The swamp is in the eye of the beholder.
As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Now that he’s been elected and is embracing part of that very establishment, Democrats and many in the media are slamming him as a typical politician who abandoned a principle as soon as it suited him.
But when McClatchy checked in with several dozen voters in central Pennsylvania – one of the swing states that swung the White House to Trump – to see how they defined the swamp, most didn’t really care. Instead, they said it’s fine with them if he uses the expertise of a DC establishment of lobbyists, donors and special interests to to get his way – and their way.
“This is his thing. He is a successful businessman who hires people to get him . . . what he wants,” said Fred Harris, 42, who works at a gas station near Philipsburg, Pa. “If he has to use swamp people to make America great again, why not?”
Harris went to one of Trump’s rallies a few weeks before the election while visiting his brother in Johnstown, Pa., and says he joined the “Drain the swamp!” chants.
“Oh yeah, people loved it. ‘Drain the swamp’ and ‘Build the wall,’” he said. “But I’d rather he focus on building the wall.”
Most voters interviewed defined the swamp as either lobbyists or “establishment” career politicians in the nation’s capital, who they say line their pockets with special interest money with no benefit to them back home.
“These guys go around making promises and then when they get to Congress they’re just sucked into the whole corrupt system,” said Holly Mann, 61, a retired teacher who lives outside State College, Pa. “Into the swamp.”
But asked whether Trump should make his promise to pull the plug on the “swamp” a priority, she shrugged.
“I don’t think that should be the main thing on his mind right now,” she said. “Everyone down there is involved in the lobbying. It’s going to take a long time.”
Denise Jones, 54, in Port Matilda, Pa., agreed.
“He would never get anything done, would he?” she said. “This is real life, you can’t just play with the good guys. The important thing is he doesn’t need their money.”
A few voters compared the issue to reports that Trump may have paid no federal income tax for 18 years, according to portions of his 1995 tax returns that were leaked. Trump and his campaign responded that it showed the candidate’s business savvy in using the system for his advantage.
“Of course he’s going to take on smart people, doesn’t matter whether they’re lobbyists or not,” said John Walton, 29, a truck driver from Pittsburgh who was passing through Port Matilda, Pa. “They’re the ones who know how to run ----.”
Many – almost half – of central Pennsylvania voters interviewed were reluctant to give their names and expressed a deep distrust of the media, which they said isn’t giving Trump a chance to even get started.
“It’s been what, a few weeks? How do you know he isn’t going to drain the swamp? He is not even president yet, tell me how is he supposed to be doing that?” asked a woman who did not want to give her name to “the lying press” in Philipsburg.
“To be frank, it’s more important he gets things moving, like getting rid of Obamacare and fixing the schools, and jobs” said Anne Freeman, 34, a stay-at-home mother in State College, Pa. “I don’t much care how he does it. That’s up to him.”
Most Trump supporters interviewed talked about trusting Trump – not in the sense that he will follow through on draining the swap, but that he will find the smartest way to make government work for them. Many mentioned that he largely self-funded his campaign and is not beholden to special interests.
“If Hillary had won – and you know, she really is a swamp person – she would have had to pay back with favors all these interests that sent her money,” said Mark Ross, 57, in Unionville, Pa., who said he wasn’t a fan of Trump but liked what he said about “flushing out the scum” in Washington.
“Do I think it’s really gonna happen? Nah,” he laughed. “But better Trump’s swamp than Obama’s swamp. At least he’s gonna get us something.”
Democrats criticized Trump for filling his new team with establishment figures such as lobbyists and Wall Street bankers.
“Within days of your election, you have elevated a slew of Wall Street bankers, industry insiders, and special interest lobbyists to your transition team,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote in an open letter to Trump. “Even more are rumored to be named as potential Cabinet members.”
One of Trump’s first picks, for example, was Steven Mnuchin, a 17-year veteran of Goldman Sachs. Trump named Mnuchin to the transition team and on Wednesday nominated him to be secretary of the treasury.
The week after Trump’s victory, his running mate and Vice President-elect Mike Pence ordered that all lobbyists be removed from their transition team. Trump has also promised to impose a five-year lobbying ban on transition and administration officials and congressional term limits.
The whole concept of getting rid of lobbyists didn’t resonate much with young Trump voters, said Michael Straw, 22, a senior at Penn State who leads the school’s chapter of College Republicans, which did not endorse a candidate.
“I don’t see it for college students as being a high priority. I think most were looking a lot more at social issues, regardless of party,” he said.
“The whole thing with draining the swamp, with draining access, is that some people are saying get rid of lobbyists – so I say ‘OK, you want to get rid of the NRA?’” he said. “There is a role for lobbyists to play. Some people just don’t see that lobbyists are also protecting their interests. Even look at all the Super PACs supporting Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – that’s a lot of swamp right there.”