President Donald Trump may have promised to drain the swamp, but a recent survey shows the U.S. may be getting dirtier under his watch.
The U.S. has dropped out of the top 20 “cleanest,” or least-corrupt, countries in the world on the internationally recognized Corruption Perceptions Index. Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) has compiled the index every year since 1995, but only started ranking countries on a zero-to-100 scale in 2012, when it changed its methodology. Corruption is defined by TI as the abuse of entrusted power for political gain. In today’s America, that may ring true with many, and they may not be surprised to learn that the U.S. no longer ranks up there with the Denmarks and New Zealands of the world.
It never has, in fact, but the U.S. “arguably has been a critical leader globally in the fight against corruption and if we’re starting to model a decline in that fight, it has negative effects around the world,” said Zoë Reiter, TI’s acting representative to the U.S.
“If we’re starting to break ethical norms at the highest levels of power here, if we’re starting to question the free press, if we’re trying to attack the system of checks and balances, that can be interpreted as a green light by the rest of the world that the U.S. is not going to continue to be a strong policing agent against corruption globally. That is not good for the U.S. and not good for countries around the world,” Reiter told The Washington Diplomat.
As its name states, the Corruption Perceptions Index ranks countries by perceived levels of corruption. The most recent report, released in January 2019, was based on expert assessments and surveys of businesspeople. It rates 180 countries on a scale of zero to 100, where, not unlike a school grading scale, 100 is the best/least corrupt/what everyone should aspire to, and zero is off-the-grid bad/riddled with corruption. The U.S. shed four points and dropped six places to take the 22nd spot on the most recent index, just under France and immediately above the United Arab Emirates.
Of course, the irony of the perceived rise of corruption in America during the Trump presidency is that the current resident of the White House campaigned on a pledge to drain the proverbial swamp in Washington. Many interpreted that as a promise by a political outsider to clean up American politics and make government work better for ordinary Americans. They were under no illusion that Trump meant that he’d clean up the Reflecting Pool near the Capitol or the Tidal Basin in time for cherry blossom season.
But in Trumpian America, the pump that was supposed to drain the swamp appears to be ejecting fresh sludge into it. There are currently 17 ongoing cases against Trump and his associates, ranging from alleged foreign influence on his presidential campaign committee to Trump’s tax payments. Most notably, the investigations into Trump and his campaign team’s ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin have hung over his administration from day one, and continue to threaten his presidency.
Recent revelations that Trump may have been pursuing a Trump Tower deal in Moscow throughout the 2016 GOP primary — despite repeatedly claiming he had “nothing to do with Russia” on the campaign trail — amplified concerns that the real estate mogul is using his political gains to line his pockets and those of his family.
For example, foreign governments and business people have been accused of seeking to curry favor with the president or influence decisions by him by frequenting his hotel in Washington or granting favors to members of his family. Some T-Mobile executives checked into the Trump property off the National Mall at least 10 times prior to having their company’s $26 billion merger with rival Sprint approved by the Trump administration, according to a report in The Washington Post. In November, China approved more than a dozen trademark applications for first daughter Ivanka Trump, who is also an advisor to the president.
And despite Trump’s carefully crafted persona as an advocate for the working-class American, the president has stacked his Cabinet with millionaires dogged by allegations of conflicts of interest. This includes Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who’s been accused by former colleagues of siphoning or stealing over $100 million during his investment career and of potentially violating criminal conflict of interest laws.
Other Cabinet members have splurged on extravagant perks — on the taxpayer’s dime. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for trips on private planes. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned in the wake of multiple ethics investigations into his travel and business deals. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stepped down amid a raft of ethics scandals, including his use of round-the-clock security detail, installation of a soundproof phone booth in his office and first-class flights to places such as Morocco and Italy. And despite his immense personal wealth, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin racked up a nearly $1 million taxpayer-funded tab for using military aircraft, including a $40,000 trip to Miami.
In addition to the questionable use of taxpayer funds, the Trump administration has gradually eroded the institutions that keep executive power in check. That includes the media. Trump’s attacks on journalists have polarized an already-divided nation. Negative coverage of the 45th president is regularly dismissed as fake news. Meanwhile, Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border has been slammed as an overreach of power and condemned as an attempt to hollow out the constitutional system of checks and balances, according to Slate.
