There was a point shortly after Donald Trump's election victory in which Republicans came up with an amazing new argument in support of the new president: his wealth, and that of his cabinet picks, was effectively an immunization against corruption.
As regular readers may recall, CNBC's Larry Kudlow, an adviser to Donald Trump's team for months, wrote a piece celebrating the Republican's presidential transition, and touting the wealthy people who would serve in top administration posts. "Why shouldn't the president surround himself with successful people?" Kudlow wrote. "Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption."
After the inauguration, then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) made the same argument to defend his indifference to White House controversies. Asked about the president cashing in on his office, the Utah Republican replied, "He's already rich. He's very rich. I don't think that he ran for this office to line his pockets even more."
The arguments were laughable at the time, but they seem quite a bit worse now.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has flown on military aircraft seven times since March at a cost of more than $800,000, including a $15,000 round-trip flight to New York to meet with President Trump at Trump Tower, according to the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General.The inquiry into Mr. Mnuchin's air travel, prompted by an Instagram posting by his wife, found he broke no laws in his use of military aircraft but lamented the loose justification provided for such costly flights.
The New York Times' report noted one flight Mnuchin took to Miami in June to meet with a Mexican official, at a cost of $43,725.50. The Treasury Department apparently sent a note to the cabinet secretary's assistant, explaining that there was "a round-trip commercial flight would cost just $688."
I think it was the agency's way of saying, "Hint, hint."
The problem obviously extends well beyond the wealthy Treasury secretary. The controversy surrounding Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's travel is starting to look worse. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao's travel is starting to draw new scrutiny. The same is true of Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
I imagine some of Trump World's defenders will make the case that this entire line of inquiry shouldn't necessarily be seen as "corruption," since no one has been accused of pilfering the treasury and lining their own pockets. But when powerful officials take advantage of their positions, and use public resources for the sake of their own luxury and convenience when there are more cost-effective options, there's a problem.
The extreme wealth of the president and many of his cabinet members hasn't made a positive difference.