Updated: Jul 2, 2019
When President Trump took office it quickly became apparent that his promise to “drain the swamp” actually would result in installation of a new breed of swamp dweller, former business lobbyists and executives who were placed in powerful positions at agencies charged with regulating the companies and industries for which they previously worked.
As of now, at least four agencies — the Defense Department, the Health and Human Services Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department — are being led by former corporate executives or industry lobbyists.
This practice was not an accident. It was part of Trump administration policy to fulfill 2016 campaign promises to eliminate bothersome regulations that protect the American consumer and the environment, and to bolster spending for national defense. Conflicts of interest were ignored; in fact, they seem to have been welcomed -- even sought after.
Trump: "I want to bring back coal mining. But the EPA stands in the way. Who can I get to deal with that? How about a coal company lobbyist?" Presto. Andrew Wheeler, former coal company lobbyist, was nominated to replace the ousted Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator.
This administration is the antithesis of previous administrations’ practice of vetting potential nominees to make certain there would be no such conflicts. Instead of that, Trump Cabinet members are rife with over involvement in the very industries they are supposed to regulate. The result has been a rollback of regulations and protections meant to keep these industries in check. Conflicts are something this administration openly ignores as it repeatedly places the fox in the chicken coop.
In addition to the multiple conflicts of Trump, himself, his cabinet has multiple questionable incursions into their spheres of influence.
Take Rex Tillerson, for example. He was an executive for Exxon Mobile before being asked to be Secretary of State. As a result, he was placed in charge of sensitive negotiations with many countries, particularly those whose primary income is oil. Despite this, Republicans in Congress saw no problem with his confirmation. He was fired, not for his conflicts of interest, but because he was seen by Trump to have been ineffective in doing his bidding on the international stage.
Ryan Zinke, the former Secretary of the Interior, was tasked with overseeing the protections of federal lands. Instead, he has used his position to reshape these lands in favor of businesses, such as his hometown industrial giant, Halliburton. He eventually resigned after these conflicts were revealed.
Like Trump, instead of divesting his involvement in his prior business, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross set up a trust to benefit his children. Still, not one Republican in power has batted an eye over this.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has repeatedly undermined public education and the student loan forgiveness program in favor of charter schools and student loan companies. Being a campaign mega donor undoubtedly played heavily into her appointment to the position she coveted.
Why? Could her financial interests in companies that supported charter schools and for-profit colleges, as well as those that provided students with risky credit cards, have anything to do with this? Despite this, she continues in her position, although there are rumors of her imminent departure.
As Democrats take control of the House, they face the daunting task of reigning in these conflicts and several others. Republican opposition, as well as the difficulty of removing a Cabinet member who has already gotten Congressional approval, make this a near-impossible venture.
However, House Democrats are beginning to apply pressure with a series of conflicts of interest investigations, which at the least, will prove time consuming and troubling for the Trump administration to deal with, and which likely will provide fertile material for the coming 2020 campaign.