Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump turned to the issue of corruption last week in an effort to jump-start his campaign against Hillary Clinton, pledging to “break the cycle of corruption,” labeling his opponent as “the most corrupt and dishonest person ever to seek the office of the presidency.” He even tossed out a heavy-handed “Hillary is so corrupt …” joke at the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York.
Yet corruption is unlikely to become the GOP nominee’s needed political lifesaver—and not just because his “joke” bombed so badly and drew so many boos at the dinner. More problematic for Trump’s ploy is that most Americans do not perceive President Obama or his administration to be corrupt.
With fewer than 100 days left in office, Obama seems mostly to have dodged the major scandals and ethical lapses that plagued every other president for the last century—even as the recently released third annual Chapman University Survey on American Fears showed that fear of corrupt government officials is at the top of the list this year. In all the major polls taken in the last two years, Obama has been no lower than the mid-50s in terms of voter assessments of his honesty and trustworthiness, with a significant partisan split.
That split is evident when anyone notes the relative lack of corruption scandals on the president’s watch, as New York Times columnist David Brooks did in February when he wrote of the president’s “basic integrity” and said the administration “has been remarkably scandal-free.” Conservatives erupted, with National Review accusing Brooks of being “deep in denial.” In 2015, Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, wrote in Breitbart News that Obama has presided over what is “arguably the most scandal-ridden presidency in American history.”
The list of scandals included the Benghazi terror attack, the “Fast and Furious” gun scandal, IRS treatment of conservative groups, Obamacare, patient treatment by the Veterans Administration, and Obama’s issuance of executive orders. Absent from the list are the usual staples of administration corruption: perp walks, indictments, convictions, trials, firings, and forced resignations. The only Cabinet officer forced out by this president was VA Secretary Eric Shinseki—and that was all about competence, not corruption.
“There hasn’t been anything that resembles what one would traditionally call a scandal,” said Bill Schneider, professor of public policy at George Mason University. “Broken campaign promises are not corruption; incompetence is not corruption.”
The ongoing troubles at the IRS have the most trappings of a scandal. Since the initial accusation that the agency put conservative groups under unfair extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status, there has been an FBI criminal probe, an inspector general investigation, two House Committee investigations, and three agency resignations. The president stated that there was “not a smidgen of corruption” at the IRS. But House Republicans are still pursuing the possible impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
Norman Eisen, Obama’s “ethics czar” for the first two years of the administration and the man who wrote the ethics executive order still in place, recalls how serious Obama was when he first put Eisen in charge of ethics even before the 2008 election and before the transition. He made it clear that he wanted to have tough standards and to shut “the revolving door” between the White House and the lobbying world, Eisen says.
“Looking back eight years and seeing what happened in the White House, I’d say they’ve pitched a no-hitter,” Eisen told National Journal. “I was just the starting pitcher … and now the closer is in—the president. Knock on wood, they are pitching a no-hitter and we are in the bottom of the ninth inning and we are down to the last couple of hitters.” Looking at Fitton’s list, he said, “Not one of those is an ethics scandal, a conflict-of-interest scandal, or an integrity scandal.” He called them “competence stumbles” that have been “weaponized in the partisan political environment, the adversarial environment on the Hill, the right-wing press, the toxic social-media vortex.”
He credits the ethics executive order signed on Obama’s first day in office for doing five things: setting a tone from the top that corruption would not be tolerated; “slamming shut the revolving door;” allowing constant updating of the rules to deal with new situations like the stimulus and bailout; imposing “very, very tough vetting” of appointees; and imposing more transparency, most notably putting the White House visitor logs on the internet for the first time.
“All five parts were sketched out when we sat down with the president-elect in the transition,” he said. The result, two terms later is, “This has been the most scandal-free administration in American history, I believe.” It is, he contended, “the signal accomplishment of his presidency.”
Eisen’s predecessor in the ethics role at the White House, Republican Richard Painter, also gives Obama high marks. “They’ve done pretty well,” said Painter, who was associate White House counsel for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007. “He has done more than any other president to promote ethics in government, even if the results will be very mixed until we address the campaign finance problem.”
Painter noted that the Bush White House also faced lists made by Democrats of scandals that really were policy disputes. “They were calling us the most corrupt. Even Hillary gave a speech saying that,” he said. “What’s happening is corruption is being used to address a whole range of different issues that have nothing to do with corruption.” He cited Benghazi and the Middle East as examples, saying the State Department should have prevented Amb. Chris Stevens from traveling to such a dangerous city and the administration should not have been so naïve about the Arab Spring. “But naiveté is not corruption,” he said. “These are all policy issues. That is not corruption.”
Painter said Obama’s executive order was “very effective in dealing with the revolving-door problem” and praised the president for barring Cabinet members from attending the Democratic National Convention. “The trend line is excellent on the revolving door. Obama has made it much better.”
To that, a loud dissent comes from Fitton and Judicial Watch. “The trend line is worse,” he said. “I call it the ‘Catch-me-if-you-can’ presidency in terms of abuses of office that don’t fit into the traditional definition of corruption involving self-dealing.” He added, “The way the White House has operated and the way the administration has approached governing has undermined the rule of law. Various allegations of corruption have gone uninvestigated. We’ve had in-your-face lying about major policy initiatives.”
The worst recent example, he said, was the handling of the FBI and Justice Department investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. He also cited recess appointments and executive orders on immigration. And he emphasized that he is targeting real corruption and not policy disputes. On Fast and Furious, for example, he said the corruption came after the program was made public, citing “all of the lies associated with it, the failure of the Justice Department to be forthright about what went on, … the lie that Congress was told for 11 months that there was nothing here.”
Fitton also accused the administration of “the complete undermining” of the Freedom of Information Act and for granting too many waivers to the ethics executive order. Eisen later defended the waivers, saying, “You can’t have tough rules without making exceptions when they’re merited, and we did that in a balanced way.”
In the end, said Eisen, “The president told me that he wanted to have a scandal-free White House, and I think he has achieved that.”