I will Make Our Government Honest Again -- believe me. But first, I'm going to have to #DrainTheSwamp in DC. https://t.co/m1lMAQPnIb
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2016
His "ethics reform" plan was:
First: I am going to re-institute a 5-year ban on all executive branch officials lobbying the government for 5 years after they leave government service. I am going to ask Congress to pass this ban into law so that it cannot be lifted by executive order.
Second: I am going to ask Congress to institute its own 5-year ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and their staffs.
Third: I am going to expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisors when we all know they are lobbyists.
Fourth: I am going to issue a lifetime ban against senior executive branch officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.
Fifth: I am going to ask Congress to pass a campaign finance reform that prevents registered foreign lobbyists from raising money in American elections.
His personal lawyer Michael Cohen obviously didn't read the third item on that memo. And it's interesting that someone in Trump's campaign thought it was important to pretend they cared about foreigners raising money in elections.
That tweet came on the heels of the first time Trump used the phrase "Drain the swamp" in the 2016 campaign -- which was very late in the game, just three weeks from election day. He had said earlier, "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," but he didn't really run explicitly as a political reformer.
But as Newsweek reported, in October his message changed:
Trump promised to "drain the swamp" at a rally that day [Oct. 17, 2016] in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the first time he did so during the campaign. He did it the next day, October 18, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In Fletcher, North Carolina, he called Clinton "the most corrupt person ever to seek the office of the Presidency."
One week later, then-FBI Director James Comey announced that investigators had found emails from Clinton on former congressman Anthony Weiner's laptop. Trump ran with it:
"Hillary Clinton's corruption is on a scale we have never seen before," he said in New Hampshire. Later, in Maine, he said Clinton's use of a private email server -- which Comey had already decreed did not merit criminal charges -- was the "biggest scandal since Watergate."
The reason to bring this up isn't to point out Trump's hypocrisy, which is shooting fish in a barrel. The fact is, that despite his tiresome repetition of the slogan "Drain the swamp" since the election, it wasn't one of Trump's signature chants, like "Lock her up" or "Build the wall." It was something of an afterthought, a sort of extension of his claims that the system was "rigged" against him to steal the election. As the various investigations into his nefarious doings unfold, it seems obvious that was another projection of his own foibles onto his opponents.
Nonetheless, it is an article of faith among many of the chattering classes that he ran as a reformer who promised to clean up Washington. But the Trump administration's approach to dealing with the institutions of government is much more old-fashioned. It is simply governing by way of personal loyalty and fealty to the president rather than expertise, experience or seniority. It's a spoils system, and not a very efficient one.
This article by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker about the razing of the federal workforce at all levels is an eye opener:
Across the government, more than half of the six hundred and fifty-six most critical positions are still unfilled. "We've never seen vacancies at this scale," Max Stier, the president and C.E.O. of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that works to make the government more effective, said. "Not anything close."
Some of the vacancies are deliberate. As a candidate, Trump promised to "cut so much your head will spin." Amid a strong economy, large numbers of employees are opting to leave the government rather than serve it. In Trump's first nine months, more than seventy-nine thousand full-time workers quit or retired--a forty-two-per-cent increase over that period in Obama's Presidency. To Trump and his allies, the departures have been liberating, a purge of obstructionists. "The President now has people around him who aren't trying to subvert him," Michael Caputo, a senior campaign adviser, told me. "The more real Trump supporters who pop up in the White House phone book, the better off our nation will be."
If they cannot find a Trump loyalist to fill a position they simply leave it empty.
Trump's definition of "populism" is unique. Osnos writes:
In the 2013 novel "A Delicate Truth," John le Carré presents the "deep state" as a moneyed, cultured élite -- the "non-governmental insiders from banking, industry, and commerce" whose access to information allows them to rule in secret. Trump's conception is quite different. A real-estate baron, with the wealthiest Cabinet in US history, Trump is at peace with the plutocracy but at war with the clerks -- the apparatchiks who, he claims, are seeking to nullify the election by denying the prerogatives of his Administration.
This attack on "bureaucracy" is really an attack on law enforcement, the State Department, the intelligence community and ordinary bureaucrats who enforce regulations and monitor compliance with the law, along with anyone else Trump and his henchmen see as enemies of the state. Even the usual suspects at the conservative think tanks who usually have the inside track on jobs in a new Republican administration (or, as with Iraq, a new occupied country) have been shut out because so many candidates were on record as being critical of Trump, which meant hiring them was out of the question.
Many people claim that underneath the bluster, Donald Trump is just another Republican who happens to have a big mouth and likes to use Twitter. But while he was made possible by the modern conservative movement and a political system that enabled such a man to become president, he is nonetheless sui generis. This evisceration of federal government institutions is nothing we've ever seen before.
The story Osnos tells about the elimination of experts and the deliberate erasure of institutional memory in department after department is chilling. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace these people even after Trump is gone. His lasting legacy may be the destruction of the federal government as we know it.
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