Alternative Fact of the Week: Truth is swampier than fiction

Our view: This week’s most scandalous admission took place when Mick Mulvaney told the truth

As dedicated as the Trump administration may be to prevarication — various national media outlets have President Donald Trump producing lies at a five- or six-lies-a-day clip his first full year in office — there are moments when the truth emerges with dazzling clarity. That’s why our regular chronicling of alternative facts must this week cede to an astonishing act of actual fact-telling by a member of the administration. None other than Office of Management and Budget head Mick Mulvaney revealed to an august group of bankers that all that nonsense about “draining the swamp” was pure poppycock — it’s still a mighty swampy “pay-to-play” game.

In his speech to the American Bankers Association on Tuesday, Mr. Mulvaney warned its members of the way Washington works from the prospective of a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives: “We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” he told the group, according to The New York Times. “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” He added that he also found time to talk to constituents regardless of their contributions.

Now, Mr. Mulvaney wasn’t just reminiscing about the good old days when he essentially took bribes. He was reaching out to the bankers to explain the best strategies for undermining the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency that he despises but of which he is interim director. Readers may recall that the CFPB sprang up in 2010 as part of the post-housing crisis Wall Street reforms. Its purpose is to protect consumers from getting ripped off in their mortgages, credit cards and other financial service products. How can bankers fight it? Well, they can make a lot of campaign contributions to members of Congress and lobby them directly or support AstroTurf campaigns that prompt constituents to complain to their representatives.

Bad enough that Mr. Mulvaney is out there trying to undermine a federal regulatory agency with the mission of protecting regular folk from unscrupulous operators, but he’s also confirming Americans’ worst fears of how things work in Washington. Lobbyists with nothing more than a compelling point of view did not get admission to the Mulvaney inner sanctum. They had better either come up with big bucks or voters from his district. Facts don’t matter in such a world; political self-interest is king.

We don’t doubt there are a lot of members of Congress who operate the same way, but how many are willing to be so blunt about it? Surely, most would be too embarrassed, or at least cautious, to state it so matter-of-factly. Not the guy in charge of the nation’s consumer financial services watchdog. No, sir. The notion that government works for the highest bidder is so routine to Mr. Mulvaney that he felt no obligation to hem or haw, look at the floor or clear his throat, not even a little bit.

From the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has been talking about the need to “drain the swamp” in Washington. At one time, it seemed to mean that the candidate was in favor of ethics and lobbying reforms. He spoke out against a process “rigged by donors.” He claimed to be incorruptible because he was so rich. (Which of those was an alternative fact? The former? The latter? Both?) But as president, the meaning seems to have shifted. The “swamp” is simply anything that President Trump perceives as opposition to his personal interests from reporters to bureaucrats, protesters or simply members of Congress who vote against his policies. Reducing regulations? That’s draining the swamp. Using House Republicans to undermine the work of the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the last election? That’s draining the swamp, too.

Under the original meaning, Mr. Mulvaney’s comments would seem to justify his stepping down (as Sen. Sherrod Brown, the ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, has already called on him to do). But we suspect the whole thing will be forgotten by tomorrow. Not because it isn’t scandalous to most Americans that major campaign donors get preferential treatment or that a bunch of bankers are getting lectured about how to take advantage of that but because to most people in Washington, it’s only scandalous that it was said out loud. Sometimes, the Trump administration’s “alternative reality” is all the more frightening because it’s all too true.

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