Public Trust Slips
These and other dubious ethical practices that we don’t have the space to mention here, along with the Trump administration’s chipping away at democratic institutions, are some of the key issues that TI says are helping to push the U.S. down in the Corruption Perceptions Index. These are broadly summarized as:
- wealthy individuals wielding influence over government
- pay-to-play politics
- the so-called revolving doors in Washington that allow elected officials to move from government roles to positions in the private sector, and lobbyists and others with potential conflicts of interest to walk into plum government jobs
- the abuse of the U.S. financial system by corrupt foreign kleptocrats and local elites.
All have been happening for years in Washington and elsewhere, but the latest corruption index shows that the opinions of businesspeople and experts are aligning with those of ordinary citizens, whose perceptions of high-level corruption were measured by TI in a 2017 survey called the U.S. Corruption Barometer. Carried out roughly a year after Trump’s election, the survey showed that 44 percent of Americans believe that corruption is pervasive in the White House, up from 36 percent in 2016; and that almost seven in 10 believe the government is failing to fight corruption — up from half in 2016.
The public’s trust in U.S. institutions didn’t start sliding downward when Trump was elected, though, said Reiter. Erosion of trust has been going on for generations. Major incidents this century include the fabricated reasons that led the U.S. into war with Iraq and the 2008 global financial crisis, which wiped out a large amount of wealth among the middle class after the housing bubble burst. The resulting recession was blamed in part on a lack of oversight, which severely dented the belief that the U.S. system was accountable to taxpayers and working people. “Since then, there hasn’t been a sense that things are really changing,” said Reiter.
Take wealthy Americans influencing government, for instance. This has been a time-honored tradition for years, even generations, but recently, the phenomenon has gained steam and dollar signs.
Right-wing casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, for example, donated more than $123 million during the 2018 election cycle to the Republican Party to try to cement the conservatives’ majority in the U.S. legislature. On the other side of the aisle, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and liberal billionaire Tom Steyer spent $95 million and $72 million respectively to help Democrats or liberals unseat Republicans.
Donations by wealthy Americans often made their way to the recipient through a super PAC, another recent American “innovation.” These independent political action committees can raise unlimited amounts of money to donate to a political cause in hopes of influencing the election, but they aren’t allowed to donate directly to a campaign. They sprang up like mushrooms after the Supreme Court’s now infamous Citizens United decision in 2010, when justices voted five to four that political spending is protected speech under the First Amendment, which means the government could not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.
Spending by labor unions and companies did “not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” so long as it was not done in concert or coordination with a political candidate’s campaign, the Supreme Court held. Prior to Citizens United, the amount an individual could give to a candidate or cause was limited to $2,500, and corporations and unions could give nothing. But the 2010 decision opened the floodgates to unfettered spending. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, corporations and other entities spent more than $800 million in the 2012 election cycle, including political activity by tax-exempt “dark money” organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors.
The Adelsons also donated over $20 million to help Trump get elected in 2016. Then, in 2018, Miriam Adelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor conferred by the U.S. The Israeli-American physician and philanthropist shared the coveted award with the likes of Elvis Presley, baseball great Babe Ruth and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Her inclusion on the list of recipients drew ridicule and scorn, and “gobsmacked so many,” wrote Washington journalist and commentator Robert Schlesinger. Adelson getting the award “perfectly captures the crassly transactional nature of Donald Trump and his presidency,” Schlesinger wrote in a Nov. 16, 2018, article for NBC News. “The only person who gave more money to Trump’s presidential run, according to the Center for Public Integrity, was the Donald himself…. It pays to play: Not only is Miriam Adelson getting the medal, but Trump personally lobbied Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sheldon Adelson’s behalf for a casino license.”
Which leads us neatly to the second strike against America on TI’s corruption list: pay-to-play. This is defined as paying for access to politicians or government contracts, or in more succinct language, as bribery or greasing palms. Pay-to-play is becoming more and more commonplace in today’s America, although it often happens on the quiet, through a back door.
For instance, a report published by USA Today in September 2017 found that businesspeople and lobbyists are gaining access to Trump by becoming members of his golf clubs. In August 2018, a probe by independent news organization ProPublica found that three members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida were exerting “sweeping influence” on policies at the Veterans Affairs Administration. Known as the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” the troika of Trump golf buddies sit on an informal council that “spoke with VA officials daily … reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions. They prodded the VA to start new programs, and officials travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views,” ProPublica wrote. None of the three has any experience in the military or in government.
