Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is in trouble yet again for trying to get a free ride. It recently came out that back in June, he had requested a government plane to take his wife on their honeymoon in Europe, with the lame justification that he needed secure communications. This was counter to standard government practice — as a former White House ethics counsel explains, you don't need a private plane to have a secure phone or internet connection — and Mnuchin didn't get the request approved.
Still, it's both a blackly amusing story, and a window into an administration that is absolutely suffused with penny-ante corruption. If there's anything that characterizes basic government operation under President Trump, it is constant grifting.
This is something of a pattern for the secretary. Before this latest revelation, Mnuchin got in trouble for the exact same reason, when he took his wife Louise Linton on a government plane to Fort Knox, Kentucky, during the solar eclipse. Linton posted a shockingly gauche picture of the trip on Instagram, showing her and Mnuchin descending from a government plane, carefully noting the names of all the hyper-expensive designer clothing she was wearing with hashtags (#valentino).
Then when someone commented about the taxpayer expense, Linton came unglued in typical elitist fashion, as Jia Tolentino notes:
In a few aggrieved sentences, Linton managed to frame her husband’s $300 million net worth as a burden, her six months in Washington as harrowing public servitude, and an ordinary American as a contemptible member of the economic underclass. She punctuated this bit with two emoji, a flexed bicep, and a kissy face, which were meant to convey nonchalance but instead communicated a type of strained, hierarchical female fury that I have not witnessed in person since cheerleading camp, in 2005. [The New Yorker]
Then on Thursday last week, Mnuchin dug himself in even deeper. At a Politico conference, he managed to strain credulity to the breaking point while also scoffing that only stupid country rubes (e.g. Trump voters) could care about an eclipse anyway. "Being a New Yorker and [also from] California, I was like, the eclipse? Really?" he said. "I don't have any interest in watching the eclipse." Yeah, sure Steve. It was merest coincidence that you took your wife to within a few dozen miles of the eclipse totality zone during the 45 minutes that it passed by.
All these episodes make for a combination of deeply irritating rich New Yorker elitism and Mobutu-esque abuse of the public fisc. Somewhat by coincidence, Linton is also notorious for publishing a "memoir" about a gap year in Zambia, where she supposedly had dangerous encounters with rebels fighting the Second Congo War. Locals — as well as anyone who had been to Zambia at the time — immediately pointed out that many of the lurid details were obviously invented (and full of disgusting racist stereotypes to boot). They pulled the book, and it cannot now be purchased on Amazon.
However, all this is just the tip of the iceberg for the Trump administration. Since Trump took office, there have been a constant trickle of stories of him abusing his position as president to enrich himself, his family, and his businesses — from his daughter getting patents from China on the same day he met with the Chinese president, to charging the Secret Service to use his golf carts or an obscene rent in Trump Tower, to a revelation on Friday that the government had paid $1,092 for officials in the National Security Council to stay at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort.
Corruption is even being given official sanction. Last week it came out that the Office of Government Ethics (whose chief resigned in protest in July, saying the U.S. has become "close to a laughingstock" on ethics) will allow legal defense funds for aides caught up in the Russia investigation to accept anonymous donations from lobbyists.
Trump could probably just write himself a billion-dollar check from the Treasury (or perhaps print a billion-dollar platinum coin, with his face on it of course), but that appears to be beyond his imagination. Instead, it's going to be an endless parade of this kind of relatively small-bore looting. That is almost certainly why Mnuchin feels comfortable asking for a $25,000-per-hour perk. If everyone else has their hands in the till, why not him?