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'Drain The Swamp'? Hardly. Washington Appears More Stuck In The Muck Than Ever

Nov 15, 2017
Originally published on November 15, 2017 4:34 pm

Washington used to operate one scandal at a time.

Not anymore. Here are just some of the scandals currently brewing:

  • The indictment of President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates, in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.
  • A guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a foreign-policy adviser on the campaign. He admitted that he lied to Mueller's investigators about his efforts to connect with Russian government officials.
  • Fatal damage to the Podesta Group, one of Washington's top lobby firms, which appears, unnamed, in the Manafort-Gates indictment. Democratic lobbyist and fundraiser Tony Podesta — who co-founded the firm 29 years ago with his brother, Democratic strategist John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman — announced he was leaving hours after the indictment became public.
  • The first criminal corruption trial in nearly a decade against a U.S. senator, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is now awaiting a jury's verdict.

Amid Capitol Hill's frenetic pursuit of campaign money, a moment of candor by Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who said of the tax overhaul bill, "My donors are basically saying, 'Get it done or don't ever call me again.' "

It's all a far cry from Trump's days on the campaign trail, when he regularly vowed to clean things up.

"If I am elected president, we are going to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.," Trump said at a campaign event in Chesapeake, Va., last October.

Actually, the swamp is still pretty swampy.

And some denizens say it's getting worse.

People seem to think that "anything goes, and that it's dumb to follow the rules," longtime lobbyist Nick Allard told NPR.

Allard, now the dean of Brooklyn Law School, called the D.C. ethical climate "worse than any I've experienced in my three, almost four decades working in this field. People who are complying by the rules are competing for results against those that are cutting corners."

The indictment of Manafort and Gates spotlights one small slice of modern Washington. Among the charges, they are accused of failing to disclose lobbying activities for foreign clients, a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

The indictment says Manafort and Gates did political consulting work, and then Washington lobbying, for Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych, his political party and, ultimately, the Ukrainian government when Yanukovych became president.

The indictment says they expanded the effort by hiring the Podesta Group and another lobby firm to work for the Ukrainian clients through a nonprofit in Belgium.

It was "a multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign," according to the indictment.

But none of the lobbyists – not Manafort, Gates, Podesta or employees of the other lobby firm – registered under FARA. Instead, there was a spate of retroactive registrations earlier this year.

The law requires substantial disclosures, even detailed lists of lawmakers and staffers contacted by the lobbyists, and violating FARA is a felony. But enforcement is rare. Before Manafort and Gates were indicted, the Justice Department had brought felony charges just seven times in the past half-century.

"The question that arises out of the Manafort situation is, is the period of complacency coming to an end?" said law professor Steve Vladeck, co-author of the Just Security blog. "Or is this just a special case brought by a special counsel."

The day after Manafort and Gates were indicted, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced a bill to make FARA more stringent, more far-reaching and easier to enforce.

The Mueller investigation "just kind of puts a gray cloud around the whole lobbying-special interest community in D.C.," said David Rehr, a lobbyist-turned-professor at George Mason University law school. "It doesn't drain the swamp. But I think now people are just more nervous, and they're actually seeing a prosecutor going after someone."

Still, law enforcement would be just one step in a swamp-draining effort. Meredith McGehee, a veteran lobbyist on political reform issues, said Washington isn't working right.

"We have dysfunction in Congress; we have dysfunction, I think, in the presidency; and we have dysfunction in the lobbying community," she told NPR. "But that's because the system, as we currently have it structured, rewards dysfunction."

She said the way Americans can change that rewards system is to get engaged with politics.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ELISE HU, HOST:

It's been a year now since Donald Trump's battle cry, drain the swamp, helped carry him into the presidency. But if swamp draining is about reducing the number of Washington scandals, that's not happening. In fact, the nation's capital seems stuck even deeper in the muck now. NPR's Peter Overby explains.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Washington used to operate one scandal at a time - not anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mr. Manafort, did you commit a crime?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Any reaction, Mr. Manafort?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Good morning.

OVERBY: That was the scene when Paul Manafort arrived at the FBI field office in Washington. He was President Trump's campaign chairman for several months last year. Special counsel Robert Mueller charged Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates with money laundering and violating one of the lobby disclosure laws.

Hours later, Tony Podesta, a leading democratic lobbyist who had worked with them, announced he was leaving his firm. This is just one of the scandals brewing simultaneously, all part of a reward system that includes the lobbying community, Congress and the White House. It's a far cry from Trump's campaign speeches last fall.

(SOUNDBITE ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If I'm elected president, we are going to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.

(CHEERING)

OVERBY: Actually, the swamp is still pretty swampy. House members compete for committee chairmanships based on how much money they raise for their party committees, money that often comes from the lobbying clients who spend millions in Washington. A jury is weighing bribery charges against Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, the first senator in almost a decade to face a criminal trial. And the Trump White House continues to battle ethics issues, conflict of interest questions for Trump and some of his cabinet secretaries plus the Russia investigation headed by Mueller. Washington's ethics code seems to be this.

NICK ALLARD: Anything goes and that it's dumb to follow the rules.

OVERBY: This is Nick Allard, a longtime lobbyist, now dean of Brooklyn Law School. His assessment of the ethical climate in D.C...

ALLARD: Worse than any I've experienced in my three, almost four decades working in this field. People who are complying by the rules are competing for results against those that are cutting corners.

OVERBY: The case against Manafort and Gates targets their lobbying for a Ukrainian politician. They allegedly failed to disclose that lobbying under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Law professor Steve Vladeck is a co-author of the Just Security blog.

STEVE VLADECK: The real question that arises out of the Manafort situation is, you know, is the period of complacency coming to an end, or is this just a special case brought by a special council?

OVERBY: Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa republican, has recently introduced a bill to make FARA much tougher. That would accomplish a bit of swamp draining. It's possible Mueller's investigation could lead to even more. David Rehr was a young lobbyist in the 1990s when he helped Newt Gingrich's Republicans win control of the House. Now he's a law professor at George Mason University. He said of the Mueller probe...

DAVID REHR: It just kind of puts a gray cloud around the whole lobbying, special interest community in D.C. You know, it doesn't drain the swamp, but I think now people are just more nervous, and they're actually seeing a prosecutor going after someone.

OVERBY: But still, law enforcement by itself doesn't produce a long-term solution for the dysfunction in Washington. Meredith McGehee has been lobbying on political reform issues since the '90s.

MEREDITH MCGEHEE: The system as we currently have it structured rewards that dysfunction.

OVERBY: McGehee said that if Americans want to change that reward system, they have to get engaged with politics. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.