President Donald Trump has lost more of his Cabinet secretaries to corruption and other ethics concerns in his first term than any other president in U.S. history. The departure of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta over the past sweetheart deal he gave pedophile hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein is just the latest incident.
With Acosta’s announced exit, the total number of ethics-related Cabinet-level departures in the Trump administration has reached five. This is an ignominious record for a president who claimed he would “drain the swamp” in Washington and eliminate corruption. The president has instead run one of the most corrupt administrations in American history with lax oversight, nepotism, self-dealing and the appointment of dozens of lobbyists to oversee the industries they previously worked for.
Other presidents have seen high profile departures from their Cabinets related to ethics concerns. Notably, President Ronald Reagan’s first director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Gorsuch (mother to Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch), left her position after being found in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over records about the misuse of Superfund money. James Watt, Reagan’s interior secretary, was pushed out after mocking diversity in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (He was later found guilty of lying in an investigation into his influence-peddling as a lobbyist.)
The five Cabinet secretaries who have left or are leaving the Trump administration under clouds of alleged corruption are former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Acosta.
Price was the first to go after Politico reported that he was using government funds to pay for private charter jets and misusing military planes for personal travel. He lasted only 231 days in office before Trump demanded his resignation in September 2017. An inspector general report found that Price had wasted $341,000 on private and military jets in contravention of government travel rules.
The next ethically challenged Cabinet official to depart was Shulkin, the Veterans Affairs secretary. Like Price, Shulkin violated government travel rules by lying about a European work trip that was actually a shopping and sightseeing adventure for him and his wife. An inspector general report found that Shulkin’s chief of staff falsified the purpose of the trip and that the agency improperly paid for the secretary’s wife to travel. It also revealed Shulkin to have improperly accepted tickets to Wimbledon and directed a staffer to essentially act as his concierge for the personal trip. Shulkin was dismissed by Trump in March 2018.
Pruitt was pushed out of the administration in July 2018 after 18 separate investigations were opened into his corruption and waste of government resources. There was the reduced priced townhouse room rental he received from a lobbyist connected to the oil and gas industry. He also spent excessively on first-class air travel, wasted money on luxury hotels and fancy restaurants, sought his own private jet and pressured aides to find his wife a lucrative job, among many other things.
It took until December 2018 for Zinke to leave his post as interior secretary amid 20 separate investigations into misconduct. Like the previous three ethically challenged Cabinet secretaries to depart, Zinke misused government funds for travel. He also flew from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana in a chartered jet owned by an oil company and engaged in shady real estate deals in his hometown of Whitefish.
Acosta departs under slightly different circumstances. Unlike the other four Cabinet members, who left amid investigations into their actions in office, Acosta came under fire for what he did in his past position as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida during the George W. Bush administration. In that role, he granted a sweetheart plea deal to Epstein. The hedge fund manager was allowed to plead guilty in 2008 to one count of soliciting a minor for prostitution instead of the far more numerous, far more serious charges in a 53-page federal indictment prepared against him. Additionally, Acota sealed the case and hid the deal from Epstein’s alleged victims. The latter move was recently determined to have been illegal.
It is still not clear why Epstein got off with such a light sentence. He was known to enjoy the company of powerful figures including Trump, former President Bill Clinton, the United Kingdom’s Prince Andrew, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz. (All have denied any wrongdoing related to Epstein’s alleged crimes.) And he was represented by influential lawyers including Dershowitz, former federal judge and U.S. solicitor general Ken Starr, and Kirkland & Ellis’ Jay Lefkowitz. While being vetted for the labor secretary post, Acosta reportedly told administration officials that he let Epstein off easy because he was told Epstein “belonged to intelligence.”
Epstein was arrested and charged with sex trafficking on July 6. A search of his Manhattan mansion reportedly revealed a trove of child pornography.
On top of these five Cabinet secretaries to depart under ethics clouds, there have been numerous proposed Trump appointments scuttled due to ethics controversies. Before Acosta became the labor secretary, Trump chose fast-food chain operator Andy Puzder for the job. But Puzder pulled his nomination amid accusations of labor violations, employment of undocumented immigrants and spousal abuse. Trump’s attempt to name White House physician Ronny Jackson to fill Shulkin’s position at Veterans Affairs ended after allegations of misconduct and mismanagement by Jackson emerged.
The replacements for the five ousted Cabinet members have their own problems. Four of them were previously lobbyists or corporate executives for the industries they now oversee. Acosta’s temporary replacement as acting labor secretary is Patrick Pizzella, a former lobbyist for overseas sweatshops.
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