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Monday, December 09, 2019

Reprinted with permission from

It is difficult to catalog the ways in which President Donald J. Trump and his minions are damaging the fabric of American civic life simply because there are so many, large and small. He and his crew have normalized behaviors that have been judged out of bounds throughout our history, so that we no longer even notice some outrages that would have dominated headlines just a year or two ago.

The extravagant spending habits of several members of Trump’s Cabinet — the alleged siphoning off of taxpayer dollars to support lavish travel, meals and furnishings — constitute one of those smaller outrages. The millions of dollars spent to bolster the egos of Cabinet secretaries and their families don’t embody the sort of threat to the republic represented by Russia’s interference in the presidential election or the president’s attempts to diminish the rule of law. Neither overpriced dining room furniture nor a soundproof phone booth will directly undermine national security or threaten our standing in the world.

Still, there is something about those reported spending practices that illuminates the biggest con that Trump has perpetrated on his supporters: the claim that he is looking out for the interests of the little guy. In fact, The Donald looks out only for himself, using the trappings of his office to do so. And it’s no surprise that he has surrounded himself with people who do the same. After all, the tone is set at the top.

Trump has been busy creating a kleptocracy, a corrupt (if not illegal) state in which those in powerful positions use public resources for their personal gain. As just one example, Pentagon officials spent $17,000 at the Trump Ocean Club hotel in Panama in 2017, according to published reports. (The Trump organization doesn’t own the hotel, but it licenses the use of Trump’s name, so he still benefits financially.)

Given Trump’s example, it’s no great surprise that Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, spent more than $31,500 last year on a custom-made dining room set even though federal law stipulates that officials may spend no more than $5,000 to refurnish their offices unless Congress designates more. Though Carson tried to foist the blame off on his wife, documents disclosed in the last few days show that he was involved in the purchase. And while Carson was extravagantly redecorating at taxpayer expense, he was warning against making housing for the poor too comfortable. He also supported his boss’s budget, which would have slashed federal spending for such housing.

Then there is Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who spent more than $43,000 in taxpayer funds, according to The Washington Post, on a soundproof phone booth for his office. The exorbitant cost isn’t even the strangest thing about this project: Why does Pruitt need such a setup? He isn’t running the Central Intelligence Agency. From whom is he going out of his way to protect his phone calls? The public?

The phone booth construction came in addition to the lavish travel expenses that Pruitt was racking up flying first class or business class all over the country. While he claimed he was just protecting the little guy — trying to make the air and water cleaner for everybody — he was actually meeting behind closed doors with executives of industries notorious for their pollution. (Perhaps that’s why he needs the soundproof phone booth.)

Pruitt has also frequently used chartered flights to get to closed-door meetings with groups interested in watering down EPA regulations. Maybe he didn’t notice that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a former congressman from Georgia, was forced to resign last year after reports were published about his spendy travel arrangements, which included frequent use of taxpayer-funded charter flights.

And then there is Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, whose wife traveled with him on a 10-day trip to Europe last year at taxpayer expense. In a recently released report, VA Inspector General Michael Missal said the VA paid more than $4,300 for her airfare alone. Then, a high-ranking VA official lied to try to hide the scandal.

Trump’s claims of having an affinity for the average Joe have proved to be one of the biggest lies from a president known for his mendacity. When will his supporters catch on?


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