NEW YORK MAGAZINE: It is certainly not a surprise that Trump has refused to disclose his tax returns. What’s truly shocking is how much petty graft has sprung up across his administration. Trump’s Cabinet members and other senior officials have been living in style at taxpayer expense, indulging in lavish travel for personal reasons (including a trip to Fort Knox to witness the solar eclipse) and designing their offices with $31,000 dining sets and $139,000 doors. Not since the Harding administration, and probably the Gilded Age, has the presidency conducted itself in so venal a fashion.
It is hardly a coincidence that so many greedy people have filled the administration’s ranks. Trump’s ostentatious crudeness and misogyny are a kind of human-resources strategy. Radiating personal and professional sleaze lets him quickly and easily identify individuals who have any kind of public ethics and to sort them out. (James Comey’s accounts of his interactions with the president depict Trump probing for some vein of corruptibility in the FBI director; when he came up empty, he fired him.) Trump is legitimately excellent at cultivating an inner circle unburdened by legal or moral scruples. These are the only kind of people who want to work for Trump, and the only kind Trump wants to work for him.
It should take very little work — and be a very big priority — for Democratic candidates to stitch all the administration’s misdeeds together into a tale of unchecked greed. […] Trump’s campaign followed his patented human-resources strategy, filling its ranks with other rapacious and financially precarious men. Paul Manafort was deeply in debt to a Russian oligarch when he popped up on Trump’s doorstep. Michael Flynn was selling his credentials to Russian and Turkish dictators while advising Trump. Jared Kushner was flailing about in an effort to make good on a massive loan he took out on a white-elephant Manhattan building and seems to have used his access to Trump to leverage potential investors who might bail him out. Even as he has wielded enormous influence, Kushner has been unable to obtain a top-secret security clearance, because he may be vulnerable to foreign influence.
The virtue of bribery is a subject of genuine conviction for Trump, whose entrée to politics came via transactional relationships with New York politicians as well as Mafia figures. Trump once called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars American corporations from engaging in bribery, a “ridiculous” and “horrible” law. Enforcement of this law has plummeted under his administration. Trump’s vision of an economy run by tight circles of politically connected oligarchs has reshaped America’s standing in the world. The same effect that applies at the personal level with Trump has appeared at the level of the nation-state. Small-d democratic leaders have recoiled from the Trump administration, while autocrats have embraced him. Similarly, the president and his inner circle feel most comfortable in the company of the wealthy and corrupt. They have built closer ties to Russia, the Gulf States, and China, all of which are ruled by oligarchs who recognize in Trump a like-minded soul. They share the belief that — to revise a favorite Trump saying — if you don’t steal, you don’t have a country. MORE