A Progress Report on Draining the Swamp

Recruiting Ground for Trump Cabinet From Pixabay

Readers Should Decide for Themselves How Swampy the Trump Cabinet Is

When an anti-Trump protestor held up a sign proclaiming, “Ikea Makes Smarter Cabinets,” it occurred to me that the White House obsession with “winning” every news cycle in a time of 24/7 news cycles means the factual basis for that sign is very much a moving target.

We have entered the third year of a presidency that continues the destruction of political norms begun in Mr. Trump’s campaign. Courtesy and compromise have been bad words for so long that government in the hurly-burly give and take of a healthy democracy has become an alien concept. A difference of opinion brings out the razors and brass knuckles.

Donald John Trump had never held an office in government and he set out to begin at the top. He became the latest demonstration of the fallacy that government should run like a business.

Trump reached a theoretical level of absurdity when he thought out loud of applying his business model to the national debt. He proposed that the United States of America should default on its debt for the purpose of negotiating lower interest rates. He was silent about how the U.S. dollar would remain the world’s reserve currency after that ploy.

His normal business practice as a real estate developer in New York and New Jersey was to hire contractors and then not pay them. By this simple expedient, he forced them to sue for their money. At any given time, he would have many lawsuits pending, all of which he would settle for less than what he owed. He avoided being eaten alive by legal fees by demanding quantity discounts and by occasionally treating his lawyers the same way he treated anybody else who did work for him.

Swamp Creature Not Working for Feds Photo from Pixabay

His reputation on his home turf was that of wealthy, glamorous pond scum. Only the size of the market enabled him to hire construction workers, retain lawyers, or even borrow money from major banks. His defaults and strategic bankruptcies, however, finally made him unwelcome everywhere but the notoriously risk-friendly Deutsche Bank (DB).

The financial press was reporting in early 2017 that DB had paid fines of $425 million to the New York Department of Financial Services and $204 million to the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom while German investigations appeared to be ongoing, all over laundering of money stolen in Russia when the state enterprises of the Soviet Union were privatized.

Laundering of Russian money was not the only difficulty DB had with regulatory authorities, but it seemed to ask a lot of coincidence when DB showed up as Trump’s last major lender after Donald Trump, Jr. had made his famous statement ten years earlier that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our (Trump Organization’s) assets” and so many ex-Soviet investors had bought so many Trump condos while Trump teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, according to a report in Foreign Policy.

There is plenty of reason to believe that Trump’s alleged business empire is a Potemkin village propped up by dirty money from Russia. Of course, Trump’s tax returns would show that his wealth is real and he didn’t really squander his inheritance on wild speculation. If the public ever sees his tax returns.

Because Trump was elected in spite of being unqualified by education or by experience, the rational Trump supporter could cling to one place where business and government intersect: a leader in either sphere has to hire and keep talented people to do the things the leader cannot do himself. It was at least rational to think Trump would have that ability.

The most direct and personal venue for a president to demonstrate his ability to bring the best talent into government is his cabinet. The cabinet is in most presidencies a brain trust for public policy. In the Trump administration, all policy appears to come from the top, but cabinet officers are still by law in line to become POTUS should anything happen to the overweight geezer who fakes his physical results just like he faked his academic accomplishments and his business empire.

It’s a fair method of evaluating the POTUS to look at who he picked to take over his duties, starting with the Vice President. The need to have somebody to take over applies not just to Mr. Trump’s health issues but also to his political issues. Impeachment, as well as unexpected death, would render Mr. Trump unable to serve. Trump picked the following replacements, presented in order of succession to the presidency. The first three are directly elected by the voters, and Mr. Trump only picked the vice president, but the next two are included to present the most likely results of Mr. Trump’s demise, physical or legal.

1. Vice President Mike Pence? Why not just cut out the middleman and appoint Jesus? Government by Divine Guidance is bad enough, but in Pence’s case if Jesus did not inform him then he is not informed. Did you follow his jihad against gay people as Indiana governor?

Everybody knows Jesus preached against sex education and prevention of HIV with needle exchanges. Pence was certain that Jesus would ban needle exchanges, where government provides addicts clean needles to keep them from sharing dirty ones.

Scott County, Indiana had an outbreak of HIV infections that responded to no interventions until then-Governor Pence “prayed on it” and apparently received new instructions. He signed an executive order allowing clean needles to be shipped to Scott County and given to addicts by state government.

