[This post first appeared on Bill Moyers & Company on April 21, 2017.]
100 Days of Deconstruction – Part 3
Trump promised to be a transformational leader. It wasn’t an idle threat. He has assembled an unprecedented governmental wrecking crew. This is the third installment on Trump’s unique combination of kleptocracy and kakistocracy that is reshaping America in ways that most of voters won’t like.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Don’t let the symbolic American missile strike on a Syrian airfield, dropping the “Mother of All Bombs” on tunnels in Afghanistan, or threats directed at North Korea distract from a central fact: Trump is Putin’s President. Former Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson is a player in the resulting saga. After Trump announced his choice for secretary of state, former Russian Energy Minister Vladimir Milov said that Tillerson was a “gift for Putin.” Indeed he is.
First, Tillerson announced that he’d miss his initial meeting with all NATO ministers and see Putin before visiting America’s staunchest allies. That move exacerbated strains that Trump had created within the Western alliance. After NATO ministers changed the meeting dates to suit Tillerson’s schedule, he reiterated Trump’s demand that participating countries pay a greater share of NATO’s costs. At a Group of Seven (G-7) foreign ministers meeting of European allies on April 11, Tillerson posed this unsettling question: “Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” That was only days after America’s ineffectual missile strike on Syria and tough talk about Russia’s failure to prevent Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Perhaps Tillerson knew when he took the job that he would preside over the marginalization of the State Department so Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner could run American foreign policy. In December, Kushner met at Trump Tower with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and, at Kislyak’s request, an executive at a Russian bank subject to U.S. sanctions over Ukraine. In February, he orchestrated a call with China’s president to smooth Trump’s diplomatic blunder in speaking with Taiwan’s president. In April, Kushner met with Iraq’s prime minister to discuss the future of ISIS battles.
In fact, Tillerson is presiding over the decimation of the State Department. He spoke no public word of resistance to Trump’s proposal to cut its budget by 30 percent. He has accepted Trump’s rules: Trump can overrule Tillerson’s staffing proposals for key positions, including deputy secretary of state. As career policy personnel have departed en masse, replacements have not been forthcoming. Heading into March, the list of openings at the deputy, undersecretary, and assistant secretary of state level was stunning. As of April 12, 2017, Trump had yet to nominate anyone for 478 out of more than 533 crucial appointments across the entire executive branch.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson
During the campaign, Trump accused Ben Carson of having a “pathological temper.” After the election, Carson put out the word that he wasn’t qualified to run a federal agency. Now he presides over HUD.
Trump’s proposed budget would reduce the department’s funding by 13 percent, in part by eliminating the Community Development Block Grant Program that funds Meals on Wheels, housing assistance, and other community assistance efforts. When asked during his confirmation hearing about the department’s housing programs, Carson couldn’t rule out the possibility that money would go to the Trump Organization, which owns a stake in an enormous government-subsidized housing project in Brooklyn.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke
The person who runs the department charged with preserving federal lands for future generations has sided consistently with coal, oil, and natural gas industry efforts to exploit them. Zinke’s lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters is four percent (out of 100). On his first day in office, he signed an order creating more access to public land for hunters. Within two weeks of his confirmation, Ryan Zinke opened 73 million offshore acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil exploration leasing.
Zinke’s professed desire to improve conservation efforts and national park infrastructure is impossible to square with Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut Interior Department funding by more than 10 percent. But Donald Trump Jr. likes Zinke, and that’s what matters most.
Who better to craft a Trump tax reform plan and frame national economic policy than billionaire Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s former national campaign finance chair? He’s a former Goldman Sachs partner who made a fortune from his purchase of a predatory lender that foreclosed on homeowners during the financial crisis. As nominee for Treasury secretary, he failed to disclose nearly $100 million of his assets on Senate Finance Committee disclosure documents, while forgetting to mention his role as a director of an investment fund located in a tax haven.
Over at the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry caused Harvard Professor Daniel Carpenter to describe “the least problematic of a very sorry pool of candidates” as “the most interest-conflicted commissioner in American history, by far.”
Another key Trump appointee, former congressman Mick Mulvaney, rode into office on the 2010 Tea Party wave and became a charter member of the radical “House Freedom Caucus.” The anti-government ideologue dedicated his career to sabotaging the nation’s ability to govern. Now he’s the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Here’s a list of agencies that would disappear immediately under the proposed budget he and Trump crafted:
- African Development Foundation (“supports and invests in African owned and led enterprises which improve lives and livelihoods in poor and vulnerable communities in Africa”)
- Appalachian Regional Commission (“innovates, partners, and invests to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia”)
- Chemical Safety Board (“an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents”)
- Corporation for National and Community Service (“invests in nonprofit and faith-based groups… AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, the Social Innovation Fund, the Volunteer Generation Fund, and more”)
- Corporation for Public Broadcasting (“steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting and the largest single source of funding for public radio, television, and related online and mobile services”)
- Delta Regional Authority (“works to improve regional economic opportunity by helping to create jobs, build communities, and improve the lives of the 10 million people who reside in the 252 counties and parishes of the eight-state [Mississippi] Delta region”)
- Denali Commission (“providing job training and other economic development services in rural communities”)
- Institute of Museum and Library Services (“inspires libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement”)
- Inter-American Foundation (“development assistance directly to the organized poor in Latin America and the Caribbean”)
- U.S. Trade and Development Agency (“helps companies create U.S. jobs through the export of U.S. goods and services for priority development projects in emerging economies”)
- Legal Services Corporation (“promotes equal access to justice in our Nation and provides high quality civil legal assistance to low-income persons”)
- National Endowment for the Arts (“supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America”)
- National Endowment for the Humanities (“serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans”)
- Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (“affordable housing and community development”)
- Northern Border Regional Commission (“partnership for economic and community development within the most distressed counties of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York”)
- Overseas Private Investment Corporation (“helps American businesses invest in emerging markets”)
- U.S. Institute of Peace (“strengthens U.S. security by reducing violent conflict”)
- U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (“coordinates and catalyzes the federal response to homelessness”)
- Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (“nation’s key non-partisan policy forum for tackling global issues through independent research and open dialogue to inform actionable ideas for the policy community”)
It Will Get Worse
The current Trump rogue’s gallery is only the beginning. Legal scholars Eric Posner and Emily Bazelon observe that Trump’s first U.S. Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, “embraces a judicial philosophy that would do nothing less than undermine the structure of modern government – including the rules that keep our water clean, regulate the financial markets and protect workers and consumers. In strongly opposing the administrative state, Gorsuch is in the company of incendiary figures like the White House adviser Steve Bannon, who has called for its ‘deconstruction.’”
Trump’s lifetime appointments to the judiciary could inflict the most lasting damage on the country. During the final year of the Obama administration, the intransigence of Senate Republicans gave Trump 124 federal judgeships to fill, including 19 appellate positions. In his first term, retirements and other departures could give Trump the opportunity to name 40 percent of the nation’s federal bench – more than any president in nearly 50 years. Think about that as he rails against the federal judges who have dared to cross him on his unconstitutional travel ban.
Across the federal government, Trump is determining the country’s fate. The first 100 days of deconstruction set the stage for 1,360 that will follow. Make no mistake: he and his minions are playing for keeps.