Trump Corruption Index

What We Can Learn From the Most Corrupt Administration in American History

Some acts were criminal, others impeachable. But it’s important to remember the little things.

Last June, my editors tasked me with an interesting, if arduous, assignment — compile a weekly record of the graft and double-dealing of the Trump administration. The dishonesty had started on day one, so we were admittedly late to the game. (But GEN began in 2019, so cut us some slack!) By summer 2020, the corruption was everywhere; it was a part of everything and everyone. The idea was to create a weekly bulleted index aggregating all the stories and developments. We called it the “Trump Corruption Index.” And we never lacked for material.

Since then, the president has been impeached a second time for his role in inciting a riot at the U.S. Capitol, and he’s about to hand over the keys to the Oval Office to the same guy he tried to get Ukraine to smear in 2019 — a stunt that earned him his first impeachment.

It’s a fittingly chaotic end to what’s been an unbelievably tumultuous four years. It also makes me wonder if, when we look back on the Trump years, we’ll remember the more mundane acts of wrongdoing — the PPP loans that benefited the Trump Organization, the demotion of government scientists who tried to prevent the administration from meddling with data — or if we’ll remain fixated only on our 45th president’s most egregious actions. I hope it’s not the latter. As bad as Trump’s actions were on January 6, plenty of dishonesty and nepotism preceded them.

The corruption I monitored can fit into one of four broad categories: the democracy-killing grift, Nixonian grift, bureaucratic grift, and the family-first grift. Although the news items within the four categories may overlap slightly, their underlying effects remain, at least to my mind, distinct. Be sure to check out the full series for a more complete overview of all the White House’s chicanery.

The democracy-killing grift

The United States has never seen a president like Donald Trump after losing the general election to President-elect Joe Biden on November 3, 2020. Trump lied about the integrity of the voting process, filed bogus lawsuits, and falsely claimed the election was rigged — all despite the assurances of election administrators and secretaries of state that there was absolutely no foul play. And though it might seem like years ago, it was just earlier this month when Trump pressured Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to reverse the election outcome in his state, urging Raffensperger on a phone call to simply “find” the votes. (Of course, Trump didn’t act alone. Nearly 150 Republicans in Congress voted to overturn the election results.)

Historians will write volumes dedicated to understanding Trump’s recent actions, but we can’t forget the financial benefit Trump is reaping through all this pandemonium. At least half of every donation to Trump’s “election defense fund” will go toward paying off his campaign’s debts — and his own personal expenses.

Trump’s furor culminated with a “Save America“ rally in D.C. on January 6, where he warned supporters that they “will have an illegitimate president,” and that if they “don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” One insurrection and at least five deaths later, Trump was impeached by the House faces a second Senate impeachment trial.

The Nixonian grift

Bullying a lieutenant colonel in the Ukraine impeachment trial to the point that he decides to retire, pardoning Russia-linked felons like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, limiting the scope of the Russia investigation to exclude Trump’s personal and business ties to Russia — this is the stuff that calls to mind the presidential corruption of a Richard Nixon or Warren G. Harding.

In normal times, these scandals would maintain a grip over the public’s attention. But the sheer frequency of such moments in the Trump era lumped them into one giant amorphous mess of corrupt governing acts. The Guardian reported last week that the White House liaison to the Justice Department sought derogatory information about E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist who alleges she was raped by Trump in the mid-1990s. In other words, Trump was using the DOJ as his own personal law firm. There’s no shortage of politicians who have used their position of power to harass or extort their enemies. (Watergate, anyone?) But in most administrations, the Carroll story would be a career-defining scandal. In this news cycle, the Carroll story has already been buried.

The bureaucratic grift

This corruption is comparatively more in line with the worst of past administrations, but given the Trump White House’s far-right bent, it also could prove to be the most consequential. Because when the U.S. Geological Survey refuses to make public a government study that shows how oil and gas drilling in Alaska could invade polar bear habitat, environmentalists lose evidence in their bid to close off the land from oil and gas drilling. And when the Trump administration seizes thousands of acres from farmers and ranchers for the purpose of constructing a border wall, that land is probably gone for good. And when the president installs his buddy Louis DeJoy to head up the U.S. Postal Service, a position for which he was in no way qualified, you can expect it’ll be some time before the mail system is up and running. And when dozens of former lawyers for Trump’s Department of Homeland Security are appointed to immigration judgeships, migrants to this country are forced to have their cases decided by the very people who just spent years arguing to keep them out of the country.

Actions like these probably won’t be remembered in the public consciousness beyond the next few years. But they could go on shaping the country long after Trump has finally left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The family-first grift

Of all the types of swindles, this is probably the one that was most expected when Trump was sworn into office in January 2017. Nepotism in politics is nothing new. John F. Kennedy made his brother Robert attorney general, an appointment that actually led lawmakers to craft the 1967 anti-nepotism law. But whereas Robert had nearly 10 years of public service to his name before he was appointed to his position, the Trump kids were all as green to politics as the president himself. That didn’t stop Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, from spending the past four years as White House advisers. (Obama, Carter, and even Nixon declined to appoint their relatives to White House positions.) Nor did it stop Eric and Donald Trump Jr. from continuing their work at the Trump Organization, an arrangement that stands in stark contrast to all the presidents who relinquished control of their assets to blind trusts rather than to their family members.

By having family stationed in both the White House and the Trump Organization, the president has been able to land an unthinkable number of deals and windfalls from the government. Take the incredibly sweet deal the Kushner Companies got from government-backed lender Freddie Mac last year or the millions of dollars the U.S. government has paid to the Trump Organization to host dinners and secure rooms at the company’s hotels. Even worse, 60 high-worth individuals with special interests brought about $12 million to the Trump Organization during the first two years of Trump’s presidency; almost all of them saw their interests move forward. If the Trumps have taught us anything, it’s that politics is really about who you know.

Senior Editor, GEN by Medium. Previously: Pacific Standard, Wired

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store