Before assuming the leadership of the US Department of Defense for the second time, in January 2001, Donald Rumsfeld made a controversial revelation. He admitted he had “a large number of investments and activities” that would be defined as conflicts of interest if they were maintained while working for the White House.
For more than two decades, Rumsfeld immersed himself in private corporate affairs in areas sensitive to the US government, shortly after being head of the Pentagon under Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977.
On the eve of taking over the post under George W. Bush, Rumsfeld had amassed a fortune valued at $ 210 million – the salary of a senior secretary now stands at $ 221,400 a year – and was forced to relinquish a portfolio of funds and partnerships to return to the public sector.
Rumsfeld, who died last week at the age of 88, from multiple myeloma, reflects the phenomenon known as the revolving door, when people alternate between public and private positions. Historically common in the United States, the practice is not considered illegal, but it has compromised American governance by superimposing personal and corporate interests on national challenges, in both the Democratic and Republican administrations.
Like all officials subject to the White House, Rumsfeld had to abide by the rules of the Government’s Ethics Committee, and before his second inauguration as secretary, he struck a deal with the board of directors which set him a timetable for retiring from the business. related investments they could do business with the government. Almost half of the money he had accumulated working in the private sector was tied to companies investing in health, energy, the internet and biotechnology.
Rumsfeld was responsible for commanding US strategies during the Cold War and, decades later, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In his second phase of tenure, he surrounded himself with people who, like him, had worked in the private sector and saw his management gain the limelight also for one of the most iconic revolving door cases in the United States. .
The protagonist at the time was Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s political godson and then Bush’s deputy. Chief architect of the Iraq war, Cheney was president and chief executive officer of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000, less than a year before becoming vice president.
The Halliburton oil company had clear interests in the Middle East, and one of its subsidiaries, KBR (Kellog Brown and Root), alone benefited from around $ 40 billion in contracts with the US government during the conflict. in Iraq, which cost 700 billion dollars and 4,400 lives.
Prior to being an MP and one of the greatest defenders of war, Cheney was an MP and worked in the White House under Ford and Richard Nixon. When hiring people who have climbed the upper echelons of the American establishment, companies want experience in formulating public policy and, more than that, benefit from the contacts they have and the ability to be still served in government.
The revolving door movement gained ground thanks to the administration of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and the culture instituted by Republicans that what is good for business is good for the country. This thinking has led many officials to act guided by the demands of the private sector and has spurred the creation of projects such as the RDP (Revolving Door Project) in Washington, which supports executive candidates to ensure they use the position. in the service of the public interest.
RDP research director Max Moran says the revolving door turns the government into “some kind of giant club.” “You’re either in the club, enjoying immensely with rules designed to your advantage, or you’re out of it, and in this case, under a government that at best does not meet your needs, or at worst. , hurts you. It is fatal for a country that wants to proclaim itself a democracy.
Moran explains that one of the reasons the revolving door has some legitimacy is the fanciful idea that hiring contractors as regulators or in other key positions is a positive thing. In fact, experience shows that most of them only create rules to favor the sectors for which they have worked. This is why, in a country where lobbying is legal and where the culture of war and the military-industrial complex are so predominant, the security and defense sector – which includes the Rumsfeld Pentagon – has become the greater recurrence of the revolving door.
“This sector depends directly on military spending to stay afloat, so it has a more direct incentive to play the system in its favor, including post appointments,” Moran said.
In recent history, the most glaring examples of revolving doors have advanced under Donald Trump, who was openly in favor of a rapprochement between the public and private sectors. He appointed as secretary of the treasury, for example, Steven Mnuchin, who was a Wall Street fund manager and always acted on behalf of large corporations. Andrew Wheeler was a lobbyist for the coal industry and became the director of the Trump Environmental Protection Agency, while Betsy DeVos, whose family is linked to the student loan industry, was the Republican Education Secretary.
On the Democratic side, the word is louder than the practice. Although he promised at least to reduce the influence of lobbyists in the White House, Barack Obama hired dozens of them during his two terms. Joe Biden, meanwhile, is the US president who has used revolving doors the least since Reagan, but he still has ex-lobbyists and ex-businessmen in key positions like Secretaries of State and defense, like the issue of purging practice. in the countryside.