Tag Archives: Trump Administration

Rats And Sinking Ships

Well, there’s good news and bad news, and it’s the same news.

Daily Kos quotes Politico for the following:

The exodus of top Defense officials under Team Trump continues. In the weeks before Christmas, five senior Pentagon officials resigned their posts for unclear reasons. Now Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s chief of staff, former Army intelligence officer Eric Chewning, has delivered his own resignation.

As the article notes, these multiple departures–especially the most recent one, coming after the Iranian assassination–don’t usually occur during periods in which the nation appears to be gearing up for a military crisis.

Behind the scenes, though, Esper’s office appears to be in turmoil. A Foreign Policy report on Sunday revealed that Trump Defense Secretary Esper had cut senior Pentagon leaders out of the loop on the Suleimani assassination, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not consulted or briefed on the operation ahead of time. “The usual approval process, the decision-making process, did not occur,” an anonymous defense official told FP.

The motivations for these departures are unclear: people may be leaving for reasons ranging from simple frustration with the chaos in Trump’s Defense Department to unwillingness to be part of  an administration that is morally and functionally defective–the latter motive suggesting the old phrase “rats leaving a sinking ship.”

According to Merriam-Webster, that idiom is used in reference to people abandoning an enterprise once it seems likely to fail. The phrase has shown what the reference book calls “great linguistic tenacity,” having been in regular use for over four hundred years. Its persistence is probably attributable to the consistency of the human impulse to “bail out” when a ship–or enterprise–is going down.

In this case, the likelihood that career public servants are departing an administration with which they don’t want to be associated is a sign that a number of career people in the so-called “deep state” have scruples.  The resignations send a message (not that the Trump cabal is capable of receiving or interpreting such messages) that they disagree with the decisions–and the decision-making process– of the current regime. (And what we are discovering about that process is terrifying. An Iran expert formerly with the State Department tweeted out what he is being told by those who remain in the agencies.)

These principled departures are the good news.

The bad news is that the consistent stream of resignations by sane, moral and experienced officials during Trump’s tenure–resignations that have not been limited to the Department of Defense– means that there are even fewer adults left to moderate an unhinged President and counter the assortment of religious zealots and criminals that make up his administration.

According to the Brookings Institution, as of January of 2020, turnover in the administration’s so-called “A Team”–senior positions  just under cabinet secretaries–has been 80%. The Brookings article includes several charts describing the positions and identifying the individuals who left; interestingly, they count each position on the “A Team” only once. So “if multiple people hold and depart from the same position (e.g., communications director), only the initial departure is tracked/affects the turnover rate.”

In other words, turnover has actually exceeded that 80%. (The report also includes a chart showing the serial departures.)

And that turnover is calculated, obviously, for positions that have been filled. As of January 6th, Trump hadn’t even bothered to nominate candidates for 168 of the 741 key administrative positions that require Senate confirmation,

Ask anyone who runs an organization–for-profit, nonprofit or governmental–how constant staff turnover and the attendant loss of institutional memory not only hobbles the organization’s ability to perform, but hinders its ability to recruit competent replacements.

When the people who are left to run the government are ill-equipped to do so–when they are inexperienced, ignorant, delusional or beholden to special interests–all bets are off.

We are in uncharted–and very dangerous–territory.

Who Do You Resent?

Political polarization has created newly rigid political identities, complete with required enemies. Not only do partisans detest each other, devout Republicans and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Democrats also coalesce around those common enemies.

Democrats disparage the “un-woke,” distrust billionaires and powerful corporations, and rail against climate-change-deniers.

Republicans sneer at higher education, fear immigrants, use “socialism” as a dirty word (despite considerable evidence that most of them have no idea what it is), and really, really hate “elitists” –i.e., experts who actually know what they’re talking about.

“Elitists” populate the equally despised and mischaracterized “deep state.”

Frank Bruni recently had a column in the New York Times in which he explored the GOP’s resentment of professionalism–especially the patriotic public servants that Trump’s current, despicable press secretary labels“radical unelected bureaucrats.”

