redecorating expense above $5,000.
HUD didn’t bother complying with that stipulation, but it did reassign an agency stickler who insisted Carson play by the rules and refused to sign off on the purchase. The HUD official who overruled her justified the expense by saying, “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair.” But now, HUD is going to have to find some decent chairs on the cheap, since Carson decide to cancel the order for the fancy dining set. Pro tip: Start with Craigslist.
While campaigning, Trump promised to overhaul the creaky Department of Veterans Affairs and improve access to health care for vets. The man he put in charge of the VA, David Shulkin, recently got busted flying his wife along on a sightseeing trip to Europe, at taxpayer expense, that was poorly disguised as official business. An official investigation found that Shulkin’s lackeys lied about details of Shulkin’s trip in order to justify his wife’s attendance on Joe Taxpayer’s dime. Then they tried to cover up the ethical breach.
European jaunts and no paper trails
While touring Europe, Shulkin also violated VA policy by accepting free tickets to the women’s finals at the Wimbledon tennis tournament in the U.K., from a private business. That’s a no-no. Shulkin’s aides lied about the gift when the Washington Post came asking, saying VA ethics officials had approved the acceptance of the tickets, when they hadn’t. Shulkin later said he had paid for the tickets himself, also a lie. Meanwhile, auditors turned up bogus-sounding expenses from the trip that they can’t completely account for, such as one charge of $3,825 for parking. Wow, Europe is expensive. Shulkin has made nice by paying back the VA for certain expenses. And he says he’s not resigning.
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, thought he had a better excuse for lavish travel: his safety. Pruitt got in the habit of flying business and first class, and sometimes chartering planes, because a few unfriendly encounters with the public made him feel unsafe. The added cost to taxpayers: at least $200,000. Congress started asking questions, and Pruitt has now said he’ll fly coach. Isn’t he brave.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke enjoys luxe travel, as well, sometimes flying on business and military jets, and bringing his wife along on some taxpayer-funded flights. Zinke’s strategy seems to be, leave no paper trail. Auditors complain about poor record-keeping and shoddy documentation of Zinke’s trips. Anybody who travels for work knows that blowing off the paperwork is the way to go – you just spend whatever it takes, and the company reimburses you, no questions asked. Although there is the pesky matter of media and Congressional inquiries spoiling the party.
If Trump’s Cabinet members read the news, they’d know that Tom Price, Trump’s first Secretary of Health and Human Services, resigned last September after getting caught spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on charter flights that appeared to be junkets. What’s the difference between Price, who is gone, and the other grifters who remain? Trump publicly dissed Price, saying he “didn’t like the optics.” That meant Price had to go. Trump has been silent so far about Carson, Shulkin, Pruitt and Zinke.
Trump, as we know, prizes loyalty above just about every other quality in an employee, including competence. That helps explain why he’s padded his Cabinet with functionaries who seem dismissive of ethics rules meant to sustain the public’s trust in government. Will this micrograft matter? Probably not to the Trump fans who would applaud Trump if he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue. But that’s a minority of voters. Many others look at the swamp and see it filling, not emptying.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman