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The swamp

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Swamp Tours. Step lively, your boat is leaving.

Destination: Washington.

Before we push off, we want to show you a video of campaign speeches by President Donald Trump. It contains his promises to hire the best people, drain the swamp, root out corruption and end self-dealing by Washington elites, as well as his repeated assurances that he knows how to run things.

It was a setup. The tour will show you a federal government mired in dysfunction, straining to work and populated by people engaged in the same behavior Trump vowed to exorcise.

Case in point: our first exhibit. Yes, empty chairs. They represent the 225 key jobs requiring presidential nomination that still have no nominee. That’s more than one-third of those positions. They include critical posts like three undersecretaries and 10 assistant secretaries in the State Department, as well as ambassador to South Korea, of all places.

The vacancies mean some work is going undone and some people are doing double duty. The first portrait you see is of Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The second belongs to David Kautter, who is both acting commissioner of the IRS and assistant secretary of the Treasury. Yes, those are all full-time jobs. And, yes, the IRS should have its own focused leader as it grapples with the new tax code.

On a good note, James Carroll is now acting national drug czar — more than a year into the tenure of a president who agrees the opioid epidemic is a crisis. That’s because Trump’s first nominee, Rep. Tom Marino, withdrew from consideration after reports that he had championed legislation that made it more difficult for the Drug Enforcement Administration to enforce drug laws. We’ll be talking more about the quality of some nominees later on the tour. As for Carroll, this is his fourth job in the administration, following stints in the White House counsel’s office, as budget office general counsel and deputy chief of staff.

That brings us to our next exhibit — this revolving door. The White House turnover rate of 34 percent in Trump’s first year is more than triple what it was under Barack Obama, double the previous record held by Ronald Reagan, and higher than all five of Trump’s predecessors. Effective governance is nearly impossible under these conditions.

Trump is difficult and unpredictable, making the White House a home of paranoia, confusion and frustration. Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, No. 3 in the Justice Department, resigned in frustration because four of the 13 divisions she supervised remained unstaffed and she was unwilling to be tainted by any White House efforts to derail the independent counsel investigation into Russia meddling in the 2016 election.

Finding competent people willing to work for this president has been difficult, and some nominees and hires have been clearly unsuitable. It’s bad enough there’s no permanent head of the Census Bureau as the critical 2020 count looms. But Trump’s nominee for deputy director, who would actually run the census, was a terrible choice who finally withdrew last week. Politics professor Thomas Brunell, who wrote a book arguing that competitive elections are bad for America, would have politicized an office previously manned by nonpartisan career civil servants. And he’s not Trump’s only unqualified or unsuitable nominee.

Heath Hall, acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration tasked with ensuring railway safety, resigned recently after reports that he also was working as a public relations consultant in Mississippi — as train-related accidents and deaths rise. A nominee for a district court judgeship could not answer basic law school questions during his confirmation hearing. Trump’s nominee for chief scientist at the Agriculture Department had no academic credentials in agriculture or science and ended up withdrawing after he was linked to the Russia investigation. He was just one of many nonscientists nominated to science positions. And Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Barbados and other Caribbean nations tweeted fringe conspiracy theories and false attacks on Trump election opponents.

White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned after his two ex-wives alleged he had beaten them. The episode also revealed the White House’s difficulties with the national security clearance process. Porter didn’t have such permanent clearance. Nor do more than 30 people who started serving on the day of Trump’s inauguration, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House counsel Don McGahn, the traffic cop for such security clearances.

Now we come to our showcase of people who were confirmed, only to undermine Trump’s clean-and-drain mantra. Keep your hands inside the boat. The water is placid but the gators are ferocious.

There under the moss is Scott Pruitt. The Environmental Protection Agency head likes to fly first class while his staff flies coach. The EPA cites security concerns; Pruitt says it’s a “lack of civility” that creates a “toxic” environment. One $36,000 flight on a military jet from Cincinnati to New York allowed Pruitt to catch a first-class flight to Rome. A round-trip between Washington and New York cost $1,641.53 for Pruitt while a staffer in coach paid $238.40. This is public money, folks; he works for you.

Travel issues are a cancer in this administration.

Look to the right. That’s Ryan Zinke. The interior secretary’s several charters include a $12,000 trip to give a motivational speech to Las Vegas’ new pro hockey team, owned by a campaign contributor.

Here, in the weeds, is Steve Mnuchin. The Treasury secretary used a government plane to fly him and his wife to Kentucky in August — to see the gold in Fort Knox, he said, not for the ideal vantage for the solar eclipse. Earlier, Mnuchin asked for a military plane for his European honeymoon. That was denied. An analysis last fall said his use of military planes cost $804,242; the bill for commercial flights would have been $22,667 at best.

Lurking behind him is Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. His agency’s inspector general found that Shulkin’s chief of staff changed the language in an email and made false statements so that travel expenses for Shulkin’s wife for the couple’s 10-day $122,000 European trip would be covered. The report also found that Shulkin improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament worth thousands of dollars, and that more than half the trip was spent visiting castles and other sightseeing.

That empty cage on the riverbank used to house Dr. Tom Price, the former Health and Human Services secretary. He cost taxpayers at least $400,000 by chartering private jets for official business instead of flying commercial. That was only one of his issues. Price also owned more than $100,000 in stock in pharmaceutical and medical companies, businesses within his HHS purview. He resigned in September after Trump expressed his dissatisfaction.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald also lived in that cage. She resigned, too — over news last month that she had bought shares in a tobacco company after her appointment. Besides the conflict of investing in the leading cause of preventable death, she also owned stock in pharmaceutical and health care companies, which forced her to recuse herself from testifying before Congress on cancer and opioids.

Look, deep in that mangrove is Ben Carson. The Housing and Urban Development secretary let his son and daughter-in-law help organize and invite people with whom the couple had potential business dealings to a HUD listening tour Carson conducted in Baltimore.

That’s the end of our regular tour. For an extra small charge, you can switch boats and visit the scores of lobbyists now working in positions to regulate — or not — the very industries for which they used to work. You’ll discover that Trump gave more waivers of ethics rules to White House staff in his first four months than Obama did in eight years. This as much as anything belies Trump’s promise to drain the swamp.

Folks, complaining about ineptitude, dysfunction and feeding at the trough is not partisan warfare. Democrats and Republicans are calling it out. It’s another swamp, of Trump’s own making.

Whether you choose to continue your tour or end it here, please remember to fill out the comment card you were given with your ticket. Be sure to answer the question at the bottom:

Is this any way to run our country?

This editorial appeared in Newsday on Feb. 17.


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