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 the far-right loyalists want him to be 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,” though he contends that his many overseas trips on business should count as relevant experience. (They should count–but as disqualifying conflicts of interest.) Giuliani’s view is 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.
Another Trump loyalist being discussed for a top job is Newt Gingrich, who was the early favorite for secretary of state despite lacking experience abroad or in diplomacy. A corrupt politician and misogynist, 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.”
Mitt Romney, who once wanted to be president, is (incredibly) a leading candidate for the State Department position. He is notable for his harsh criticisms of Trump during the campaign–for example, “trickle-down misogyny,” “con man,” “a fake”–all true, but evidently not disqualifying. In recent remarks, Romney has pretended he was always enamored of Trump, showing how far one without principles will go to get a top job. General David Petraeus is also in the running, but why Trump would want to nominate a man who divulged secret information to a lover who may (or may not) have had a security clearance is hard to figure given Trump’s long-running attack on Hillary Clinton over her emails.
Martin 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” (www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/38360-trump-in-the-white-house-an-interview-with-noam-chomsky).
(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 might yet be rewarded with a top position, though he was removed as head of the transition team soon after Trump’s election, apparently on objections from Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, whose father, another crooked real estate millionaire, was sent to jail by Christie.)
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, white supremacist 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), 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 that Trump, as usual, failed to disown. 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 was interested in becoming defense secretary but was offered the attorney general position instead, is one of the most conservative members of the US senate. Sessions was among the first senators to endorse Trump, favors building a wall between the US and Mexico, is virulently anti-immigrant, and has a history of racist comments. It looked like Trump would go with Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas for secretary of defense. Cotton, like Sessions, is a hawk with military experience who believes the military is vastly underfunded and lacking readiness. But in the end the choice was retired General James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis, who is respected within the defense community but is only fairly recently retired–he had served as head of the US Central Command–and thus would require special Congressional dispensation to serve. Mattis regards “political Islam” as the number one security threat to the US, and Iran as “the single most enduring threat” in the Middle East. But he has opposed a unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement.
The position of homeland security director goes to Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, a notorious Islamaphobe. Kobach is determined to reinstitute a post-9/11 registry of anyone seeking entry to the US from a Muslim-majority country. He brought planning documents, captured in photographs, to a recent meeting with Trump that also call for registering Muslim Americans, requiring a political test of loyalty, and barring Syrian refugees (www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/21/donald-trump-kris-kobach-documents-syria-muslims).
For the crucial position of special assistant for national security, we have another Trump cheerleader: retired Lt.-Gen. Michael Flynn. He briefly headed the Defense Intelligence Agency before being removed for mismanagement, and 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. He also has a conflict of interest involving Turkey: Flynn’s consulting firm has a contract with its government, which may explain his criticism of Obama’s tentative relationship with Turkey’s authoritarian government. His views of Islam are especially venomous, as revealed in recent Tweets: “Fear of Muslim is RATIONAL” (February 26, 2016); “I dare Arab and Persian world ‘leaders’ to step up to the plate and declare their ideology sick and must B healed” (July 14, 2016). In a book, Flynn reveals his own sick ideology, making the Cold War-style argument that China and North Korea are linked to jihadists in a global conspiracy (http://nyti.ms/2gjfwqH).
Thus we have several nominees who, like Trump, tend to identify Muslims with terrorists and support the idea of a religion-based registry. 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.”)
The post of CIA director goes to Rep. Mike Pompeo (R.-Kansas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He immediately showed his fealty to far-right views by Tweeting that he looked forward to “rolling back this disastrous [nuclear] deal with [Iran,] the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Though news reports call Pompeo a serious student of foreign policy, he also has Tea Party connections and financial backing from the Koch brothers. Many consider Pompeo an ideologue–an aspect he displayed in pushing the Benghazi hearings with Hillary Clinton (www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trumps-cia-pick-is-seen-as-both-a-fierce-partisan-and-serious-student-of-national-security-issues/2016/11/18/5b089f0e-ad9a-11e6-8b45-f8e493f06fcd_story.html).
Billionaires will populate the Trump administration. One of them is Wilbur Ross, who will be Secretary of Commerce. He is said to be the behind-the-scenes architect of Trump’s economic policy, including Trump’s plan to rip up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) arrangement and possibly the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Ross reportedly made his money by buying up failing industries and reselling them at fantastic profits. Just the man we need. (Ross’s deputy at Commerce may be Todd Ricketts, another billionaire who co-owns the Chicago Cubs.) Then there’s Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin to lead the Treasury Department. Mnunchin went on to finance Hollywood movies and buy up distressed mortgages during the financial crisis of 2008. He has vowed to dramatically cut corporate tax rates. Mnuchin has no government experience. Betsy DeVos, education secretary, is another billionaire, and an advocate of vouchers to pay for private or religious rather than public schools. To round out the ultra-rich list, Trump is reportedly considering Goldman Sacks president Gary Cohn to lead the Office of Management and Budget. He would be the third former GS executive to serve, along with Mnuchin and Steve Bannon. How’s that for the man who promised to attack Wall Street?
Rounding out the experienced group is Rep. (and Dr.) Tom Price, a longtime critic of the Affordable Care Act. As secretary of health and human services, he will now have the opportunity to destroy it. What will take its place? The Republicans have had several years to tell us and, more to the point, tell those working people who will lose their health care coverage. They have yet to say, but when they do–Paul Krugman predicts–“the white working class is about to be betrayed” (www.nytimes.com/2016/12/02/opinion/seduced-and-betrayed-by-donald-trump.html).
Lobbyists, also among the 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. (www.nytimes.com/2016/11/12/us/politics/trump-campaigned-against-lobbyists-now-theyre-on-his-transition-team.html) 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 initial appointees this way: “a largely homogeneous circle of middle-aged white men, often wealthy, of open ambition and large personality.” Since then, a token number of women and minorities have been appointed or considered: Nikki Haley, UN ambassador; Betsy DeVos, education secretary; Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon whom Trump has offered the housing and urban development post; and Sarah Palin, the oil-drilling fanatic from Alaska. Trouble is, all of these people are barely qualified for the positions mentioned! Haley’s only international experience is accompanying South Carolina trade delegations. DeVos is a supporter of Christian schools and has no known experience in education. And what can one say about the empty-headed Dr. Carson? He’s barely capable of composing a sensible thought let alone leading a housing position. Palin is the bottom of the barrel, a loudmouth whose potential for destroying the environment as a potential secretary of the interior is limitless.
Last but hardly least, you have 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. The children and son-in-law are all being considered for top advisory positions, notwithstanding the laws governing nepotism and security clearances, and–oh, yes–the usefulness of a little experience. Trump has expressed the hope that Jared will reconcile Israelis and Palestinians. Who needs a secretary of state when one has a Jewish son-in-law? Ivanka Trump, the principal marketing officer for the Trump Organization, has attended meetings in New York between the president-elect and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, among other foreign leaders. What could she possibly be doing other than scoping out business opportunities? And how about Donald Trump Jr., who in early November attended a meeting in Paris, sponsored by a French think tank that favors the Russian position on Syria, to discuss a peace plan (www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/donald-trump-jr-held-talks-on-syria-with-russia-supporters/ar-AAkFX0m?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartandhp). Does he have any qualifications or authority (remember: his dad isn’t yet the president) to engage in such delicate diplomacy? But then, finding ways around the law, putting familiarity and loyalty ahead of competence, and blurring if not erasing the line between public and private interests is what Trump is all about.