"Drain the Swamp" of Corruption

Current Status: Broken

As of

As part of the Clean up Corruption in Washington Act:

"[Enact] new ethics reforms to Drain the Swamp and reduce the corrupting influence of special interests on our politics."

A dictionary definition of "corruption" includes: "lack of integrity or honesty (especially susceptibility to bribery); use of a position of trust for dishonest gain" and "inducement (as of a public official) by improper means (as bribery) to violate duty (as by committing a felony)."

Outside of certain anti-lobbying measures that Trump has proposed (treated elsewhere on this site), Trump's intended definition of corruption can be inferred from the debates and campaign quotes, as shown below:

Responding to Hillary Clinton's third debate assertion that she will stand up to special interests: "She's raising the money from the people she wants to control. Doesn't work that way."

Discussing tax dodging in the second debate: "[Y]ou have provisions in the tax code, that frankly, we could change. But you wouldn't change it because all of these people gave you the money so you can take negative ads on Donald Trump."

"Our campaign is about breaking-up the special interest monopoly in Washington, D.C. We’re trying to disrupt the collusion between the wealthy donors, the large corporations, and the media executives." - September 28, 2016: “Follow the Money” remarks delivered in Waukesha, Wisconsin

"Our government will be honest, ethical and responsive." - August 27, 2016: Donald Trump speaks in Des Moines, Iowa

"In my Administration, I am going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information. No one will be above the law." - August 18, 2016: Donand J. Trump Remarks in Charlotte, North Carolina

"We will never be able to fix a rigged system by counting on the same people who rigged it in the first place... The insiders wrote the rules of the game to keep themselves in power and in the money." - Trump speech on June 22, 2016

So, for purposes of this promise, we can define corruption as: 

  1. Use of paid lobbyists for government business;
  2. Accepting money from lobbyists or others for the purpose of affecting policy or government operations;
  3. Using the government for personal enrichment or using their connections to avoid prosecution under the law;
  4. Retaining or tapping long-time government insiders who will do business as usual.

Trump's promise sets a high bar for himself and his administration.

Lobbying & "Pay-for-play"

Trump's promise to eschew lobbyists got off to a rocky start as his initial transition team, assembled by Governor Chris Christie, was packed with lobbyists and similar special interest advocates. Later, Vice-President-Elect Pence took control of the process, removing some team members with conflicting obligations and compelling others to terminate their ties to interest organizations. Trump said he'd had no choice but to initially rely on lobbyists in Washington because "the whole place is one big lobbyist." He vowed to "phase that out."

Meanwhile, Trump selected billionaire Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education.  Mrs. DeVos's qualifications seem to be solely in participating in advocacy groups promoting school choice and the voucher system. Otherwise, DeVos is on record as being a major soft-money contributor to the Republican party, and has donated to the campaigns of legislators in Michigan in an apparent bid to influence policy.  Though not officially a lobbyist in the traditional sense, her behavior is consistent with one.

Other cabinet picks so far include Wilbur Ross - an investor whose fortune is estimated by Forbes to be $2.9 billion - Steven Mnuchin - a notable Goldman Sachs executive - and a host of other millionaires and billionaires who, as a group, have much more experience funding political candidates and acting like lobbyists than they do running government agencies. For reference, George W. Bush's first cabinet had a combined, inflation-adjusted net worth of about $250 million — which is roughly one-tenth the wealth of Donald Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary alone.

In fact, six of his cabinet picks so far were big donors to Trump's campaign: Linda McMahon ($7.5 million), Betsy DeVos ($1.8 million via DeVos family), Todd Ricketts ($1.3 million via his parents), Steven Mnuchin ($425,000), Andrew Pudzer ($332,000), and Wilbur Ross ($200,000). 

Furthermore, after a long campaign of vilifying opponents including Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz for their connections to Goldman-Sachs, Trump has named three five people to senior advisory or cabinet positions who worked directly for the infamous investment bank: Steven Mnuchin, Steve Bannon,Gary Cohn, Dina Powell, Anthony Scaramucci, and one more - Walter "Jay" Clayton - who represented Goldman-Sachs and other big banks involved in the 2008 financial crisis. 

Mnuchin in particular represents the typical Wall Street establishment.  He was tapped into Yale’s Skull and Bones secret society, became a Goldman Sachs partner like his father before him, ran a hedge fund, worked with George Soros, funded Hollywood blockbusters and bought a failed bank, IndyMac, with billionaires including John Paulson. They renamed it OneWest, drew protests for foreclosing on U.S. borrowers, and ultimately generated considerable profits, selling the business last year to CIT Group Inc. for $3.4 billion.

Reince Priebus - a long-time Republican party functionary - who has been tapped for Chief of Staff brings into the cabinet the sort of political establishment that Trump openly derides.  Additionally, Trump's pick for Transportation secretary, Elaine Chao - wife of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell - has been a fixture of the Republican establishment in Washington for almost two decades.

