Item: per the NYTimes report of Press Secretary Sara Sanders, on the White House view of EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt: “Ms. Sanders said that Mr. Pruitt’s success in achieving items on the president’s agenda … may weigh heavily as a counterbalance to allegations that he misused taxpayer dollars.”
Therein lies one of the keys to understanding decisions emanating from the scandal-ridden, tribal White House: corruption is fine as long as you perform – ethics is weighed in a balancing test against results in achieving the President’s agenda. Concern for conflicts of interest and gleeful waste of taxpayer resources is for suckers. Competence is a literal get-out-of-jail-free card.
Thus, we can see why former HHS Secretary Tom Price’s lavish tastes in taxpayer-funded travel and entertainment brought him down – he failed to deliver the Obamacare repeal (albeit with a major assist from the President’s failure to ever understand the substance or the issues). VA chief Shulkin was okay living high on the public hog – until he (properly) questioned privatization of his agency.
This decision rule may also explain the likely imminent departure of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (you heard it here first). Commandeering a military plane for a thinly-veiled pleasure excursion with his wife was okay, but he opposes the budding and mutually-destructive trade war with China – I suspect his skids are greased. But how to explain the continuing survival of the embarrassingly incompetent Betsy DeVos? She must be simone-pure.
Pruitt is an interesting case.
Vox reports that he seems not to be in this for personal gain, but much more as a righteous crusader – literally his god’s instrument. He has been historically blind to his conflicts-of-interest in zealous pursuit of his deity-sponsored, industry-advocated agenda. In Oklahoma as its Attorney General, oil industry talking points showed-up – verbatim – in his policies and speeches.
More recently, he saw nothing unethical in renting a swanky DC apartment from an energy industry lobbyist, for a scant $50/night. The Motel 6 in Capitol Heights will leave the light on for you for 60% more (before tax). There are reports that he had to be dunned for even that payment; at least the lobbyist landlord understands that a completely free accommodation might be construed as a quid pro quo for the client pipeline extension Pruitt also recently approved.
Other examples of impropriety abound. He routinely travels first-class on our dime (ostensibly to avoid the rabble – I’m told the food’s better, too), he demoted a staffer who refused to use the siren on his vehicle routinely to overcome DC traffic (there’s some irony there), and he took a citizen-sponsored trip to Morocco for $40,000 to promote a private LNG terminal there. Further, he unilaterally granted EPA cronies he brought with him more than $40K raises, each, by-passing normal scrutiny; he demoted other staffers who questioned the move.
If you think all of this (there’s much more) stinks to high heaven, your olfactory instincts are in good working order. Which brings us to the Secretary’s remarkable longevity in a revolving door administration.
There is a line of thought positing that Mr. Pruitt, having demonstrated his loyalty and devotion to The Don, is next in line to be Attorney General. Once there, he might receive divine guidance to fire Special Counsel Mueller, or at least curtail his investigation into other malfeasance. Rumor has it, however, that Pruitt himself is the source of that speculation.
Better to take Ms. Sanders at her word, for once. She has unwittingly placed dishonesty and ethical violations on a scale to be balanced against success. The two concepts should never, ever be so compared. Ethics and respect for the taxpayer fisc in personal dealings are what you sign-up for in public service. They are the ongoing behavioral baseline qualification to serve. They are not a chip to be played, nor a factor to be balanced against success. To do so upsets yet another foundational norm on which democracy is built.
Apparently at least Chief of Staff Kelly recognizes that fact – he has advocated that Pruitt join the long list of administration alums – to no apparent effect.
Perhaps that’s what ‘running the government like a business’ or at least a Trumpian family company, really means. Of course, loyalty without standards is also the hallmark of another kind of family enterprise, one which the current administration more resembles as its time ticks away.