A Monmouth University poll released last week had some dispiriting news for President Trump: Only 24 percent of Americans said he had made progress "draining the swamp," as he promised so many times on the campaign trail.
How could such a thing be? Don't people understand that our nation's capital is now bathed in the cleansing light of Trump's integrity, renewed for a generation by the upstanding example of the president, his family, and his advisers? No?
It's curious, but we may be able to solve the mystery. Maybe it's the fact that Trump continues to refuse to release his tax returns. Or maybe it's the story about the family of Jared Kushner — who, among other things, is a cruel slumlord — seeking Chinese investors for their real estate projects by dangling promises of "investor visas" to those who pony up. Or maybe it's just the fact that Trump has stocked his administration with family members, business cronies, and Wall Street plutocrats.
Or it might be the conflict Trump had in with the Office of Government Ethics. A week after he came into office, Trump signed an executive order that forbade executive branch officials from working on issues they had lobbied on prior to joining the administration. That sounded good, but in practice, the administration has hired dozens of lobbyists to make the policies that will affect the bottom line of their old clients; they've just granted waivers from the executive order wherever they please (President Obama had a similar policy, but he granted only a small number of such waivers). When the OGE asked the White House for a list of who has been given these waivers, the White House sent them a letter essentially saying that the OGE could shove it where the sun don't shine, and that it's nobody's business. "I have never seen anything like it," said Walter Shaub, the head of the OGE. Only after a spate of critical news coverage did the administration finally back down and agree to provide the information.
Then there's the matter of Trump's hotels. After questions were raised about whether foreign governments booking stays and events in the hotels constituted unconstitutional "emoluments," Trump promised that he'd donate any profits he made from those governments to the Treasury. You will be shocked to learn that promise was worth as much as a diploma from Trump University. It turns out that Trump hotels are not even tracking the business they get from foreign governments, so they have no idea how much they're making in profits, meaning the contributions to the Treasury will likely be somewhere in the area of zero.
At this point, there seems to be little doubt that Trump didn't come to banish the corrupt establishment, he came to use it for the benefit of himself, his family, and his cronies. Which many voters might be able to live with, if it appeared he was also using the power of the state to help them. But so far there's little evidence of that, unless you're a big corporation or wealthy person looking forward to a tax break.
Voters don't know much about the particulars — the average person has no idea who the deputy undersecretary of the Interior is, let alone what kind of favors that person might be doing for their old bosses at Omnicrush Mineral Corp — but they obviously have a sense that the swamp isn't being drained. Indeed, they can see that everything Trump ever said about the Washington swamp was transparently insincere. To take just one small but vivid example, he and other Republicans characterized it as the height of corruption that the Clinton Foundation would take money for charitable initiatives from foreign governments while she was secretary of state. So what do we say when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledge $100 million to a World Bank fund for women entrepreneurs spearheaded by White House adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump?
It's different, Trump's defenders would no doubt claim. Because ... well ... because Clintons are bad, and Trumps are good. Isn't that enough?
It isn't, of course. And we haven't even gotten to the Russia scandal, which may not seem at first glance to have anything to do with "the swamp," but it actually does. It's all about people in the Trump orbit getting payments from Russia, about secret alliances and underhanded dealings, about cheating and lying and pulling one over on the country. And it's about obstruction of justice, Trump believing that the rules don't apply to him and that he's not answerable to anyone.
Every time some new scandal of Trump's got revealed back in 2016, he would brush it off by essentially saying: Sure, I'm an operator. I break the law sometimes, I scam people, I don't pay taxes ("That makes me smart"), and I'm only out for myself. But an operator like me is just what you need to clean up that Washington swamp. Once I blow into town, they'll never know what hit 'em.
It didn't quite work out that way — as anyone seeing clearly could have predicted. And while Trump might or might not be impeached over Russia, he's going to get away with most of the small-time ways he has worked the system.
So what happens after he's gone? We can hope that the norms of government ethics will snap back into place — that the next president and the one after that won't hire their family members, conceal their finances, keep secret the logs of who visits the White House, hire a bunch of lobbyists without making public who they are, and set up ways for foreign governments to put money in their pocket. But those norms will be degraded by this presidency, and future occupants of the Oval Office may well say, "Trump got away with it — why shouldn't I?"