The Memo: Swamp proves sticky for Trump
President Trump moved to drain a mini-swamp of his own administration’s making late Friday afternoon, accepting Tom Price’s resignation as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Price had been in the middle of a maelstrom all week over his use of private jets at taxpayer expense.
The cost reached around $400,000 for Price’s domestic flights, which included short jaunts between Washington and Philadelphia, as well as journeys on routes served by commercial airlines.
The revelations about Price, first reported by Politico, fueled scrutiny of other flights by top administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The Price controversy is said to have irked Trump, since it cut so strongly against his famous campaign promise to change how the Washington game is played.
But there have been several other instances where that pledge has been called into question.
Government reform advocates have complained about the ethical shadows cast by everything from the Trump International Hotel to the president’s failure to entirely divest from his other businesses.
Walter Shaub, who tangled repeatedly with the administration as head of the Office of Government Ethics, resigned in July, calling the White House “a disappointment” on ethics in an interview with National Public Radio.
The administration also waived some laws that had sought to bar the “revolving door” between the lobbying world and government.
One such restriction, enacted during President Obama’s time in the White House, prevented lobbyists from taking jobs with any government agency that they had lobbied during the preceding two years. The restriction was lifted soon after Trump took over.
More nebulously, some of Trump’s populist current and former aides — the faction clustered around former chief strategist Stephen Bannon — chafe at the influence of scions of the business world, such as chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive whose net worth has been estimated at more than $250 million.
Cohn and Mnuchin, both of whom are alumni of the famous bank, have been the leading voices on a tax reform proposal that will benefit the wealthy more than the middle-class or poorer people, according to a newly released study from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center that Republicans dispute.
Trump critics, not all of them liberal, argue that the president is found wanting if judged against his campaign promises for reform.
“You can’t campaign on a message and them come up right away and undermine it,” said Steve Deace, a prominent conservative radio host in Iowa who campaigned with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during last year’s Republican presidential primaries.
“You can’t run as ‘I’m a populist, power to the people’ and then turn around and say ‘And we are going to bill the taxpayer for flights on private jets.’ ”
To other critics on the right, Trump was always the unlikeliest of reformers.
Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson, a vocal Trump critic, recalled an old saying that any institution “is the length and shadow of a man.”
Referring to Price and others, Wilson added, “These people are emulating Donald Trump — he cheats, he breaks the rules.”
But, despite such criticisms and controversies, it is far from clear that Trump’s base has lost faith in his ability to drain the swamp.
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said that activists whom she speaks with “generally do think he is serious” about making good on his promise.
Martin focuses more on a slow-moving legislative process and a failure to enact policy promises — such as repealing the Affordable Care Act — than the ethics storms involving Price or others. And she places the blame firmly on Capitol Hill.
“Congress is all too often working against the president and against the president’s agenda,” Martin said.
Trump has maintained a relatively solid base of support, even as his overall approval ratings have hovered around historic lows.
To many of his strongest backers, the president’s willingness to transgress political norms is evidence in itself of a desire to change how business is normally done.
What other president, they say, would criticize leaders in his own party so publicly, call the ruler of North Korea “Rocket Man,” or agree to a debt-ceiling deal with members of the opposition party while his own officials stand by astonished?
Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, said that even though there had been little actual substantial progress on reform, “he himself is still demonstrating some aspects of behavior that, to his supporters, fit that bill. … All that stuff demonstrates to them that he himself is distrustful of the usual way that business is done in Washington.”
But, Reeher added, there was no guarantee that Trump would bring deeper change.
“The swamp is pretty sticky and it is hard to drain,” he said. “It is going to be very difficult for any one individual — even the president — to restructure the entire culture and network that exists inside the Beltway.”
As another senior member of his administration departs, even Trump might agree with that assessment.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.