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. Conflicts of interest, far from being obstacles, are self-righteously brushed aside. Not surprisingly, such a man has an enemies list. His assistant on African American relations, “The Apprentice” star 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.
Now that the nominee list for the main appointments is in, we can draw a few conclusions. First, the swamp is dominated by the extremely wealthy (including three former Goldman Sachs senior officers), the generals (three so far), the lobbyists, and the family circle. Some of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders are gone, but plenty of loyalists remain. Second, Trump is really sticking it to liberals by nominating people who favor eviscerating the agencies and regulations they would be appointed to defend, such as environmental protection, education, and energy. Third, Trump evidently sees the presidency as just another route to self-promotion and family enrichment. While others in his administration will be assigned to take care of normally presidential business–such as Mike Pence for daily intelligence briefings–Trump will see to his business empire through his family and support his corporate appointees’ promotion of their economic interests at home and abroad.
The Cabinet and Other Top Nominees
Among the wealthy notables who will be nominated is Wilbur Ross as 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. None of these men has government experience.
Betsy DeVos, education secretary, is another billionaire, and an advocate of vouchers to pay for private or religious rather than public schools. Public education will take a beating under her leadership. Trump reportedly will also nominate Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn to lead the National Economic Council. (How’s that for the man who promised to attack Wall Street? Note that Goldman Sachs stock has risen 33 percent since Election Day.) And for labor secretary we will have Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive with a long record of opposing wage increases, Obamacare, and other labor-friendly legislation. Puzder, a major donor to Trump’s campaign, advocates lower corporate taxes.
The State Department position goes to Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil and, like Trump, a man whose only experience in diplomacy is in how to cut deals, particularly with Russia. (Evidently, appointing Mitt Romney was too much for the faithful.) An egregious conflict of interest faces Tillerson’s nomination: His opposition to sanctions squares with Exxon Mobil’s ambitions in Russia. Thanks to the Obama administration’s sanctions on Russia in 2014, Exxon Mobil could not complete a deal worth a half trillion dollars to drill in the Arctic Kara Sea. We can be certain that climate change will get only negative attention from Tillerson, whose company over the years has gone out of its way to undermine the scientific findings.
Working alongside Tillerson as under secretary is likely to be John Bolton, who once held that position in the George W. Bush administration as well as UN ambassador. Bolton is a singularly dangerous man, given to ideological outbursts and advocacy of military responses when it comes to North Korea and Iran. He still reportedly believes that Iraq hid weapons of mass destruction! (But the New York Times reports on Dec. 15 that resistance to Bolton is mounting among Republicans, possibly including Tillerson himself.) Note that Tillerson came to Trump’s attention, according to a Washington Post account, because of former officials Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice, who just happen to have a consulting firm that includes Exxon Mobil among its clients (www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-wasnt-happy-with-his-state-department-finalists-then-he-heard-a-new-name).
Climate change deniers are everywhere in the incoming administration. One of them is Martin Ebell, who headed the search for head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He comes from the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has the support of the coal industry which, 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.” Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt will be nominated to head EPA. He’s another guy closely associated with the oil and gas industry, which funded his campaigns in Oklahoma, and with plans to greatly reduce the EPA’s size and functions. With Pruitt 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).
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 (and another former Goldman Sachs official). 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 CNN, 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.
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).
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).
For defense secretary, Trump has chosen 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.
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 position of homeland security director seemed destined to go to Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach, a notorious Islamaphobe who was hoping to reinstitute a post-9/11 registry of anyone seeking entry to the US from a Muslim-majority country. For whatever reason, Kobach did not get the job, which went to the third military man, Marine General John F. Kelly. Trump’s apparent fascination with generals is strange considering his avoidance of military service and his insistence during the presidential campaign that he knows more than they do when it comes to military affairs. But the larger issue some observers, including military officers, have pointed to is the potential impact on civil-military relations of having this many top-flight officers in the Trump’s decisionmaking circle.
The human interest is under threat from still other directions. 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.
The energy department will go to Rick Perry, former governor of Texas. Who knows more about energy than someone from Texas? Of course Perry will also be in charge of the agency that presides over the US nuclear weapon stockpile, but no doubt he’ll learn on the job. Worth recalling is that Perry once called for the energy department’s elimination. But now, having twice failed to get the presidential nomination, he’s in need of a job.
Another nominee with a destructive impulse 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 he has long relished. But what will take the place of ACA? 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 initial list of probable 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 nominated: Nikki Haley, UN ambassador; Betsy DeVos, education secretary; and Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon whom Trump has nominated for the housing and urban development post. 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.
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.