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Private Emails, Private Jets and Mr. Trump’s Idea of Public Service

On the campaign trail, Trump promised he would “make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.”  He said that if elected our  we’d have a government free of self-dealing and one devoted to public service. 

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD | The New York Times | SEPT. 28, 2017


Electing him, Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail, would “make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.” Among those reveries, he suggested, would be a government free of self-dealing and one devoted to public service. “If we want to make America great again,” he wrote in an op-ed for USA Today days before the election, “we must clean up this corruption.”

This ambition has all but vanished from Mr. Trump’s field of vision, assuming he ever meant it. Not least because of his own self-dealing — the hotel down the block, the failure to fully divorce himself from the Trump Organization, all the rest — the White House became ground zero for grasping lobbyists and ethically challenged, self-promoting staffers. So great was the back stabbing and chaos that, in July, Mr. Trump turned to an upright military figure, Retired Gen. John Kelly, to set things straight as chief of staff.

It has proved an impossible task. The tighter ship Mr. Kelly vowed to run seems to be springing ethical leaks almost daily, as more and more accounts surface of this or that official using public resources for private gain or crossing a line demarcating personal from government business.

On Monday, it emerged that at least six current and former top White House officials, including Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his daughter Ivanka Trump; and his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, have been using private email accounts at least sporadically for government business. This is both dumb and richly paradoxical when one considers that Mr. Trump has continued to attack Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account and server as secretary of state, and has prodded his Justice Department to restart an inquiry that cleared her of criminal wrongdoing.

While the president whips up chants of “Lock her up” in red states, his daughter — one of the less credible “moderating” forces in White House history — has been tapping away on her personal email despite being an administration official. Personal emails are not illegal per se, as long as those about government business are forwarded to government accounts. Failure to do that is a potential violation of the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act, which preserve public access to government documents.

Mr. Kushner seems to have a particular problem with official record keeping, having failed to list scores of assets on his government financial disclosure, and forgotten to include meetings with Russians on his security clearance form. Given his central role in the campaign and White House, imagine how his latest lapse in transparency looks to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his team, now hoovering up White House documents in their investigation of possible collusion with Russia. Mr. Kushner’s failure to disclose the personal email concerns leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who learned of it from news reports.

But wait, there’s more: Americans have been learning over the past week about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s habit of flying private jets to official meetings, with occasional detours to luxury resorts where he owns property, or for outings with his family. Mr. Price and Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, have even used private jets on what a White House aide called “a national listening tour … to learn from the heroes on the front lines” of the opioid crisis — all while pushing for a replacement of the Affordable Care Act that would drain billions from Medicaid and addiction treatment. When asked if he would, wisely, fire Mr. Price, the president said on Wednesday, “I’m looking at that very closely.” Mr. Price said on Thursday that he’d reimburse a portion of the cost.

Mr. Price — a multimillionaire orthopedic surgeon who as a congressman took actions that benefited his personal stock portfolio — isn’t the only Trump cabinet member polluting the public trough. There’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs banker who wanted a $25,000-per-hour Air Force jet to ferry him on his European honeymoon, and has been lying that a tax “reform” proposal to enrich wealthy people like him is a boon for the middle class. And there’s Scott Pruitt, industry’s best friend at the Environmental Protection Agency, who’s cost taxpayers more than $58,000 for noncommercial and military flights, and is spending nearly $25,000 to build a “secure phone booth” in his office.

In August, Mr. Kelly embarked on what he said would be a thorough housecleaning. Time now for him to round up top members of the administration for an all-hands lecture on the difference between public service and self-enrichment, and the importance of sunlight as a disinfectant. Sadly, though, they seem to have already absorbed a more persuasive lesson from the chief executive — get it while you can and to hell with the rules.


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