Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Donald Trump and the Swamp Thing

by Nomad

You might have missed it but the final chapter in the "Drain the Swamp" saga was, at long last, posted. And it was just as ridiculous and sickening as you expected it would be.

Three Little Words

Back in October 2016, Candidate Trump issued a press release which declared his intention to "drain the swamp in Washington, D.C."

In specifics, Trump was planning to introduce "sweeping ethics reforms" and pledged to "make our government honest once again."
From the outset, the very idea of Trump bringing honesty to anything at any time seemed fairly outlandish. That was true even before he embarked on a political career.

The idea that an unconventional candidate like Trump would actually march into the corrupt, incompetent and self-serving capital and clean things out seems like an outlandish fantasy. But the roaring crowd was ready to believe.
“‘Drain the swamp'” became a staple of the final month of Trump’s campaign, with crowds chanting it as loudly as they had been shouting “build the wall” and “lock her up.” The slogan also appeared on T-shirts and signs.
At nearly every campaign stop, Trump espoused this particular phrase. For example,  at a Wisconsin rally last October 2016, Trump announced:
"It is time to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C. This is why I'm proposing a package of ethics reforms to make our government honest once again."
 In the days before the election, in a campaign ad, Trump finessed the phrases into a credible-semi-credible political movement "replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you the American people.” 

For the harder-to-convince, Trump threw in some hastily-sketched details. He declared that, if he were elected, he would ask Congress for a five-year lobbying ban on senators, representatives and top staffers. The revolving door would be closed under a Trump presidency.
All of that nonsense might have been written off as typical campaign rhetoric and false promises. All of it could have been forgotten as the bombast of a US history's most bombastic losing candidate.

However, somehow, much to almost everybody's horror, Trump did not lose. And what happened after that was shocking even for by Trump's usual standards. He simply walked away from his campaign rhetoric and pretended he never said what he said.

For Trump, it had been a late campaign phrase to get from point A to point B (mostly points on a map of nationwide rallies).

Transition Team of Lobbyists

Only a couple of weeks after the election, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse pointed out that already- already- the president-elect was reneging on his promise to keep special interests out of Washington.
Sanders said:
"Mr. Trump described himself as a populist taking on the establishment, someone who would 'drain the swamp,' Unfortunately what we're beginning to see is what I feared, which is a lot of what Mr. Trump said to get votes is not what he intends to do as president of the United States." 
Led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Trump's transition team was stacked with Washington lobbyists and GOP veterans. As the Chicago Tribune pointed out at the time:
Top campaign fundraisers and a raft of lobbyists tied to some of the country's wealthiest industries have been put in charge of hiring and planning for specific federal agencies. They include J. Steven Hart, chairman of the law and lobbying shop Williams & Jensen; Michael McKenna, an energy company lobbyist who is overseeing planning for the Energy Department; and Dallas fundraiser Ray Washburne, was has been tapped to oversee the Commerce Department.
It didn't take long for people to begin asking whether Trump was planning to drain or to flood the swamp."  

By the end of December 2016- even before Trump was sworn into office, it was clear that he was not-so-privately beginning to walk back from that glorious campaign promise.
And that was only because it was too obvious to hide.

The very people who were helping to shape policy on his transition team were the lobbyists that made the swamp so swampy. The list seemed to go on forever.
The doors were flung wide open to Wall Street veterans and self-interested billionaires. This was just the transition team. Given their input, there was no doubt about the kind of cabinet nominees Trump would put forward.

Walking Back

In December 2016, former House Speaker and vice chairman of the transition team, and Newt Gingrich revealed that the president-elect was no longer interested in “draining the swamp.”
“I’m told he now just disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore.”
Considering the source, that admission should have set off warning signs. After all, Gingrich was exactly the kind of politician that Trump seemed to be railing against. He had started out as southern regional director for Nelson Rockefeller in the 1968 Republican primaries. He has once been the Speaker of the House before he was booted out of Congress. This was a politician that 84 ethics violations filed against him.
Gingrich might well have been a spokesperson for the swamp.

But, that didn't mean, we were assured, that Trump wasn't committed to the reformist principles. Transition spokesman Jason Miller said at the time:
“President-elect Trump’s ethics reform policies are full speed ahead. We’re going to change the way business is done in Washington and start putting the American people first.”
Miller said this even as the transition team was hard at work.Not long after the election, Trump told an audience in Des Moines that he never really cared much for the phrase.
“Funny how that term caught on, isn’t it I tell everyone, I hated it. Somebody said ‘drain the swamp’ and I said, ‘Oh, that is so hokey. That is so terrible.'”
“I said, all right, I’ll try it. So like a month ago I said ‘drain the swamp’ and the place went crazy. And I said ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ Then I said it again. And then I start saying it like I meant it, right? And then I started to love it, and the place loved it. Drain the swamp. It’s true. It’s true. Drain the swamp.”It's no great surprise it was such a popular phrase.
Promising to drain the swamp of Washington has always been a big hit with the uninformed and naive voters. Like his phrase "Make America Great Again," Trump stole the swamp-draining phrase from Ronald Reagan who used it in January 1982 and many times after that

The Executive Order

In all fairness, on 29 January, Trump did issue an executive orer which supposedly imposed rigid ethics standards on executive branch employees. It set a five-year revolving-door ban for his appointees.

