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

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.

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