Nearly four years into President Trump’s tenure, it seems indisputable that he is the most corrupt president in American history. But with the near constant acts of corruption coming from the Trump administration, it is often hard to keep track or maintain perspective. CREW has not only exposed many of these offenses, but also provided vital legal analysis and research to pursue accountability for the president and his allies. Below is a brief summary of some of the most consequential categories and instances of corruption we have seen from this president and his administration.
Use of Government to Hold Onto Power
President Trump’s most egregious transgressions have come from his abuse of his office in order to maintain his grip on political power. This conduct, typified by Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, including by tying the demand for that announcement to an important diplomatic meeting and to essential military aid, led to Trump’s impeachment in the House and bipartisan repudiation in the Senate. Trump’s corrupt and destabilizing use of government power and authority to maintain power have escalated as he faces re-election in 2020, manifesting in numerous legal violations and scandals across the government, including misuse of the US Postal Service to undermine voting by mail and new concerns that Trump is pressuring the Food & Drug Administration to approve a COVID-19 vaccine before it’s ready in order to claim victory over the virus ahead of Election Day. These abuses include:
- Crimes Committed in Connection with Ukraine Abuses: In December 2019, CREW released a report documenting compelling evidence that President Trump likely committed several crimes in his Ukraine conduct for which ordinary Americans could be prosecuted and punished. CREW’s analysis found that those crimes include: Bribery (18 U.S.C. § 201); Soliciting foreign campaign contributions (52 U.S.C. §§ 30109, 30121); Coercion of political activity (18 U.S.C. § 610); Misappropriation of federal funds (18 U.S.C. § 641); and Obstruction of Congress (18 U.S.C. §§ 1505, 1512).
- Mounting Hatch Act Violations: The Office of Special Counsel has found at least 13 senior Trump aides to have violated the Hatch Act by using their official position for partisan politics, including 11 as a result of CREW complaints. In 2019, following multiple complaints by CREW, the Office of Special Counsel took the unprecedented step of recommending that Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway be removed from public service for egregious and repeated violation of the Hatch Act. As we get closer and closer to Election Day, the president and his staff have stepped up their mixing of official government functions with campaign-style events including during the Republican National Convention, which resulted in almost 20 Hatch Act violations and a formal complaint to the Office of Special Counsel. Trump has also abused government agencies like the National Park Service for its fireworks display during the RNC and its propaganda videos promoting Trump.
- Attacks on the Postal Service and Voting by Mail: For several years now, President Trump has trafficked in conspiracy theories about voting by mail and expressed fear that it would harm his electoral prospects. In June, Trump mega-donor Louis DeJoy was installed as postmaster general, and he immediately began taking steps to undermine voting by mail. CREW has been ahead of the curve in pointing out the risks of DeJoy’s political and financial conflicts of interest to the USPS and to voting by mail, including in the national media, congressional hearings, and by filing civil and criminal complaints as well as lawsuits to expose and oppose DeJoy’s corruption.
Using Government Office for Personal Financial Benefit
Among the hallmarks of the Trump presidency are his sheer indifference to the impropriety of his actions, particularly relating to his brand and businesses, and his clear interest in using the presidency for his own personal and financial benefit. He broke more than 40 years of precedent when he refused to divest from his assets upon taking office, and has been raking in personal profits from his hotels, golf courses, resorts, and various other ventures ever since. Rather than avoiding potential conflicts of interest between his public office and private businesses, Trump has instead doubled down, insisting on staying at his own hotels on official trips, hosting government events and special interest meetings on his properties, and even suggesting world leaders conduct their summit at his golf course. These abuses include:
- Emoluments Clause Violations: Even before Trump took office, CREW began its push for transparency about the government’s understanding of the unique constitutional emoluments violations created by Trump’s refusal to divest his business holdings. On January 22, 2017, CREW filed suit against Trump for violating the Constitution by illegally receiving payments from foreign and domestic governments, including through guests and events at his hotels, leases in his buildings, and eventually the federal government’s improper decision to let him maintain his lease of the Old Post Office for his DC hotel. DC and Maryland filed a separate suit against Trump on June 12, 2017 for foreign and domestic emoluments violations. While both cases were initially dismissed for lack of standing, CREW won its appeal in the Second Circuit in September 2019, and the court in 2020 refused to rehear the appeal en banc. DC and Maryland won an en banc appeal in the Fourth Circuit in May 2020. Trump has filed a petition of certiorari, and the cases may be heard by the Supreme Court.
