The State Dining Room in the White House is adorned with a quotation from John Adams: “May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof.” His wish has often gone unfulfilled.
“Under Grant’s two administrations, there flapped through the national capital a whole phantasmagoria of insolent fraud,” wrote Edmund Wilson in his book “Patriotic Gore.” Americans who remember nothing else about Warren Harding can name the scandal that engulfed his administration: Teapot Dome. Richard Nixon resigned for crimes that would have gotten him prison time had he not been pardoned.
But champions of these tainted presidents can take heart. Since Jan. 20, 2017, Americans have seen an endless torrent of corruption beyond anything previously imagined. No president has ever had a surer instinct than Donald Trump for finding and empowering scam artists, spongers and thugs.
As a candidate, he promised, “I’ll choose the best people for my administration.” Maybe he inadvertently omitted the word “not.” Looking for the best people in Trump’s circle would be like looking for icebergs in the Everglades.
Three Trump associates — Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates — have pleaded guilty to charges of lying to investigators. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was brought down by his habit of using private jets and military planes for travel. EPA chief Scott Pruitt resigned over a raft of shameless ethical offenses.
Trump’s first staff secretary, Rob Porter, and his first nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew after revelations that their ex-wives had accused them of violent abuse. But this is a president, keep in mind, whose first wife accused him of rape.
The trial of his former campaign manager has provided more evidence of Trump’s sure instinct for compulsive shysters. Paul Manafort was indicted for allegedly laundering millions of dollars in income and evading taxes. Gates, Manafort’s trusted aide and Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, testified this week that he helped Manafort commit those crimes.
Manafort stands out for his peculiar shopping proclivities. Among his more ridiculous outlays was more than $1.3 million in men’s apparel, including a $15,000 ostrich-skin jacket that most men would not wear if you paid them $15,000. Gates admitted he embezzled from his former boss, which suggests that Manafort was no better at finding honest help than Trump is.
You could hardly surround yourself with so many disreputable figures as the president has unless you opened a halfway house for felons. But his preference for the shady sort is what you’d expect of someone whose business career has been a chronicle of bankruptcy, bullying and deceit.
After vowing never to settle a lawsuit filed by Trump University students who said they had been scammed, he agreed to pay $25 million to bring it to an end. His lawyer Michael Cohen paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 not to share her story of having sex with Trump. Cohen is under investigation on an array of possible crimes.
Flying under this cluttered radar is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who just settled one of a string of lawsuits by business associates charging that he stole from them. Forbes magazine found that “these allegations — which sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine — come to more than $120 million. If even half of the accusations are legitimate, the current United States secretary of commerce could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.”
In June, the New York attorney general sued the Donald J. Trump Foundation, accusing it of “sweeping violations of campaign finance laws, self-dealing and illegal coordination with the presidential campaign,” as The New York Times reported.
Among the alleged offenses was using charitable funds to settle lawsuits and buy portraits of Trump. The foundation earlier paid a fine for an illegal campaign contribution.
Marc Owens, who previously was director of the tax-exempt organization division of the IRS, told CNN, “The Trump Foundation may be unique in the variety and scope of its transgressions of state and federal law.” He added, “In my opinion, there are no effective defenses that Donald Trump and/or his foundation can deploy to either the attorney general’s petition or to federal tax charges.”
“Unique in the variety and scope of its transgressions.” That would do as the motto of an administration that, even if it manages some tangible achievements, will forever be remembered as a sinkhole of sleaze.
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/chapman.
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