Trump's Cabinet of Con Artists

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Trump speaks during a meeting with members of his cabinet on July 18, 2018.

During the 2016 campaign, and from time to time afterward, Donald Trump would regale his crowds with a dramatic reading of a song called "The Snake," in which a snake begs a woman to take him into her home, and then when he bites her and she expresses her shock, he says, "You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in." In Trump's telling, it was a parable about immigration—that foreigners were inherently untrustworthy and if we let them come to our country they might just kill us. But at times he almost seemed to be talking, with a wink, about himself. The country knew who he was, and made him president anyway.

That may explain Trump's unusual ability to survive scandals that would have destroyed other politicians (along with the fact that there are so many of them that it can be hard to focus on any one for long). Think about Trump's various misdeeds. Were there any that were actually surprising? That revealed something about him you didn't already know? When you heard Trump on tape bragging that he could sexually assault women with impunity, you didn't say, "I never thought I'd hear such a thing from someone who respects women as much as Donald Trump!" After all, he had said on the radio that when he owned the Miss USA pageant, he liked to pop into the contestants' dressing room so he could watch them undress, and nobody would say anything because he owned the pageant. ("You know, they're standing there with no clothes. 'Is everybody OK?' And you see these incredible-looking women, and so, I sort of get away with things like that.") When former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman charges in a tell-all book that there are tapes of Trump using the N-word, it may or may not be true, but nobody finds it implausible, since Trump is an obvious racist.

The lesson of "The Snake" was obviously lost on the White House when it came to hiring Omarosa, who got famous for being a particularly ruthless and conniving cast member on The Apprentice. How on earth did they not know, the moment they hired her, that one day she would write a tell-all book? They apparently believed they could buy her silence with a non-disclosure agreement, as Trump has with other women; she says she was offered $15,000 a month to keep her mouth shut, and she turned it down.

Perhaps they should have come up with more money. But to return to Trump: We're getting exactly what we knew we would with his presidency. During the 2016 Republican primaries, Marco Rubio warned that the GOP was about to "turn over the party to a con artist," and while Trump replied with a predictable volley of insults, no one could dispute the point. Trump had run a series of grifts on unsuspecting marks, from Trump University (a real-estate scam) to the Trump Network (a pyramid scheme) to the Trump Institute (in which people paid thousands of dollars to hear lectures on "wealth-creating secrets and strategies" supposedly endorsed by Trump).

Everyone knew Trump was a con man. So when he took office, no one was surprised that he'd try to monetize the presidency for his personal gain. Nor could you really be shocked to learn that so many people around Trump seem to be thieves and grifters themselves. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is alleged to have stolen as much as $120 million from various business partners. ProPublica recently reported that Kris Kobach, the vote-suppression guru Trump chose to head his committee on voter "fraud," ran a scam on small towns in which he'd convince them to pass draconian anti-immigrant ordinances, then get them to hire him to defend them in the inevitable litigation. Many of them wound up being crippled by legal costs while Kobach walked away with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

Likewise, when we watch the trial of Paul Manafort, with its dramatic charges of tax fraud and money laundering, no one is surprised that Trump would have chosen such a person to lead his campaign. These are the kind of people Trump attracts, and to whom he is attracted. What may surprise some, however, is that Trump and his aides are trying to make America safer for grifters and scammers of all kinds.

Take, for instance, the assault on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, now led by Mick Mulvaney, who is also the White House budget director. Republicans have always hated the CFPB, which was originally Elizabeth Warren's idea and was signed into law by Barack Obama as part of post-crash financial reforms. But in their zeal to destroy it, the Trump administration is going to some rather extraordinary lengths, as The New York Times reports:

The Trump administration is planning to suspend routine examinations of lenders for violations of the Military Lending Act, which was devised to protect military service members and their families from financial fraud, predatory loans and credit card gouging, according to internal agency documents.

Go ahead and read that again: The party that loudly professes its love for our troops wants to make it easier to run financial scams on service members. They've often been targets in the past, because many of them are young people right out of high school with little financial literacy, earning a paycheck for the first time.

That's not the only scam run on people who serve in uniform that the Trump administration wants to make easier. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been working hard to roll back Obama administration regulations on for-profit colleges, which targeted veterans with particular energy after Congress passed a new G.I. Bill in 2008, promising them training for lucrative careers if they sent along their government benefits. They did, to the tune of billions of dollars, and in many cases got worthless paper degrees in return. Here's the latest:

Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is rolling back another Obama-era regulation that was meant to protect students from abusive practices by for-profit schools and colleges.

On Friday, DeVos said she plans to fully repeal a rule that targeted schools that failed to prepare students for "gainful employment."

That's after announcing another rule change that would make it harder for students to get debt relief if they've been defrauded.

Come 2020, Democrats are going to go to all those working-class white voters and try to convince them that they got conned by Donald Trump. He gave a huge tax cut to corporations, slashed regulations protecting workers and the environment, reduced oversight of Wall Street banks, and generally did everything he could to enhance the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful, all while claiming to be the tribune of the common man.

So when they hear all that laid out, will they admit they were the victims of a scam, no less than those who got taken in by Trump University? I wish I could say I'm sure they will. But that would mean acknowledging that they didn't see what was right before their eyes. And that's something no one likes to admit.

You may also like