The Trump administration only serves Trump
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney's press briefing this week contained, as I have argued, a stunning amount of confessions of wrongdoing — but it was also highlighted of a deeper truth about President Donald Trump's administration.
It stripped away the pretense of the administration being aimed at furthering the national interest. Under the Trump administration, the federal government aims to serve Trump — and Trump alone.
This was clear when Mulvaney announced that the United States would be hosting the upcoming G7 summit at his own resort in Miami, Florida, pouring money directly into his private hands from both the U.S. and foreign governments. It's a brazen violation of the Constitution and any basic sense of decency, but that doesn't matter in the Trump administration. It doesn't matter that, when the Trump first floated the idea of holding the G7 at his own property, there were deafening howls decrying the idea as openly corrupt.
Mulvaney said that it didn't matter that this would have the appearance of a conflict of interest because Trump was willing to "take the hit." Of course, he said nothing about why the American people or the U.S. government should have to "take the hit" of the stain of corruption for a choice that accrues only to Trump's personal benefit.
But that doesn't matter, of course, if all the matters to the Trump administration is Trump.
In Mulvaney's more explosive remarks, admitting that there was a quid pro quo at the heart of the Ukraine scandal, the chief of staff showed how much he has internalized the attitude that Trump's interests are all that matter. He later lied and said that the media "misconstrued" his confirmation of the quid pro quo — which was obvious, regardless — but the truth is he just felt so emboldened by the ideology of the administration that he thought he could get away with the admission. He forgot that, to best defend Trump's interests, he has to pretend that Trump cares about the country.
Defending the quid pro quo, Mulvaney went even further:
[A former State Department employee] said yesterday that he was really upset with the political influence in foreign policy. That was one of the reasons he was so upset about this. And I have news for everybody: Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy.
That is going to happen. Elections have consequences. And foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.
And what you're seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, "You know what? I don’t like President Trump's politics, so I'm going to participate in this witch hunt that they're undertaking on the Hill." Elections do have consequences and they should. And your foreign policy is going to change. Obama did it in one way; we're doing it a different way. And there's no problem with that.
Here, Mulvaney blended together two meanings of the word "political." Of course, all foreign policy is "political" in the sense that it's conducted by politicians and affected by elections. But the criticism of Trump's Ukraine scandal as "political" means that the quid pro quo was done for the president's own, personal political interests at winning re-election. And it wasn't in the traditional way politicians might do this, by achieving a foreign policy success to impress voters, but by using the U.S. government's foreign policy clout and apparatus to induce another country to go after Trump's political rivals. It's easy for Mulvaney to blend these two meanings together, though, because in the Trump administration, Trump's personal interests are all that matter. There's no greater national interest that he cares about.
"Get over it."
That's why, of course, some State Department employees — particularly the career officials — have complied with the impeachment inquiry over the administration's objections. They signed up to serve the United States, but Trump only wants them to serve Trump.
Of course, the merger of Trump's narrow interests and the administration's priorities extends to other departments. The Justice Department has been repeatedly roped into arguing for Trump's interests in a range of lawsuits, sometimes to absurd effect. For instance, when people sued Trump for blocking them on Twitter, the DOJ defended the president; but the argument it made that Trump was allowed to block people on Twitter because he was acting in his personal capacity, rather than as president. Why, then, should the DOJ have bothered defending him at all if he was acting in his personal capacity? It only makes sense if the administration only Trump's personal interests. But notice, a seemingly similar claim is certainly not accepted by the administration: Trump's interests are not identical with the United States' interests.
We also know that the Justice Department reviewed allegations against Trump related to the Ukraine scandal when they were first reported internally, but no criminal investigation was opened. Why should it have been? Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein, charges against the president could be taken seriously; under Attorney General Bill Barr, they can be dismissed out of hand.
That's not to say nothing ever happens in the administration that ever goes against Trump's interest anymore. The Justice Department also indicted two of Rudy Giuliani's associates, which may prove detrimental to Trump in the Ukraine Scandal. But when these seemingly rarer events occur, they seem to be going against the grain. The trend in the administration is for more and more of the government's efforts to be consumed by Trump's needs, even as lower-level officials continue to try to do their jobs as intended.
Consider that when Trump made a minor slip up and said, falsely, that a hurricane was headed toward Alabama, and he refused to back down — the Commerce Department jumped in to defend him. The branch of the National Weather Service that had done its job and debunked the president's false claims was publicly admonished by the top brass in the department, sacrificing the U.S. government's precious credibility at the altar of Trump's vanity.
Vice President Mike Pence, too, gets roped into promoting Trump's narrow interests. When he went to Ireland, he stayed at Trump's own property — once again, putting government funds directly into the president's pocket. This certainly wasn't in Pence's interest, because it only served to tarnish his own reputation with Trump's corruption. But that fact, too — binding the vice president's fate to his own — likely proves useful to Trump.
Pence has further set his credibility ablaze just to help Trump. He's been enmeshed in the Ukraine scandal, and he was sent to Turkey this week to try to undo the atrocity Trump unleashed by pulling U.S. forces out of northern Syria. Pence announced a supposed "ceasefire" between the Turks and the Kurds — which Trump touted as a massive victory — but Turkey denied that it was a ceasefire at all, and it resumed its assault on Friday. Pretending the supposed "ceasefire" was more than it was did nothing to help anyone besides Trump, who is desperate to convince his voters that, despite what members of his own party say, his decision in Syria wasn't a complete disaster.
Of course, presidents will always try to use the power of their office to boost their own fortunes in ways that are more and less appropriate, and the Trump administration didn't invent U.S. government corruption. But Trump's own exaggerated impulses and inflated sense of himself had taken this feature of the U.S. system to new lows — and it may take us a long time to recover.