Milbank: Playing Trump’s ethical blame game
Here we go, down the rabbit hole.
Donald Trump won the presidency by feeding Americans a diet of falsehoods and fake news, and, when challenged, he lashed out: shouting down the opposition, bullying the accuser and, particularly, blaming the media.
It was inevitable that his success would bring imitators. Now they have arrived, and they’re breeding like, well ...
Consider Duncan Hunter, a young Republican from California, co-chairman of the Trump caucus in the House and one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump. This week he disclosed that he used $600 worth of campaign funds to take his children’s pet bunny on a commercial airplane.
Using campaign funds for personal expenses is illegal, and this “mistake” is the latest personal expense for which Hunter, under scrutiny, has reimbursed his campaign account $62,000. Among his reported campaign expenditures: $1,400 to a dentist, $1,400 for his children’s private-school lunch deliveries, $1,650 for their tuition, $961 at SeaWorld, $434 to Dick’s Sporting Goods, $229 at Disneyland, $217 to an Italian jewelry store, $361 to a surf shop, $1,200 for a garage door, $2,892 to an Arizona resort, $2,000 for a Thanksgiving trip to Italy and $1,302 worth of video games.
Similar abuses of campaign funds landed former representative Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., in prison and prompted the resignation of Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J. The Federal Election Commission and the House ethics committee (acting on findings of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which House Republicans this week attempted to eliminate) are examining Hunter’s spending.
But Hunter has taken a Trumpian approach: He’s blaming his woes on his local paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has been diligently reporting on the abuses. He blames the “liberal agenda” of the paper because it endorsed Hillary Clinton; he neglected to note that it also endorsed the extravagantly partisan Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
“In a speech right now, the President-elect is ripping the news media, calling them the ‘most dishonest people in the world.’ That certainly goes for our ... Union-Tribune,” Hunter posted on Facebook last month. “And now it seems the UT is on a regular crusade against me — but like the president-elect says, who cares . . . it doesn’t matter. They deserve to know how irrelevant they’re becoming and how they’re viewed. Not only do I like what the President-elect is saying, I like even more how folks are responding.”
His chief of staff, Joe Kasper, followed that with a post saying that “the president-elect is right calling into question the dishonesty of the media” and that the newspaper doesn’t “give a hoot about the facts/truth.” Hunter posted again, about a “BS story” on him in the Union-Tribune, and he said the paper “suggested I’m under investigation when I’m not.” (The House Ethics Committee last month extended its review of Hunter.)
I asked Kasper for examples of the newspaper’s factual errors. His beef wasn’t really about the substance of the allegations; he argued that the problems were innocent mistakes in Hunter’s bookkeeping. A Hawaiian resort expense came from a canceled fundraiser, he said; the Italian trip was for “an arrangement with the military overseas” that was canceled; the Italian jewelry purchase was mistakenly filed as “food and beverage”; video games were purchased by Hunter’s son accidentally because both the personal and campaign credit cards were the color blue.
“Most certainly — there was bad oversight and bookkeeping over that year and a half,” Kasper wrote in an email. “But again, his decision was to repay in excess in an absolute abundance of caution.”
It will be up to the authorities to decide whether Hunter broke laws. While they generally forgive a mistake or two, “should you have a larger pattern and practice of that it doesn’t look like a mistake,” said Melanie Sloan, founder and former head of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
More troubling is Hunter’s blaming of others — his son for the video games, his wife (who doubled as his campaign treasurer) for mishandling credit cards, and, especially, the local paper for doing exactly what it should. After the FEC in April flagged Hunter’s video-game and tuition expenses, Morgan Cook, a young reporter for the Union-Tribune, tirelessly investigated Hunter’s dubious expenditures.
Hunter, who succeeded his dad in office, this week supported the failed effort by House Republicans to deny the Office of Congressional Ethics authority to report publicly on members’ ethics violations; the office is expected soon to release its report on Hunter.
Even as that failed, Republicans revised House rules to shield lawmakers’ spending records from federal investigators. The change comes after Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., resigned amid probes into his spending of campaign and office funds. The rules change gives members of Congress power to resist investigations into embezzlement and misuse of campaign money.
That change helps lawmakers to do whatever they want. To hell with the whistleblowers, the media — and the law.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.