But upon closer inspection, critics found that Trump was only doing what his two immediate Democratic predecessors had done. This was nothing revolutionary. In fact, some said that it actually weakened President Obama's ethics rules instead of strengthening them.

And like so many other things with the Trump brand, it was not what it seemed. An expert in government ethics remarked:
Unlike the Obama administration, Trump has no ethics czar charged with making sure everyone knows about and complies with these rules. Significantly, the ethics executive order has been issued by a president who mocks such conflict of interest rules for himself, setting the tone for the rest of the administration.

Trump’s ethics executive order provides a potential framework for managing conflicts of interest in the administration, but it is a real puzzle how, when, or if these ethics rules are going to be implemented and enforced — or, for that matter, whether anyone even knows about them.
The other part of his ethics reform pledge died from sheer neglect like an unwatered petunia. According to an article in NPR:
He also said he would ask Congress for a five-year lobbying ban on senators, representatives and top staffers. (They currently face one- or two-year bans under separate House and Senate rules.) There's no record of the White House actually making that request.
The Atlantic Monthly diligently compiled a list of ways that Trump brazenly betrayed his pledge to drain the swamp.
That list is highly incomplete. But already it is too much for the brain to take in all at once. Every item is a scandal in its own right. And an exhaustive list is all but impossible. To understand why, scroll through the Sunlight Foundation spreadsheet that aggregates Trump’s conflicts of interest. Probing all of them would take months.

How Not to Drain a Swamp

The rest was a foregone conclusion.
As Business Insider wrote at around the time Trump was sworn in: 
The combined net worth of President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for Cabinet posts and appointments to White House jobs is in excess of $10 billion, and that wealth comes with ties to the financial, oil, steel, entertainment, and healthcare industries.
The Cabinet, if confirmed, would be the wealthiest in US history.
Nobody in the Trump administration seemed to care about the swamp now. According to the ethics analysts, many of Trump's Cabinet nominees did not bother to provide their financial disclosures and their ethics memos explaining how they'll deal with conflicts.

In May, The Nation called the conflicts of interest found in the Trump administration "mind-boggling." Connections between government and business- which could definitely affect priorities now permeated the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And that was not confined to his cabinet members but to businessman Trump and his family.

In July, the New Yorker ran a story about how the Trump administration had systematically disabled the Office of Government Ethics.
In that month Walter Shaub, the head of the OGE, a position he had held since 2013. His resignation had come after repeated clashes and smashes with the White House.
Government-ethics laws themselves are actually rather weak, just a skeleton to restrain the worst kinds of behavior. But over the decades since Watergate, people like Shaub gradually pushed officials throughout the federal government to take actions that went well beyond the letter of the law and that added meat to the skeleton.
By the end of summer, journalists were beginning to ask whether the ethics issues were the new norm. What happened to cleaning up the swamp? Where was the outrage?

Kathleen Clark, a professor of law and ethics, told NPR:
"We have become desensitized. We're so used to Trump conflicts of interest and abuse of office, that when he promotes his vineyard and lies about it, it's just a blip."
Then, in November, Trump's ethics lawyer James Schultz resigned. Even though Schultz insisted that his departure was in no way related to the myriad controversies that have engulfed the White House, who could really blame the man if it had been?
When it came to ethics and cleaning up Washington, it had all become a sad farce. 

Steve Bannon

And the Bannon Played On

However, the final humiliation for Trump supporters came very quietly the other day. That was when President Trump formally declared that his "movement" to clean up Washington was dead as a doornail. If any of Trump's diehard supporters had any remaining hope that their man would transform himself into a forthright crusader for goodness and good government, then that dream could be put to rest once and for all.

It has a lot to do with the August departure of Steve Bannon- the real spirit guide behind the "drain the swamp" movement. In a terse two-sentence announcement, Trump officially dismissed Bannon. (Even such a simple administrative action was mishandled. Did Bannon resign- as he said- ten days earlier or was he canned? Nobody seemed certain.)

For the Trump administration, it was a dangerous or at least, daring step and how it actually came about is even today unclear.