- Conflicts of Interest: As of September 14, 2020, CREW has documented more than three thousand instances of Trump’s conflicts of interest since day one of his administration. These conflicts stem from his refusal to divest from his businesses when he took office, creating an unprecedented and ongoing stream of unethical behavior. There have been more than two thousand visits to Trump properties by government officials, most recently during the Republican National Convention where Trump Tower acted as de facto GOP headquarters. Countless special interest groups have hosted events at Trump hotels, possibly to buy their way to the president’s ear. Trump’s business deals abroad have also raised doubts time and time again about his interactions with foreign governments, such as when he visited two countries where he has business ties on his first overseas trip as president. It is impossible to overstate the problematic nature of these occurrences. Every time a government official visits a Trump resort, or when an event is held on Trump properties, or when foreign trademarks are granted to Trump brands, there exists a conflict between Trump’s duty to the American public and his own business and financial interests. Indeed, CREW has documented 24 government policies and actions under this administration that specifically appear to benefit the Trump businesses.
- Hosting the G-7 at His Own Resort: On October 17, 2019, the Trump administration officially announced its intention to hold the June 2020 G-7 Summit at the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort after first floating the idea in previous months. When confronted with Trump’s flagrant attempt to use the power of his office to benefit his struggling business, CREW sprang into action, requesting records and an inspector general investigation when reports of his conflict first became known. After the official announcement, CREW immediately sued the State Department and Department of Homeland Security for documents related to the decision to host the Summit at the Doral resort and hit hard in the press. After days of intense public outrage and bipartisan backlash, Trump reversed his stance on October 20. This rare and abrupt retraction from the Trump administration exemplifies the power of public opinion and mobilization in fighting to keep the government accountable and ethical.
Cronyism and Patronage
One of the most dangerous short-term and long-term impacts of President Trump’s corruption is the ethos of cronyism and patronage he has injected into the federal government. At every stage of the Trump presidency he has demanded loyalty or requested a pledge of loyalty from those who would seek to serve in the federal government. Not only has the president installed family members and other sycophants throughout his administration, but he has also attacked federal civil servants who would dare to express an opposing viewpoint. Many Trump loyalists, like mega-donor turned postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, and White House impeachment lawyer turned coronavirus stimulus Inspector General, Brian Miller, can remain in government whether Trump continues to serve as president or not. These abuses include:
- Nepotism and Other Ethics Abuses by Ivanka and Jared: On the same day that President Trump took the oath of office, the Department of Justice reversed decades-old precedent and approved Trump hiring his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner to work in the White House. Since they joined the White House staff, CREW has highlighted the myriad ethical questions around Ivanka Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s employment in the White House including her company acquiring numerous international trademarks and her participation in implementation of the Opportunity Zones program while Kushner held financial interests in a company benefiting from it.
- Coronavirus Response: Even the President’s response to a global pandemic was not immune from his nepotism and cronyism. Despite his lack of medical or scientific expertise, Kushner has led a “shadow” coronavirus task force with private-sector representatives, using nonpublic email accounts, which CREW exposed as a violation of the Federal Records Act. A company tied to Kushner was enlisted to build a government website directing Americans to virus testing sites — a now-scrapped project that potentially violated government ethics laws. Meanwhile, Trump allies won government funding for coronavirus relief with little oversight.
The Trump Rogues Gallery
It’s not just that President Trump is corrupt – it’s that so many of the people around him and hired to join his administration are corrupt as well. The laundry list of misconduct not only shocks the conscience, but undermines the functioning of and public confidence in the federal government.
- Criminals in the White House: The most obvious representatives of President Trump’s rogues gallery are the former campaign or administration officials who have been convicted of committing crimes. In total, eight Trump associates have been arrested or convicted of crimes. The most chilling and well-known are the officials who were also White House employees: Michael Flynn, the retired Army lieutenant general who served as Trump’s national security adviser for less than a month in 2017, and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the Trump transition, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White house chief strategist who was recently charged with defrauding supporters of a campaign to help build Trump’s border wall that Trump said Mexico was going to pay for.