The impeachment inquiry and the events that led to it tell many stories. One, obviously, is about the abuse of power. Another illuminates the foul mash of mendacity and paranoia at the core of Donald Trump.

But this week, as several longtime civil servants testify at the inquiry’s first public hearings, a third narrative demands notice, because it explains the entire tragedy of the Trump administration: the larger scandals, the lesser disgraces and the current moment of reckoning.

That story is the collision of a president who has absolutely no regard for professionalism and those who try to embody it, the battle between an arrogant, unscrupulous yahoo and his humble, principled opposites.

Bruni notes that Trump’s contempt for professionalism is part and parcel of his aversion to norms of all sorts, including tradition and simple courtesy, and that such contempt has been a “distinct theme” in his business career, which has been “rife with cheating, and his political life, which is greased with lies.”

Go back to his initial staffing of senior posts and recall how shoddy the vetting process was. Also notice two prominent classes of recruits: people who had profoundly questionable preparation for the jobs that he nonetheless gave them (Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Stephen Miller, Javanka) and genuine professionals who wagered that their skills would be critically necessary — and thus highly valued — and that Trump would surely rise to the established codes and expected conduct of his office.

Now look at how many of those professionals (James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, Dan Coats) are gone. And tell me whether Trump has ever had the epiphany that the presidency is, in fact, a profession.

Interestingly, the Trump Administration’s sorry excuse for vetting came to public notice again just this week, when multiple media outlets reported that a senior official had embellished her résumé with highly misleading claims about her professional background, and had gone so far as to create a fake Time magazine cover with her face on it. She had invented a role on a U.N. panel, claimed she had addressed both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and implied she had testified before Congress, none of which was true. Lying at this level should have been easy to uncover, but she was appointed–and continues to serve–as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department.

As Bruni says

A crisis of professionalism defines his administration, in which backstabbing is the new glad-handing, firings are cruel, exits are ugly, the turnover is jaw-dropping, the number of unfilled positions is mind-boggling, and many officials have titles that are prefaced with “acting” — a modifier with multiple meanings in this case.

Trump slyly markets his anti-professionalism as anti-elitism and a rejection of staid, cautious thinking. But it’s really his way of excusing his ignorance, costuming his incompetence and greenlighting his hooliganism.

Two of the professionals who have come forward to testify about Trump’s effort to blackmail the President of Ukraine were described by Michael McFaul, a former United States ambassador to Russia, in a recent essay for The New York Review of Books titled “The Deeply Dedicated State.”

Both always have struck me as first-rate government servants, singularly focused on advancing American national interests. Both have served Republican and Democratic presidents, and even after decades of interacting with them both, I could not guess how either of them votes.”

He characterized them as “accidental heroes” who aren’t “likely to seek the limelight.” “They are extremely well trained, competent, and highly regarded professionals,” he summarized.

That’s why they bucked Trump. And that’s why he can’t bear them.

When people resent competence, when they sneer at honorable public servants as “elitists” or label them members of a nefarious “deep state,” it tells you a great deal about their own deficits.

Such resentment permeates today’s Republican Party, and that explains a lot.

 

Meanwhile…

The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert has a recurring segment he calls “Meanwhile.” It follows his monologue, which is usually devoted to the latest Trump insanity, and consists of lesser items he deems newsworthy, weird or amusing.

“Meanwhile” is a particularly apt word right now, because–meanwhile, as Americans are glued to the unfolding impeachment drama and the President’s increasingly unhinged responses to it–Trump’s corrupt and dangerous administration is busy destroying the agencies of our federal government.

Scientists are fired, and environmental protections eviscerated. Students are preyed upon by dishonest private “institutes” and “colleges” that the Department of Education encourages to operate with impunity. Public lands are handed over to private companies to despoil. Anti-discrimination rules meant to protect vulnerable Americans needing housing are weakened or eliminated. Refugees and immigrants continue to be abused. The head of the Department of Justice dishonors the Constitution and makes a mockery of the rule of law.