In fact, despite promises to the contrary, the administration has been host to the typical "revolving door" of lobbyists. Marcus Peacock worked briefly in the Office of Management and Budget, but has left for the Business Roundtable, a major lobby. Peacock would have been banned from lobbying for five years, but he was granted a waiver from Trump’s rules. Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration, has received millions of dollars from drug companies covered by the FDA over the years. Gottlieb plans to recuse himself from decisions involving multiple drugmakers, including giants Bristol-Myers Squibb and GlaxoSmithKline. Chad Wolf is the chief of staff for the Transportation Safety Administration, but until he took that job was a lobbyist for a company seeking to have its baggage-scanning device approved by TSA, a deal that could be worth $500 million. Michael Catanzaro is Trump’s top energy adviser, in which capacity he is working to roll back Obama-era emissions rules that he previously lobbied against on behalf of energy companies. Geoff Burr has been hired as a special assistant at the Labor Department. He was previously a lobbyist for a construction-industry trade group, lobbying the department where he now works for things like looser safety regulations and wage rules.

Additionally, it was revealed in April 2017 that a firm co-founded by Donald Trump’s original campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appears to have been pitching clients around the world by offering direct access to Trump and other members of the administration while claiming not to be conducting lobbying operations. As of this time no clients have been signed by the firm so no actual meetings have been scheduled.

At the end of May 2017, it was revealed that the Trump administration granted ethics policy waivers to about a dozen high-level administration officials including Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway, Michael Catanzaro, Daniel Epstein, Shahira Knight, Andrew Olmem, and others with extensive industry ties. The number of waivers granted runs contrary to the spirit of Trump's January 2017 executive order barring lobbyists who joined the administration from working on issues related to their prior work.

Collusion With Russia

Flynn resigned in scandal after less than a month in his position due to revelations that he had direct consultations with Russian government officials regarding sanctions while working on Trump's transition team.

Trump's pick for Secretary of State, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, is known to have business interests with Russia which could affect the performance of his duties. In April 2017, these interests were made concrete when Exxon applied to the Department of the Treasury for a waiver to resume a business venture with Russia that was preempted by the Obama administrations sanctions against Russia. Additionally, Exxon is currently entangled in tax lawsuits with the federal government; another area where Tillerson's interests could become problematic.

Both Tillerson and Flynn's ties and dealings with Russia provide part of the backdrop for ongoing speculation about Trump's ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin. As of February 2017, FBI agents based in Washington are pursuing leads from informants, foreign communications intercepts, and financial transactions by Russian individuals and companies who are believed to have links to Trump associates. The controversy over Trump campaign officials contacts with Russian officials continued into March 2017 when it was revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, in addition to Mike Flynn, had met with Russian officials during the course of the Trump campaign. Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager, is also facing multiple investigations for his political and financial ties to Russia and possible money laundering through real estate deals.  These revelations fueled increasing calls for investigations by Congress and prompted Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations. A revelation in April 2017 deepened the web of Russian connections when it was revealed that Erik Prince, brother of Betsy DeVos, established a back channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Trump.

In May 2017, the same week that Trump fired FBI director James Comey, Trump met with Russian diplomats at the White House in a semi-closed session - semi-closed in that Russian media were allowed access to the meeting while all others were kept out. It was later determined that Trump potentially divulged classified information about the "Islamic State" that was gained from an allied country, potentially exposing ongoing operations.

Also in May 2017, the Justice Department appointed Robert S. Mueller III, a former F.B.I. director, as special counsel to oversee the investigation into ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. The investigation is ongoing at this time.

Ethics & Conflicts of Interest

Congressman Tom Price, Trump's pick for Health and Human Services secretary, has been scrutinized for apparent use of his position in various health industry related committees for financial gain in the stock market, although Price has announced plans to divest from his various business and investment activities to reduce conflict of interest; as of mid-February 2017 this has not yet happened.

In January 2017, Trump offered Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi a position in his administration. Bondi was the recipient of an illegal campaign contribution made by the Trump Foundation at a time when Bondi's department was deliberating on whether to press fraud charges against Trump University.  Trump and Bondi both claimed there was no connection.

Notably, the Office of Government Ethics - an independent agency within the executive branch of the U.S. Federal Government which is responsible for directing executive branch policies relating to the prevention of conflicts of interest on the part of Federal executive branch officers and employees - has had unusual difficulty communicating with the Trump transition team. A lack of vetting of Trump's cabinet appointments by the OGE prior to Senate confirmation hearings would be the first since the agency was formed in 1978. At the behest of Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Elijah Cummings the U.S. Government Accountability Office is reviewing Donald Trump’s presidential transition, focusing on funding, ethics and communications with foreign governments and is expected to report by June 2017.

Moreover, Trump himself has many potential conflicts of interest (see also Sunlight Foundation and these charts), not the least of which is that his continued participation in his global businesses may run afoul of Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution. Incomplete measures were taken initially to create a "blind trust" and assign it to his family (ref2). He has direct investment interests in the DAPL project over which he will have direct authority to make decisions.  Additionally, Trump has a history of questionable business practices, has apparently used his campaign to funnel money to his businesses, and now stands to make money off of his Secret Service protection's use of his private transportation and offices. Finally, his new hotel in Washington D.C. has an explicit clause as part of the lease from the General Services Administration that stipulates that the lease can’t benefit a government official which implies that Trump is in violation of government ethics rules from the moment he swore in. 