Dangerous because releasing a person as powerful as Bannon was asking for revenge tactics. As TIME reported:
Bannon’s former website, the alt-right favorite Breitbart News, bannered the departure with a warning that “Bannon the Barbarian” would soon turn his legions of supporters on this White House. Brietbart’s editor, Joel Pollack, tweeted a one-word threat: “#WAR.” 
As one former White House aide to Trump observed:
“This is exactly why cutting Steve loose was going to be so risky. You couldn’t exactly control him before. But now? He’s a host unto himself.” 
That became obvious in September when Bannon gave an interview with CBS and stated that the Republican establishment is trying to "nullify" the 2016 election.
They do not want Donald Trump's populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented. It's very obvious. 
In one of the first meetings in Trump Tower with the president-elect, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he claimed, basically gave Trump a "cease and desist order" on all of this talk about draining the swamp.

Apparently, the swamp didn't care to be drained. It was quite happy to be soggy and fetid, thank you. But most of all, the swamp didn't like the bright sunlight of scrutiny and reporting requirements.
The "Drain the Swamp" thing was-- is Mitch McConnell was day one did not wanna-- did not wanna go there. Wanted us to back off.
The real war between the swamp-drainers really commenced just before Christmas and it didn't take place in Washington but in Alabama.

No Moore

In the Alabama senate race, Bannon and Trump had chosen different Republican candidates. The question generally asked was why?
Some thought it was Bannon's payback for getting the sack or perhaps an opportunity to make mischief with the GOP establishment he so loathed. When Bannon appeared on stage at a Moore rally- bedraggled and unwashed- he wasted no time making fun of Mitch McConnell. 
Which isn't all that hard to do.
Bannon told the Alabama audience that McConnell likes being called the leader but it was actually the lobbyists and consultants that were running the show.

For a bully like Trump, defiance from a former underling is probably not too easy to forgive. And this provoked Trump to unleash his more devastating weapon- the silly nickname. Bannon was immediately labeled "Sloppy Steve." The agony of it!

In the tit-for-tat, Bannon did the unforgivable things of having an accused child sexual predator adopt the same campaign slogan that Trump had used (and abandoned).
That's right. Moore, the swampiest critter God ever created, was asking to be sent to Washington to clean up the swamp.   

This forced Trump into a very uncomfortable position. It highlighted the fact that once upon a time, Bannon had led of another candidate to Washington and that man had also used the "drain-the-swamp" slogan.
In terms of a puncturing of Trump's ego, it was done with impressive precision. It's a Bannon trademark.

The Swamp Strikes Back

Then, the first week of 2018, all hell broke loose with the book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House." In that book, Bannon was quoted as saying that the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer (allegedly to exchange Kremlin- couriered dirt on Hillary Clinton) was, in Bannon's opinion, "treasonous" and “unpatriotic.”
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”
True to his amoral form, Bannon also gives his advice how such a "treasonous" meeting should have been properly arranged to evade detection.

In the bewildered minds of Republican voters, the whole idea of who was draining and who was filling the swamp was getting- muddied. Bannon and Trump were apparently at war and that could be seen in very different lights. Was Trump still the crusader? Or was Bannon? Or was Bannon a disgruntled spoilsport?

With Republicans in Congress under tremendous pressure to put an end to the Trump disaster through impeachment or other means, McConnell and Ryan appeared to be holding all of the cards. At any time, they could begin impeachment hearings.
Trump, on the other hand, held a pair of twos. So Trump took the next logical step.
The wounded president seemed ready to make a deal and in doing so, would reveal to voters who had once trusted him that he was not so committed to cleaning up Washington after all.

After a mysterious meeting with Republicans in both house of Congress, experts and White House staff, Trump announced that he would be campaigning not for fresh blooded, energetic, reform-minded "insurgents" to challenge the establishment.
The Roy Moore thing was not something the GOP could repeat.

Instead, he would be campaigning to keep the incumbent Republican members of Congress in power. As if in an afterthought, Trump added and “anybody else that has my kind of thinking.”
But incumbents? Those were politicians that had been around for decades and who had a vested interested in maintaining the status quo. In other words, the very same people that candidate Trump had once called the swamp.

He declared that he would no longer be supporting challengers to the entrenched system in Washington.
He also used the opportunity to take a swipe at Bannon, saying that we- presumably Republicans- "should have never lost Alabama." Visions of the Bannon and his "betrayal" must have flashed before his eyes.

With the once-loathed Mitch McConnell standing to his left, Trump described the meetings with the Republican swamp creatures as "perhaps transformative in certain ways."

That's one way to put it, I suppose. Trump has transformed into the kind of politician that none of his supporters would ever have voted for a year ago.
The truth is, of course, he was never that kind of person.