Truthout, January 23, 2017
As we start the Trump presidency, events just keep getting more bizarre. At his first and last press conference as president-elect, Donald Trump boasted about his divestment plan in which he was "sort of, kind of" turning over the management of his business enterprises to his two adult sons. He displayed a table full of documents that were supposed to indicate the extent of his divestment, but the documents were not made available for the press to examine.
Furthermore, in spite of claiming that he was stepping away from his business enterprises, Trump was still boasting being offered a $2 billion deal from a Dubai businessman. While Trump assured us that he turned the deal down, the obvious question is why he was discussing it in the first place.
Insofar as Trump is actually stepping away from his business, this is very far from the sort of blind trust arrangements made by presidents of both parties for the last half century. The public can never be sure that his actions as president are not motivated by a desire to fatten the profits of Trump enterprises. Nor can we be assured that actions by foreign governments won't be affected by their country's dealings with the president's business empire.
The ethical lapses from the top carry through to his cabinet appointments, which seem destined to replace Ringling Bros. Circus as the strangest show on Earth. Andy Puzder, Trump's pick for secretary of labor, runs two chains of fast-food restaurants that have repeatedly violated wage and hour laws and has been legally forced to make payments to workers. These are the laws that Mr. Puzder will be responsible for enforcing if he gets approved for the job.
Also, it appears that the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee may legitimately have to ask Mr. Puzder when he stopped beating his wife. His first wife accused Mr. Puzder of repeatedly assaulting her in divorce filings, although she has recently issued a statement claiming that her earlier accusations were not true.
Betsy DeVos, the Amway heiress who Trump designated to be his secretary of education, will be forever remembered as the person who suggested that we need guns in schools to defend children against grizzly bears. She also would not commit herself to saying that the schools have an obligation to educate children with disabilities. In addition, she seemed completely unfamiliar with the major debates in recent decades on education policy, for instance, growth versus proficiency.
Rep. Tom Price, the pick for health and human services secretary, appears to have bought stock in a medical device company the day before he introduced legislation that would improve its regulatory status. His lawyers are now threatening CNN with legal action for reporting this fact.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been designated for secretary of energy, a department that he previously advocated eliminating, although he famously could not remember its name in a Republican primary debate. Apparently both Trump and Perry misunderstood the department's duties at the time of his selection, failing to realize that its primary responsibility is overseeing the country's nuclear weapon arsenal, not promoting oil and gas development.
Treasury secretary designate Steve Mnuchin made much of his fortune running OneWest bank, which was known for rushing foreclosures and evictions following the collapse of the housing bubble. The California attorney general's staff recommended legal action against OneWest for questionable practices, including backdating legal documents. In his original disclosure documents, Mr. Mnuchin apparently forget to mention over $100 million in assets, as well as his position as director of a hedge fund headquartered in the Cayman islands.
Rep. Rick Mulvaney, Trump's pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, neglected to pay over $15,000 in taxes for a household worker. This is the same offense that wiped out several high level nominees in Democratic administrations. James Mattis, Trump's pick for secretary of defense and perhaps the most qualified selection in the group, has earned notoriety as a member of the board of directors of Theranos, a company now famous for fraudulent claims on its medical tests.
In addition, we have a designee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, whose entire foreign policy experience has been doing deals for Exxon-Mobil for 40 years. And then there is the billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who has apparently offered to serve as an unpaid economic advisor to Trump, while he remains free to invest his fortune in ways that take advantage of the advice he offers.
Mr. Trump certainly has assembled a formidable crew for his cabinet and top advisory posts that seem well-suited to follow through on the ethical standards to which he himself adheres. There is an old saying that a fish rots from the head. Trump seems intent on proving this true, even if he gets nothing else done in his administration.