Feathering the Nest? Why Not?

Terry H. Schwadron

March 5, 2018

Let the banner of public outrage wave: It’s clear that All the President’s Men were not named to office in order to Feather Their Nests, but that by doing so — repeatedly — not only violates ethics standards, they should either face serious reprimand and restitution or lose their jobs.

As one columnist has put it, “President Trump should teach a course on populism — to his own Cabinet members.”

Several Cabinet members now have been found with their institutional hands in the cookie jar, all looking for first-class travel or fancy office equipment or for taxpayer-paid trips for themselves and their wives to places swankier than Washington DC.

And, only because of the scrutiny that comes through press coverage, they are beginning each to roll their actions back.

It’s one thing to “drain the swamp,” and quite another to find out that your Cabinet is the swamp.

— The New York Times reported that Jared Kushner’s family real estate company got two large loans from companies whose executives met with Kushner, who had vowed to distance himself from the private business, while he was at the White House last year in his borderless job. One said he also spoke with Kushner about a White House position that never materialized. Kushner’s legal team says he played no role in the loans. The Kushner Companies suggested the Times was struggling to make non-existent connections. Nevertheless, here it is again — a White House connection being looked at for personal gain. Coincidently, investigators are also reviewing Ivanka Trump for involvement in a deal in creating a Trump-labeled property in Vancouver before Donald Trump’s election campaign.

— Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, apparently now says he will try to cancel the purchase of $31,000 worth of office furniture that his wife, Candy Carson, decided to buy with taxpayer funds — even as the agency goes about the business of cutting public funds for much more needy individuals in subsidized housing units around the country. It turns out that federal rules require special Congressional approval for any redecorating expense above $5,000, but HUD did not comply with the rule. A congressional stickler did follow the rule, complained, and refused to pay the bill. The HUD official who overruled her justified the expense by saying, “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair.” What was Carson thinking — or not thinking?

— David Shulkin seemed surprised to learn that deputies in the Veterans Affairs department where he is secretary, had put in for taxpayer expenses for he and his wife to fly to Europe on a sightseeing trip that was somewhat 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. 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. 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, but now is repaying the expenses.

— Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has now started flying coach rather than first-class after being caught arranging for first-class travel for his “safety.” Sometimes he chartered planes as well, all for a total cost of at least $200,000. Congress started asking questions.

— Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also got into trouble over deluxe travel sometimes flying on business and military jets and bringing his wife along on some taxpayer-paid flights. Zinke also kept poor records of all this, with paperwork only for reimbursement. Zinke said he would stop and would pay back some of the cost.

— Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary, and his actress wife Louise Linton, had to apologize publicly and repay costs after Linton boasted of flying on a government plane with her husband to Kentucky and then named the numerous fashion brands she wore on the trip in an unusual social media post.

— Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price lost his job over just such complaints about cushy travel for him and his wife. Trump publicly dissed Price, saying he “didn’t like the optics.” So far, Trump has been generally silent about the others. Of course, Price left when the proposal for health care failed in the Senate, which could have influenced the president.

Other Cabinet officials have come up for like criticism, if more episodically. There have been a number of possible Cabinet appointments who turned down the job because they could not separate the government’s business from their own, for example.

At the end of the day, the question is what is it about this Cabinet, or this administration, that allows for such nonchalance in the spending of public dollars when the public message is that we need to cut spending on services for Americans out of concern for tax spending.

I think the answer has something to do with the Boss. If it is okay for him to jet off most weekends to a Trump-owned luxury resort for golf and relaxation via Air Force One travel services, it must be okay for his posse as well. If it is okay for the president to continue to run his business while in the White House, why not run the departments as if they were business front offices, complete with furniture or travel options that come as normal perks.

They do not understand that they are in those jobs to serve the public, not to lord it over the rest of us.




Journalist, musician, community volunteer