- Corruption in the Cabinet: Donald Trump’s cabinet has emerged as perhaps the most ethically challenged in American history. CREW found that Interior Secretary Zinke racked up 18 investigations into his behavior including allegations of lavish spending and travel as well as whistleblower retaliation before he was forced to resign. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been the subject of numerous complaints of ethical misconduct, including allegations that he made false statements to OGE when he misrepresented he divested certain stock holdings before actually doing so and that he violated the STOCK Act and other insider trading laws by engaging in short sale transactions. CREW also filed a criminal complaint against Ross for possibly violating federal conflict of interest laws by participating in multiple meetings with companies tied to his financial interests. Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned abruptly after CREW and others exposed his inappropriate use of hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on unnecessary private jet travel.
Attacks on the Rule of Law
President Trump’s corruption has been assisted exponentially by his handpicked Attorney General Bill Barr’s willingness to protect Trump’s interests rather than the rule of law, turning the Department of Justice into Trump’s personal law firm at the taxpayers expense. By failing to investigate Trump or his cronies, the DOJ consistently erodes public trust in the institution.
- Bill Barr’s Department of Justice Since being sworn in as attorney general February 14, 2019, Barr has made numerous decisions that run counter to DOJ precedent and threaten the department’s ability to carry out fair and impartial justice. In several of these instances, Barr took deliberate actions to misconstrue information, sow discord among the American people, and punish elected and appointed officials whose actions posed a legal threat to the president and his allies. Barr’s involvement in the dispersal of peaceful protesters for racial justice from Lafayette Square using tear gas, crystallized Barr’s integral role in facilitating Trump’s racism and corruption. He has intervened in prosecutions and civil cases for the benefit of the president and fired a prominent U.S. Attorney who was investigating people close to the president. CREW has released a report and op-ed calling for the impeachment of Barr, outlining all of his abuses of power. A CREW petition demanding his resignation received over 100,000 signatures.
- Firing Comey and Potential Acts of Obstruction Even before appointing Barr to be the president’s personal protector, the Trump administration flouted the rule of law. Trump made statements consistently making clear his anger about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he apparently pressured Director Comey to end at least one piece of it. The statements suggest that Comey may have in fact been fired to bring about that result. CREW called for an investigation into the president’s potential obstruction of justice by firing Comey to impede the investigation. Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation uncovered evidence of multiple different instances of obstruction of justice by the president.
- Interference in DOJ Investigations After the Mueller investigation into Trump’s actions in the election and his decision to fire Director Comey, Barr declined to bring obstruction charges against Trump. CREW called for the DOJ to release an unredacted copy of the report. In addition, CREW filed a complaint against Barr for his public comments about U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the origins of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe strongly criticized the FBI and its employees. Barr’s statements have garnered public attention and appear to constitute direct violations of DOJ rules and the standards of ethical conduct to which all executive branch employees must adhere. Barr has stated that he personally intervenes in cases involving President Trump and his cronies, and his heavy-handed involvement to overturn career prosecutors to push for a lower sentence for the president’s friend Roger Stone and to push to dismiss charges against Michael Flynn, who had twice admitted in court to his crimes, twisted the justice system to benefit the president in unprecedented ways.
- Assault on Inspectors General: President Trump has always been hostile toward oversight and accountability, but his attacks on inspectors general have become both more frequent in 2020 including firing the State Department OIG investigating misconduct by Secretary of State Pompeo as well as the intelligence Community IG who reported the Ukraine whistleblower complaint to Congress. Since Trump took office, he has left numerous IG posts vacant for significant periods of time, fired two permanent IGs and removed three acting IGs by other means. In their places, he has nominated or installed at least six loyalists. Trump has also appointed four IGs in dual roles, in some cases creating possible conflicts of interest. In total, we have conservatively identified 25 actions by President Trump to undermine the IG community since he took the oath of office.
Other executive branch agencies have also been tainted by Trump’s controversial appointees because of their previous financial ties to the industries that they were selected to oversee. These agency heads, notably including Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry, Andrew Wheeler, and others, make up for their lack of experience and knowledge in their organizations’ issue areas with exhausting counts of shady industry ties. That list doesn’t include other nominees Trump attempted to install that failed to secure Senate confirmation because of their industry ties and potential conflicts of interest. Numerous lower level appointees have also worked to advance the industries for which they previously worked and in some cases run afoul of conflict of interest laws and rules.
- EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt: Prior to being appointed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt had an adversarial relationship with the EPA during his tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General. He had filed numerous lawsuits against the agency, had close ties with the fossil fuel and energy industries, and dedicated himself to combating federal environment regulations. In eight of Pruitt’s 14 suits against the EPA, industry giant Murray Energy was a co-plaintiff. Less than a month after meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, Pruitt announced he would deny a petition to ban Dow’s pesticide from being sprayed on food. He has also had extensive correspondence with Devon Energy when the two worked closely to lobby the Obama administration for looser environmental regulations. Pruitt also replaced researchers and experts from the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, instead packing the panel with industry representatives. Pruitt’s corruption does not end at industry influence. He also infamously lobbied Chick-fil-A on behalf of his wife, tried to purchase a mattress from a Trump hotel, and spent millions of taxpayer dollars on security, travel expenses, and a soundproof phone booth. Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, did little better in avoiding conflicts of interest and keeping industry influence out of the EPA. Wheeler, an industry lobbyist before joining the EPA, repeatedly worked on matters involving his former clients, including coal ash, affordable clean energy, and utility emissions regulations.
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry: Prior to being appointed secretary of energy, Rick Perry sat on the boards of major oil and gas companies owned by billionaire Kelcy Warren, who have given millions of dollars to support Perry’s political campaigns. Warren’s Energy Transfer Partners was also behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. Perry has also received more than $11 million from the oil and gas industries between 1998 and 2016. Perry rejoined the Energy Transfer board just months after leaving government. His ties with the energy industry are also personal: his son leads an oil and gas company, in which Perry was an investor before being tapped as Energy Secretary.
- NOAA Nominee Barry Myers: President Trump nominated Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather, a private weather forecasting company to be the administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”). In 2016, he reportedly earned more than $900,000 as the chief executive officer and held stock in the company worth up to $50 million. Myers stated in his ethics agreement that he would divest all his stock and vested stock options in AccuWeather, and that he would resign from his position with AccuWeather and its affiliates. However, Myers’ other family members would continue to own and run the company; their ties would not be severed. CREW sounded the alarm regarding the potential conflict of interest arising from his family’s ownership interest in the company and Myers ultimately withdrew his nomination after it stalled in the Senate.
Unprecedented Transparency Failures
In addition to its unrelenting corruption, The Trump administration has fought transparency at every step of the way. Some agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency went so far as to establish formal policies against creating records of meetings and agency decisions, so that they could operate in secret. CREW sued and forced EPA to reverse course, but President Trump has gone so far in stonewalling Congress that he sued a member of Congress and his staff to prevent the disclosure of information to the American public. Other highlights of Trump’s assault on transparency include:
- Failure to Disclose Tax Returns: In 2016, Donald Trump became the first major party nominee for president in 40 years to fail to release his tax returns for public inspection. As president, Trump has continued to take unprecedented steps to shield his taxes from disclosure. CREW has continued to push for the president as well as presidential primary candidates to disclose their tax returns. As CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder testified before Chairman John Lewis of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee: “There are a number of important things the public can learn from a president’s or vice president’s tax return. For example, the public could be concerned with whether the president, vice-president, or a candidate paid his or her fair share of taxes. If this seems like a far-fetched consideration, it’s worth recalling the recent blockbuster report that President Trump’s family appears to have engaged in an elaborate, decades-long scheme to minimize taxes.”
- Separating Children without Records to Reunite Them: As part of implementing President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen violated the Federal Records Act (FRA) by failing to create records linking immigrant children to their parents and failing to establish an adequate agency-wide records management program. DHS also falsely represented to the public its ability to track the thousands of parents and children harmed by its “Zero Tolerance” policy. CREW worked with immigration lawyers to sue DHS to stop this practice.
- Use of Private Email: Numerous senior Trump administration officials have used private email accounts and email servers, as well as communication apps that delete messages, to conduct government business. CREW sued the Trump administration for violating the Presidential Records Act and the Constitution’s requirement that the president “take care” that the laws be faithfully executed through the White House’s use of confidential messaging applications and other problematic practices including its destruction of the president’s tweets.