In January 2017 during his first press conference since the election, Trump's team described in more detail the structure of the trusts and arrangements that appear to limit Trumps direct involvement in his businesses. It can be argued, however, that his plan is completely devoid of any public oversight and amounts to a statement of "trust us." As of mid-February, 2017, Trump has not completed any legal transactions to remove himself from his business interests. In fact, Trump's sons continue to work to expand the Trump brand overseas, including business trips that incurred thousands of dollars worth of hotel and other accommodations for the required Secret Service detail. Furthermore, it was revealed in April 2017 that the trust arrangements effectively allow Trump to participate in his business and transfer funds at will, an apparent change from the initial trust certification documents. And, in September 2017, the non-partisan watchdog organization, Public Citizen, released a report detailing Trump's ongoing business dealings and related ethics concerns as found in public financial disclosures. At the same time evidence started to emerge that Trump properties were seeing an increase in patronage by political organizations, some of which directly benefited from subsequent Federal policy changes.

Also in February, after initial jabs sent to China over the South China Sea and trade, Trump changed course and endorsed the "one China" policy, a unification theme maintained by mainland China with reference to Taiwan. Curiously, several days later China approved a 10-year trademark for construction services in China under Trump's name - one of dozens of such trademarks approved by China in an uncharacteristically swift manner. Regardless of whether the two events were directly correlated, this incident highlights the ethical conflicts of Trump maintaining direct ties to his businesses while in public office.

The conflicts of interest don't stop with Trump himself. In November 2016, Ivanka Trump, who has no official standing in Trump's government but who does have personal business deals pending in Japan, participated in a meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  This wasn't the first meeting in which Trump brought along family for meetings with foreign dignitaries and it sets a precedent for poor ethical conduct. Controversy over Ivanka Trump's business erupted in February 2017 when press secretary Sean Spicer, counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Trump himself made public pronouncements while acting in an official capacity promoting or otherwise defending Ivanka Trump's retail clothing line. And, like Trump himself, Ivanka Trump's business interests received trademark approvals from China, shortly after her having met with the Chinese president in April 2017.

In January 2017, Trump named his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to be the senior White House adviser working on trade and the Middle East. His appointment raises questions about federal anti-nepotism laws that were enacted in response to John F. Kennedy appointing his brother as Attorney General. Additionally, Kushner is known to have solicited investments from EB-5 visa holders for Trump-branded properties and in May 2017 allegedly made promises for such visas to Chinese investors in exchange for investment in a planned Kushner property.

Trump's fourth bill signed into law in February 2017 was a measure to strip language from the Dodd-Frank financial reforms that required the energy extraction industry to disclose payments made to foreign governments. Removal of this rule effectively turns a blind eye to bribery committed by oil companies which is made all the more complicated by the composition of Trump's cabinet, many of whom have direct ties to the oil industry. Coming on the heels of confirmation of Exxon executive Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and continuing exposure of ties between Trump's cabinet and Russia, passage of this law is troubling from an ethics standpoint.

Obstruction of Justice

In March, 2017, the Trump administration abruptly fired 46, independent district attorneys in the employ of the Justice Department including one, Preet Bharara, who was known to be an aggressive and successful prosecutor working in the New York City area. The dismissal of these attorneys without naming their successors effectively interrupted multiple open investigations and degraded the ability of the Justice Department to address cases. In particular, Bharara in the past has gone aggressively after Wall Street and other New York area politicians, raising suspicions that his his dismissal could be related to cases including one against Fox News and possibly another against Trump or his administration including HHS Secretary Tom Price.

In May 2017, Trump abruptly fired FBI director James Comey, giving a number of conflicting justifications. The firing triggered a backlash over the appearance of obstructing ongoing FBI investigations into election tampering and collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Significantly, the move came after Comey requested more resources for the Russia investigations and on the heels of Grand Jury subpoenas in the Michael Flynn case.

Government Opacity

In late November 2016, General Michael Flynn - Trump's pick for National Security Adviser - was revealed as having mismanaged classified information and circumvented other security policies while at the Defense Intelligence Agency.  In February and March 2017, it was discovered that both Mike Pence and EPA director Scott Pruitt used personal emails to conduct official business while representing their respective state governments. By September 2017 it was revealed that at least five Trump administration aides were using personal email addresses for official business. Trump hounded Hillary Clinton for similar practices during his campaign and made them a key issue that likely affected the election outcome to a significant degree.

In April 2017, the Trump administration discontinued the open.gov portal that contained such information as White House visitor logs and salary information for Executive branch employees. Trump himself has used this information to criticize the Obama administration but now cites "security" concerns in removing the information. The move was widely seen as a move towards a less transparent government.


Finally, in December 2016, Trump minimized his use of the phrase "drain the swamp," with former House speaker Newt Gingrich confiding that Trump no longer wants to use the phrase. (Trump disputed this and Gingrich soon after recanted)

A recap of Trump's first 100 days shows a pattern of behest to corporate interests, pay-for-play governance, and disdain for the public sector.

See also: Government