When the Watergate scandal mushroomed in 1974, shell-shocked Republicans had spent their political lives viewing the Democratic Party as corrupt, and dominated by big-city machines and favor-swapping Southerners. This characterization, though exaggerated, contained an element of truth.
Today, it’s the Republicans led by President Donald Trump who are the party of corruption, without exaggeration. The rot is in Congress, where a prominent lawmaker was indicted last week, in state houses, where the governor of Missouri had to resign, and, most of all, in the national administration. Trump, who vowed to drain the swamp, has instead presided over a sewer of scandals not seen since the days of the Teapot Dome affair of the early 1920s.
The other party isn’t beyond reproach. The top Democrat on the important Senate Foreign Relations Committee is Robert Menendez of New Jersey. He was indicted for bribery and fraud in 2015, though the trial ended with a hung jury in 2017 and the prosecution chose to drop the case. This year, the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” him for shady transactions. There are state officials, in places like New York, who soon will be in orange jump suits.
To be sure, there were systemic problems well before Trump took office. Supreme Court decisions and the unwillingness of Republican congressional leaders like Mitch McConnell to require transparency have often made campaign financing the equivalent of secretive legal bribery.
Last week, New York Representative Chris Collins was indicted for securities fraud, accused of insider trading of stock in an Australian health care company where he serves as a director and tried to help in Congress. Four of his Republican colleagues, while they weren’t charged, also traded in the company’s shares. One, John Culberson of Texas, explained that the obscure company had a promising treatment for multiple sclerosis, a disease that afflicted family friends. There are a handful of other members facing potential legal issues.
Republicans have controlled the House for eight years and done nothing to prohibit members from serving on corporate boards or trading stocks that could be affected by legislation.
And no administration has been as tarred by scandal in its first 18 months in office. Two cabinet members, Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and Scott Pruitt, the EPA chief, were forced to resign because of clear improprieties. Two current officeholders, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, could face serious investigations over conflicts of interest.
At the White House, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was indicted for lying about illicit dealings with the Russians, and Staff Secretary Rob Porter was forced out following multiple allegations of assault. A lesser figure was forcibly marched out of the White House.
Overhanging all this are questions about whether Trump and his associates engaged in illegal activities involving Russia.
The president and his defenders say the suggestions of impropriety are fake news and amount to political witch hunts. Other Republicans in trouble have borrowed from this playbook. Jim Jordan, a right-wing Republican congressman from Ohio, says allegations that he covered up sexual abuse of athletes when he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State are politically inspired or fake news.
It’s not clear this will matter politically; it certainly won’t with core Trump supporters. Others may be inured by all the fake scandals — Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service or the accusations against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — drummed up by House Republicans.
The partisan charge is absurd. Consider what would happen if Republicans such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Ohio Governor John Kasich were in the White House. There is no chance that the likes of Pruitt, Flynn or Ross would be top officials or even hangers-on like Corey Lewandowski, Anthony Scaramucci or Omaraosa Manigault-Newman.
From the days of Watergate in the 1970s until the past few years, neither party could claim to be ethically superior. The vast majority of politicians were honest, but there were a few bad apples on both sides.
But as Norm Eisen, the ethics czar in the Obama White House who now heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, notes: “The tone at the top sets everything.”
Trump refused to release his tax returns, which every president since Gerald Ford has done. He also hasn’t put his financial holdings in a blind trust and his Washington hotel is a venue for foreign governments and domestic special interests to curry favor.
In this administration, transparency is a dirty word and lying is a way of life.
The president’s daughter, Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House aides, have also refused to divest their holdings and have innumerable conflicts. “Ivanka and Jared never should be in the White House in the first place,” Eisen said.
The Trump-dominated Republican Party, sometimes unfairly, is identified with race-baiting, frequent contempt for the rule of law and corruption. The corrosion is a reminder of the old proverb: “A fish rots from the head down.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.