And every day, there is something like this: A crucial federal program tracking dangerous diseases is shutting down. As Vox reports,

Most of the deadliest diseases to affect humanity leap to human hosts from other animals. The 1918 flu pandemic likely came from birds. HIV likely jumped from a similar virus in chimpanzees and other monkeys. Recent Ebola outbreaks have come from bats, rats, and gorillas.

Ever since the 2005 H5N1 bird flu scare, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has run a project to track and research these diseases, called Predict. At a cost of $207 million during its existence, the program has collected more than 100,000 samples and found nearly 1,000 novel viruses, including a new Ebola virus.

But on Friday, the New York Times reported that the US government is shutting down the program. According to its former director Dennis Carroll, the program enjoyed enthusiastic support under Bush and Obama, but “things got complicated” in the last few years until the program “essentially collapsed.”

“Things got complicated” is evidently bureaucrat-speak for Trump Administration ignorance and incompetence. As the article points out, pandemics seldom make the news until they happen, and that is too late–what is needed is to understand and prevent them.

As researchers warn that a flu like the 1918 influenza outbreak could kill as many as 50 million to 80 million people — and as new technologies alter the landscape of biology research, making it possible to study diseases in new ways but also making dangerous research easier than ever — it’s important for the US government to treat pandemic risks as a serious priority..

The end of Predict is a symptom of a bigger problem: The US government isn’t taking the risk of pandemics as seriously as it should be, and it isn’t investing enough in spreading the expertise and best practices that might be needed in the case of a global pandemic.

“It is the prospect of another such pandemic — not a nuclear war or a terrorist attack or a natural disaster — that poses the greatest risk of a massive casualty event in the United States,” Ron Klain, the former White House Ebola response coordinator, wrote for Vox last year. And yet pandemic preparedness gets very little attention.

The day-to-day task of governing gets very little attention. (It is a concept clearly foreign to our ignoramus-in-chief.)

We’re all fixated on the antics and tweets of the head buffoon. Meanwhile….

 

 

“Liberty” To Inflict Harm

A mid-October ruling by a federal judge in Texas is a reminder of the ongoing attacks on separation of church and state, and the importance of a disinterested (i.e., non-ideological) judiciary.

A federal judge on Tuesday overturned ObamaCare protections for transgender patients, ruling that a 2016 policy violates the religious freedom of Christian providers.

Judge Reed O’Connor in the Northern District of Texas vacated an Obama-era regulation that prohibited insurers and providers who receive federal money from denying treatment or coverage to anyone based on sex, gender identity or termination of pregnancy.

It also required doctors and hospitals to provide “medically necessary” services to transgender individuals as long as those services were the same ones provided to other patients.

O’Connor, the same judge who last year ruled that the entire Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional, said the rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Obama Administration had defended the rule, but–surprise!– the Trump administration refused to do so.

The Trump administration is working on a regulatory fix and has issued a proposed rule that would scrap ObamaCare’s definition of “sex discrimination” to remove protections for gender identity.

According to Texas news sources, Judge O’Connor–a George W. Bush appointee– is so reliably partisan that he has become a “go-to” favorite for conservative judicial activists. Attorneys General in Texas strategically file politically-charged cases in O’Connor’s court.

Mitch McConnell has been busy elevating people like O’Connor to the federal bench.

Of course, the fact that a judge has a reputation for bias doesn’t mean that any particular decision is wrong. (As the saying goes, stopped clocks are right twice a day.) So it’s important to explain what’s wrong with O’Connor’s definition of religious liberty.

Thanks to the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, churches and religious organizations are exempt from civil rights laws that violate their beliefs. Individuals, however, are not.

For culture warriors, protecting the right of churches to follow the dictates of their faith–even when those dictates are inconsistent with civil rights laws–isn’t sufficient. According to their argument, if they can’t fire employees they discover are gay, if they can’t refuse to rent apartments or provide services to LGBTQ folks, then the government is denying them religious liberty. (This is a variant of the argument that anti-bullying legislation infringes the “free speech rights” of the bullies.) They should be able to pick on gay people—or black people, or women, or Muslims–if they claim a religious motivation.

Obviously, an exemption for “religious motivation” would eviscerate civil rights laws.

