Personnel appointments provide a useful glimpse into what policy will be. Senior-level appointees are the policy shapers, and from what we have seen thus far, we are right to have suspected the worst from Donald Trump. A Trump presidency will be the end of climate change commitments and agreements, will bring racial profiling of Middle East immigrants, and will build a wall of some kind between the US and Mexico. His victory will also result in large-scale deportations of nonwhite residents, a free ride for Big Oil, agribusiness, and other giant corporations, a severe tightening of media access, and attacks on marriage equality, abortion, protesting, and other expressions of personal choice. And the love affair with Putin’s Russia, to the detriment of US alliances, will deepen.
But overarching these policy directions is the way Trump conducts business: with emphasis on secrecy, enhancement of his reputation, absolute loyalty to the boss, destruction of critics, and success for family and firm before country. Not surprisingly, such a man has an enemies list. His assistant on African American relations, Omarosa Manigault, said so, explaining: “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who’s ever disagreed, whoever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” Don’t believe her when she says she was only speaking for herself.
The Alligators in the Swamp
The savvy comedian Steven Colbert was among the first to lampoon Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of corrupt politicians. Drain the swamp? Trump’s people are the swamp, said Colbert.
Three types of people inhabit the swamp: the loyal politicians and former officials, the lobbyists, and the family circle.
For starters, look at the cast of disreputable, marginally qualified people who are on his “A” list. Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, was initially being touted for attorney general. Now he is being talked about as the next secretary of state, as though the content of the two jobs doesn’t much matter. He was one of Trump’s primary attack dogs on Hillary Clinton, and had no compunctions about lying when he said on national TV that he had inside information that Hillary would be indicted as a result of the FBI’s probe of her emails. So far as I can tell, Giuliani’s only foray into foreign policy is to regularly assail “Islamic extremism.” Toward that end, he has argued that all’s fair in war, hence waterboarding and seizing Iraq’s oil fields are perfectly OK. Giuliani is often out of control, forever seeking attention—and therefore not the sort of level-headed person one would want to be the nation’s top diplomat.
Two other Trump loyalists are being discussed for top jobs. Newt Gingrich was the early favorite for secretary of state despite lacking experience abroad or in diplomacy. A corrupt politician and misogynst, he was reprimanded and fined for ethics violations when he was speaker of the House. Gingrich has also made racist remarks, such as calling President Obama “the food stamp president” who has shown “Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.” Another leading candidate for a foreign policy position is John Bolton, George W. Bush’s wild-eyed former United Nations ambassador and member of several neoconservative organizations. A lawyer who doesn’t like international law or the UN, Bolton opposed US participation in the International Criminal Court and efforts to strengthen international control of biological weapons and nuclear proliferation. Expect exceptionally hawkish advocacy from Bolton, as demonstrated by his fervent support of sanctions on North Korea and termination of the nuclear accord with Iran.
Myron Ebell, a well-known climate denier, is slated to head the Environmental Protection Agency. He comes from the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has the support of the coal industry that, under Obama’s Clean Power Plan, would be hard hit. Ebell regularly berates climatologists, climate-change advocates, and even Pope Francis’ encyclical, which he called “leftist drivel.” With Ebell at the helm at the very time Earth’s temperature is at an all-time high, the high hopes for the Paris Agreement will be dashed. As Noam Chomsky recently put it, “The [Republican] Party is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand.”
(Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose Bridgegate scandal has earned convictions for his two top aides, is another loyalist, but one with an uncertain future. Christie has not yet been indicted for authorizing the bridge closures; he might need a presidential pardon. Christie’s fawning embrace of Trump is likely to be rewarded with a top position, though he was removed as head of the transition team soon after Trump’s election.)
For the president’s chief of staff, Trump’s choices were: Stephen Bannon, purveyor of Breitbart News (“news” deserves to be in quotation marks), a far right, anti-immigrant rag devoted to wiping out the last vestiges of liberalism; and Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who remained loyal to the Chosen One when many Republicans were fleeing the ship. Trump chose Priebus, appointing Bannon a senior counselor. This was a small victory for the Republican establishment, since Bannon is the more outrageous of the two—a white supremacist and anti-Semite. As one of Trump’s top strategists, Bannon will be positioned to limit press and public access to Trump and (as another of Trump’s advisers has said), and come down hard on leaks. (It remains unclear whether or not Bannon has severed ties with Breitbart.) Trump has already harshly criticized the New York Times, and several Jewish reporters received threats during the campaign. We can expect more such pressure tactics down the road.
Then there are individuals who do have relevant experience, but of a kind that threatens the human interest. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is interested in becoming defense secretary, is one of the most conservative members of the US senate. He has military experience, and has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He believes the military is vastly underfunded and lacking readiness. He can be counted on to push for a huge, Reagan-like increase in the already bloated military budget. Sessions was among the first senators to endorse Trump, favors building a wall between the US and Mexico, and is virulently anti-immigrant. He can be expected to team up with other Trump appointees who see terrorists everywhere, especially among Muslims. Together, they will close America’s door to people who take seriously the poem on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal: “give me your tired, your poor.”)
For the crucial position of special assistant for national security, we again have two very different but equally unfortunate choices: Stephen Hadley, who was a foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush, and retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a flamboyant Trump adviser noted for shaping Trump’s aversion to foreign adventurism. Flynn, who briefly headed the Defense Intelligence Agency before being removed for mismanagement, has been widely criticized by senior US military officers for his partisan, highly unprofessional attacks on Obama and Hillary Clinton. He has taken a soft line on Russia, and has sometimes been paid by Russia’s RT television network for his work. Hadley has more foreign affairs experience than Flynn, dealing with both the Middle East and Asia, but has a penchant for US interventions of the sort that got Bush into trouble.
Lobbyists, the very people Trump denounced during his campaign, now populate his transition team, as the New York Times has noted. These people reek of conflicts of interest—hardly a novelty, though, in American politics. Thus, a Verizon consultant will choose staff for the FCC; an energy and gas lobbyist will determine the “energy independence” team; a food industry lobbyist will pick the agriculture department leadership. Other industry lobbyists, as the Times points out, are not directly connected to the industry for which they are seeking appointees, but have well-known views that are at variance with the public interest.
Wasn’t it Donald Trump who denounced “pay to play”? It’s commendable that Trump promised in his first 100 days to ban White House and Congressional officials from becoming lobbyists for five years after they leave office. But I guess it’s OK for lobbyists to staff the government with clones.
The Washington Post characterized the list of appointees this way: “a largely homogeneous circle of middle-aged white men, often wealthy, of open ambition and large personality.” We are not likely to find more than a token number of women and minorities. But you won’t have to search hard to find Trump’s family. Here are conflicts of interest writ large. Trump plans not only to have his wife, three oldest children, and son-in-law Jared Kushner take over his businesses in a blind trust that isn’t blind. The children and son-in-law are all being considered for cabinet and other top advisory positions, and Trump goes back and forth on whether he wants them to have top secret security clearances—again, putting familiarity and loyalty ahead of competence, and blurring if not erasing the line between public and private interests.