The Washington DC “swamp” — the colloquial reference to the web of political corruption and influence peddling in the culture of the federal government — was used as a campaign prop by President Trump during the run-up to his election after he famously promised to drain it.
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Instead, under the Trump administration, the swamp has grown bigger and more fetid, and for once, climate change is not the culprit.
With charges of corruption and/or gross incompetence lodged against the largest number of cabinet members in recent history — leading to the premature departure of multiple former department secretaries including Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, David Shulkin, and Ryan Zinke and ethics investigations of Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson, and Betsy DeVos — the president’s claim of hiring “only the best people” has become a running joke for late night comedians.
The latest Trump cabinet secretary to be caught up in an ethics scandal is the head of the Transportation Department, Elaine Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
A new series of allegations, reported by Politico, detail how Chao has helped her husband with his re-election campaign by funneling funds to his favored projects in Kentucky —allowing McConnell to point to the money his office-holding has brought to his home state in his bid for another term.
Working outside of normal departmental procedure, Secretary Chao appointed a special liaison to work on grant applications and any other priorities that affected Kentucky, work that helped the state receive at least $78 million for McConnell’s pet projects. No other state received similar assistance or privileges.
The liaison, Chao aide Todd Inman, was personally asked by the secretary to serve as an intermediary with McConnell’s Senate office and, according to Politico, “helped advise the senator and local Kentucky officials on grants with special significance for McConnell — including a highway-improvement project in a McConnell political stronghold that had been twice rejected for previous grant applications.”
A local Kentucky official, Al Mattingly, the chief executive of Daviess County, explained to Politico how the special assistance worked.
“Todd probably smoothed the way, I mean, you know, used his influence,” Mattingly said. “Everybody says that projects stand on their own merit, right? So if I’ve got 10 projects, and they’re all equal, where do you go to break the tie?”
“Well, let’s put it this way: I only have her ear an hour when I go to visit her once a year,” he added of Chao and Inman, a longtime Bluegrass State operative who had worked as McConnell’s advance man. “With a local guy, he has her ear 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You tell me.”
The favoritism displayed towards projects in the state her husband represents in Congress concerns ethicists.
“Where a Cabinet secretary is doing things that are going to help her husband get reelected, that starts to rise to the level of feeling more like corruption to the average American. … I do think there are people who will see that as sort of ‘swamp behavior,’” said John Hudak, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied political influence in federal grant-making.
McConnell did nothing to dispell accusations of corruption when he bragged about expediting a highway grant in Owensboro, Kentucky in a meeting with local business leaders and politicians shortly after he launched his re-election bid.
“’How about that $11 million BUILD grant?’ McConnell asked the crowd rhetorically, according to the Owensboro Times. He then recalled his role in securing earlier grants to the city, adding, ‘It’s done a lot to transform Owensboro, and I was really happy to have played a role in that,’” Politico writes.
McConnell, for his part, is unrepentant despite the stench of corruption surrounding the assistance his wife has provided to his political prospects.
“All 100 senators may have one vote,” McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader last year, “but they’re not all equal. Kentucky benefits from having one of its own setting the agenda for the country.”
With Secretary Chao also under scrutiny over how her position affects her own family’s shipping business, a company with close ties to China, the question of whether she will soon join the ranks of former Trump administration cabinet secretaries resigning in disgrace remains undecided for now.
As for Majority Leader McConnell, with his poll numbers in Kentucky at record lows despite his ability to bring home the bacon, he faces an uphill battle for re-election next year. The latest news of his swamp-dwelling behavior will only make his battle tougher.
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Original reporting by Tucker Doherty and Tanya Snyder at Politico.