The religion clauses of the First Amendment require that government be neutral between religions, and between religion and non-religion. But there are people who simply cannot abide the notion of a neutral government, people who experience “live and let live” and civic equality as affronts to the primacy to which they feel entitled.

In that worldview, a government that insists on fair play for gay people in the public sphere is a government that’s denying them religious liberty.

It’s not a new argument.

When Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opponents protested that being forced to hire or do business with women or people of color violated their religious liberty (their bible told them that races should be separate and women submissive). And it did limit their liberty. In a civilized society, our right to do whatever we want is constrained in all sorts of ways; I don’t have the liberty to play loud music next to your house at 2:00 a.m., or drive my car 100 miles per hour down a city street. And so on.

If you don’t approve of gay people, or African-Americans, or Muslims, or whoever—the Constitution says you don’t have to invite them over for dinner. You have the right to exclude those you consider “sinners” from your church, your private club and your living room.

Your shoe store or your hospital, not so much.

We live in a society with lots of other people, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from our own. The only way such a society can work is within a legal system and culture that respects those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives.

When the government refuses to make everyone live by a particular interpretation of a particular holy book, that’s not a War on Christianity. It’s recognition that we live in a diverse society where other people have as extensive a right to respect and moral autonomy as the right we claim for ourselves.

The O’Connors of the world reject that fundamental civic equality, which is why they don’t belong on the bench.

 

 

 

 

 

Is Resistance Futile?

The Trump administration’s one area of consistency is its determination to lay waste to large areas of American government. Consumer protections have been hollowed out; the Department of Education favors for-profit private schools over the needs of public ones; public lands are being exploited and despoiled; the Department of Justice has been turned into a Presidential lapdog; and decades of diplomacy have been upended.

But arguably, the greatest damage has been to environmental regulation, as the administration has waged a relentless war on science and the EPA. Now, according to the Guardian, at least some scientists are fighting back.

An advisory panel of air pollution scientists disbanded by the Trump administration plans to continue their work with or without the US government.

The researchers – from a group that reviewed the latest studies about how tiny particles of air pollution from fossil fuels make people sick – will assemble next month, a year from the day they were fired.

They’ll gather in the same hotel in Washington DC and even have the same former staffer running the public meeting.

A spokesperson for the group said that Trump’s EPA has significantly weakened its science review process, and that the group intended to meet “as a public service” and  “tap our expertise and develop advice which we will share with EPA.”

It’s a noble effort. But…they are fighting people in a position to do substantial harm.

The Trump administration is accused by at least half a dozen whistleblowers of muzzling climate and pollution science.

The air pollution experts follow in the footsteps of a separate group that reassembled to call for the government to better prepare for climate disasters. Their advice will come as EPA conducts a scheduled review of its standards for particle pollution, the tiny specks that enter the lungs and cause breathing and heart problems that can kill.

Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the regulation the “holy grail” for industry, and she said that’s why the Trump administration wants to weaken it by the end of 2020, before a new president might enter the White House.

Trump officials evidently plan to argue that particle pollution isn’t as bad as previously thought. That would allow the administration to accede to industry arguments and roll back environmental and health protections.

Trump’s EPA ended the particulate matter advisory board nearly a year ago. The agency also replaced many of the academic scientists on a broader science panel with scientists from industry and conservative states.

Earlier this month, EPA chief Andrew Wheeler selected a new group of “non-member consultants” to assist that panel with work on both particle pollution and smog. About half of the new consultants are linked with industry. Their recommendations to the panel will happen behind the scenes, rather than in public meetings.

“Behind the scenes,” environmental protections are being gutted, and respected, non-ideological scientists are being replaced by industry hacks.

Kudos to the scientists who are fighting back by meeting–at their own expense– in defiance of the administration’s willingness to fatten the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies at the expense of the people who breathe polluted air. It is a valiant effort to hold the EPA accountable to its mission, but it’s unlikely to persuade the bottom-feeders who currently run the agency, and whose “mission” is to render it toothless.

Unless the 2020 election returns governance to people who actually believe in governing rather than looting, resistance is probably futile.