Meanwhile, the revolving door is spinning furiously in Washington since Trump’s arrival. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is an example of this. The erstwhile lobbyist for a coal mining company was named deputy administrator of the EPA last year as then-Administrator Pruitt sank deeper and deeper into a quagmire of scandal. Pruitt exited the agency in July 2018 and Wheeler was elevated to acting administrator.
Some call this a reverse revolving door, although by their nature, revolving doors take people effortlessly in and out of buildings and, in many cases, cushy jobs. Usually, the person going through the door is leaving government for a private sector or lobbying gig, but the doors spit people out in both directions, and from both parties.
For example, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) who was appointed by the governor of Arizona to replace Sen. John McCain after his death from brain cancer last year, lasted four months in government before leaving public service through the revolving door to return to the Covington & Burling law firm. Kyl was senior counsel for government affairs there from 2013 to 2018. Prior to that, he served four terms in the House and three in the Senate.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group that tracks money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy, the number of lobbyists who went through the revolving door on Capitol Hill doubled between the 111th and 112th Congress — the one that was seated after the Republican Party took back control of the House in the 2010 midterms.
Of course, that was well before Trump promised in his campaign to drain the swamp of Washington insiders. In January 2017, Trump took what might be seen as a step to fulfill that promise when he signed an executive order that barred lobbyists who take a government job from participating for two years in matters they had lobbied for while in public service. It also banned Trump appointees from lobbying for five years after leaving the administration.
Neither ban appears to be working, though, perhaps because the order included waiver exemptions or maybe because it’s just not being enforced. “The data show former lobbyists in various roles throughout the federal bureaucracy and often working for agencies they once lobbied, which appears counter to the spirit of Trump’s edict,” writes the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s scant consolation that the U.S. isn’t the only country that’s sliding away from democracy and deeper into corruption. TI notes there is a negative correlation between corruption and the health of democracy.
“With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe — often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies — we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights,” Patricia Moreira, managing director of Transparency International, said in a press release. “Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption.”
In the EU, the region that boasts the highest average score on the Corruption Perceptions Index, Poland, for example, has shed three points in four years and was ranked 36th jointly with Slovenia in the 2018 Index — two spots lower than Israel and Botswana. Poland’s conservative government has interfered in the independence of both the judicial system and the media, says TI. “These acts serve to dismantle a system that enables checks and balances, which are vital to democracy and in the public’s best interests,” the global corruption watchdog said.
Hungary has fallen by nine points over the last seven years. A litany of ills led to Hungary’s downslide, including the passage of legislation that imposed restrictions on “foreign-funded” NGOs, the criminalization of support for refugees, the expansion of the power of the minister of justice to appoint judges and accusations that Hungary misused EU funds.
In Hungary and Poland, populist rhetoric has been used to discredit public scrutiny. “In both countries, democratic institutions and values are at risk,” said TI. The media has been used in both countries to portray groups opposed to the government as enemies of the nation, which “deepens existing divisions among citizens and takes public focus away from politicians.”
America’s C-minus rating is, however, much better than the average score on the index. Two-thirds of the 180 countries and territories surveyed by TI scored below 50. The average score was an appalling 43, equivalent — if we keep the grade analogy going — to getting your name and the date wrong on a test and then not answering any of the questions. The vast majority of the countries assessed have made little or no progress against corruption, said TI. The countries at the bottom of the index — Somalia with 10 points and Syria and South Sudan with 13 points each — are wracked by insurgency or civil war.
But those countries aren’t the U.S., which has long assumed the mantle of global leader on a number of fronts, including ethics in government. “Given the role of the U.S. in the world, it’s critical that we recoup lost ground and ensure that, at the highest levels of power, we’re modeling a much stronger commitment to ethical norms and integrity,” said Reiter.
“We need effective controls against conflicts of interest at the highest levels of power. We need to work toward greater transparency and disclosure regarding political spending. We need to protect and shore up our system of checks and balances on political power and guarantee free and fair elections for all Americans. And we can’t allow for unacceptable speech against our different branches,” added Reiter, referring to Trump’s repeated characterization of the Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller as a witch hunt.
That being said, Americans can thank the Trump presidency for helping to shine a light on what needs to be done to fight corruption. “I think it’s fair to say Trump’s presidency is illuminating the areas where we really need to push for change to ensure greater integrity and accountability of our elected officials,” said Reiter.
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Managing editor Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) contributed to this report.