Columns » Ernest Dumas

Ethics upended


  • Evan Guest via Flickr

Every week, Donald Trump finds another way to upend conventional ethics in government and politics. Here's one that has been in the making since the campaign but is reaching maturity in the Russian investigation: He is turning the heroes of government scandals into the villains.

It is manifest in the president's denunciations of "leakers" (and the press) who ferret out corruption, deception and intrigue from government work and relay them to the American people. The country's current chief leaker, and thus villain, is former FBI Director James B. Comey, whom Trump suspects of leaking not only their White House conversations, but much of the evidence about Russian disruption of the presidential election. By Trump's lights, all of that stuff should be kept from the public, and the leakers should be punished.

You remember a few of our famous leakers: the miffed Wyoming oilman and two senators who outed Albert Fall in the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding administration; Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and the FBI leaker Mark Felt, known only as Deep Throat before he was outed in 2005 as the person who leaked evidence of President Nixon's Watergate corruption; Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon's secret history of the Vietnam War to The New York Times and exposed the Johnson and Nixon administrations' deception of the American public; Mehdi Hashemi, the Iranian cleric who was executed for sharing with a Lebanese newspaper and the world Iran's secret (and illegal under U.S. law) dealings with the Reagan administration to swap weapons for hostages and to fund rebels trying to overthrow Nicaragua's government. Trump was a big admirer of Nixon, though not so much of Reagan, who had raised his taxes.

All those whistleblowers should be lionized no longer but censured for giving away government secrets to unauthorized persons — the American people.

It began innocently last summer when Trump praised WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for leaking the hacked contents of Hillary Clinton's emails, then the Democratic National Committee's and finally the Clinton campaign chairman's. "WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks!" Trump tweeted on Oct. 10. It would turn out that the hackers were Russian Premier Vladimir Putin's cyberspies, whom Trump had publicly implored to hack and leak Clinton's emails.

But the hacking and leaking turned menacing when a British agent toiling first for Republican and then Democratic foes of Trump, and also droves of cyberspies at U.S. security agencies, including the CIA and FBI, all began spying on Russians and Trump campaign people to figure out if there were joint purposes in the Trump-Putin lovefest. When the British agent's sordid reports and the security agencies' evidence that the Russians were deeply involved in the election, including fruitless efforts to manipulate election machinery in several states, were leaked to members of Congress and the media, the equation changed. Leaking was sinister, perhaps illegal, and had to be stopped.

The news media — "the enemy of the American people" — were the chief culprits for reporting leaked information about the Russian investigation, which was supposed to be classified, and also for reporting on conjecture and infighting inside the Trump White House and between his staff and Cabinet agencies. He wanted people leaking the stuff prosecuted.

Trump was suffering what every president endures — reporters' search for what is going on when government is not obliged to supply it. Bill Clinton, like many before him, was beset weekly by aides tripping over each other to tell the press tales about White House confusion and despair. When George W. Bush was preparing to invade Iraq to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, an anonymous leaker at the CIA told a Washington Post reporter that neither the CIA nor any of the security agencies had a bit of evidence of WMDs. It ran on page 17. The media, including the Post, largely supported the war.

But Trump's hostility toward leakers goes further, toward government whistleblowers in general. Days before his inauguration, Trump's office sent word that he would fire the inspectors general in all government agencies. They wouldn't be needed.

The inspectors — independent investigators who ferret out waste, corruption and criminality in agencies — are generally hated by the bureaucracy. In 2015 alone, they identified $26 billion in potential savings and recovered another $10 billion for the taxpayers through civil and criminal work. Trump never carried through, but he's slashing their puny budgets and isn't replacing those who leave.

The other day he replaced the head of the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistleblower complaints throughout the government and had humiliated the Defense Department for its lapses in conduct, including the mistreatment of the corpses of slain soldiers. It's hard not to take all this as a green light for self-dealing and misconduct in government. It will not take long to find out.

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