The problems with Trump’s scandal-ridden Cabinet start right at the top

Donald Trump Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • White House officials are apparently worried that President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members are embarrassing him.
  • They should probably look at their own boss.

There is something humorous about White House officials being worried that Cabinet members are embarrassing the administration through petty corruption scandals.

They’re not wrong that Trump’s Cabinet has been embarrassing at times. But they should think about who’s ultimately to blame for that.

The issue isn’t just that Trump picked all these substandard people to serve him. There’s also the problem of any organisation whose leader doesn’t live up to its stated ideals.

Why would Trump’s Cabinet take care to avoid appearances of impropriety when Trump won’t take such care himself?

Several Cabinet members were taken to the woodshed

CNN is reporting that four Cabinet officials had meetings with the White House counsel’s office last month, in which they were scolded for creating appearances of impropriety with their spending or travel practices. The unfortunate cabinet members were:

  • Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who ordered a $US31,000 furniture set for his office dining room.
  • Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, whose chief of staff resigned after the department inspector general found she falsified an email to justify sending Shulkin’s wife on a trip to Denmark and Britain at department expense, a trip on which Shulkin was also faulted for accepting free Wimbledon tickets.
  • Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt, who has been routinely flying first class “for security reasons.”
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has faced questions over the propriety of his official travel and a $US139,000 work order for doors in his office (the Interior Department has explained that the order is for three sets of double doors).

CNN obtained a guidance document from the meetings, which includes such advice as “you are the best guardian of your reputation” and “even if it is legal, does not mean you should do it.”

Why wouldn’t these people try to get away with whatever they can?

The “even if it is legal, does not mean you should do it” document comes from a White House where:

  • Official business is conducted at venues owned or operated by the president’s companies.
  • Staffers whose past conduct kept them from getting permanent security clearances were allowed to access the government’s most sensitive intelligence on an “interim” basis for over a year.
  • The press secretary has bragged from the press briefing room podium that the president has won in arbitration against the porn actress whom his lawyer paid $US130,000 not to discuss her sexual history with the president.
  • Foreign policy is conducted by the president’s son-in-law without consultation with the State Department. Etcetera, etcetera.

The document might say “even if it is legal, does not mean you can do it” but the implicit guidance from the president’s behaviour is “if you think you can get away with it, go ahead and do it.”

And it wasn’t crazy for Cabinet members to suspect the cacophony of corruption coming from the White House itself would reduce the amount of attention drawn to petty matters like a $US31,000 dining set.

It’s not that nothing can get you fired from this administration. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price learned the hard way you can get fired for taking private jets everywhere. But if that’s what it takes, is it any surprise Pruitt thought he could get away with flying first class? At least he’s been flying commercial.

Leaders set the tone

If you have a chief executive who thinks ethics are for suckers, he’ll tend to hire people who share that view, and people within the organisation will get the message that they can behave unethically.

Think of Travis Kalanick running Uber, but instead with the most powerful government in the world.

And as we saw at Uber, you can’t clean up the organisation while the rotten figure remains at the top. Trump might want his Cabinet to stop embarrassing him. But the embarrassment won’t end while he’s in place, sending the message that you might as well take what you can.