The New York Times quoted Pence, “I do not support needle exchange as antidrug policy, but this is a public health emergency…” Pence’s halting of the epidemic by violating his principles led to his signing of a bill opening the entire state to the sinful needles and an article on the successful halting of the HIV infections published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

At the same time, Pence governed as if everybody knows Jesus favored the NRA and opposed Planned Parenthood.

You see the problem? We are used to disputing public policy in secular terms and the Constitution did not anticipate government by Christian mullahs.

2. The House Speaker is next in line, and while Trump could be charged with both the resignation of Speaker Paul Ryan and the election of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, neither result was precisely his intention.

3. President pro tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has now retired and has been replaced by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Once more, Trump certainly did not intend Grassley’s elevation. If he had, then he would have thought better of it when Grassley called Trump’s contention that wind turbines cause cancer “idiotic.”

4. Trump’s appointee for Secretary of State was Rex Tillerson, who had spent his entire career with one company, oil behemoth Exxon. It was bad enough to have a Secretary of State representing Exxon, but Tillerson quickly found government a bit over his head, and it became unclear how promoting him to POTUS would improve his conflict of interest issues or his competence issues.

Tillerson lost the Secretary of State gig after refusing to deny that he referred to The Donald as a “fucking moron.” Sounds like he left just as he was catching on.

Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo, who has been performing above expectations while keeping quiet about Trump’s intellect. Pompeo is part of the nest of hawks around Trump, but with any luck he will not have time to start a war because the major business of the State Department has become cleaning up after Mr. Trump’s peregrinations to play golf and insult foreign hosts.

5. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin? It’s bad enough to have a Treasury Secretary representing Golden Sacks (as we call Goldman, Sachs in the People’s Republic of Austin), but the Republic has survived that before. You want to turn Golden Sacks loose on the Tax Code?

Mnuchin, like Energy Secretary Rick Perry, former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have been accused of abusing taxpayer funds for unnecessary flights, a dip into the treasury that has cost Shulkin, Pruitt, and Zinke their jobs.

In spite of his wasteful ways, Mnuchin has proved his worth to the POTUS. A statute provides that upon the written request of certain members of Congress to examine the tax records of “any person,” the Treasury Department “shall” produce the documents for the appropriate congressional committees.

Mnuchin has not released Mr. Trump’s tax returns. He is instead seeking legal advice on whether “any person” includes the POTUS and whether “shall” means if and when it is convenient in the opinion of the Secretary of the Treasury to comply.

From Mr. Trump’s point of view, Steven Mnuchin offers better customer service than Amazon and Apple, Lexus and Mercedes, the Federal Reserve Bank…oops. Let’s just say if Secretary Mnuchin takes a job as a cashier at Trader Joe’s, it will be his choice and not because he received a deadly Trumpian tweet.

6. Original Defense Secretary James Mattis, like all of the other military men in the Trump cabinet, bit the dust over excessive competence. Rumor had it Mattis was appointed in the first place for the unbearable coolness of having a Secretary of Defense nicknamed “Mad Dog.”

From the outside, there was a running joke that the man tasked to be “the adult in the room” was called Mad Dog. Like all who attempted the role of adult in the Trumpian playpen, Mattis tired of the continual insulting of allies and praising of autocrats. His resignation letter is a model of sanity.

Mr. Trump named Acting SecDef and former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan for the permanent job, but an old family violence report surfaced in which his son attacked his own mother with a baseball bat. That, alone, proves nothing more than perhaps Shanahan’s shortcoming as a father, but that shortcoming flashed neon when he wrote a letter to his son’s defender arguing that the baseball bat was deployed in self-defense.

Shanahan walked it back in a statement to The Washington Post:

Presumably, he did not mean to include violence by the military on the battlefield — but he was under a lot of pressure when he made the statement.

Mr. Trump withdrew the Shanahan nomination.

After seven months without a leader, the senate confirmed Trump’s third appointee, Mark T. Esper.

Esper is a West Point grad who went on to get a Masters at Harvard and a Ph.D. at George Washington University. He served in the first Gulf War, so he is not a chicken hawk. He comes from lobbying for Raytheon, which does substantial business with the Defense Department. In his confirmation hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren asked Esper if he would commit to recuse himself on decisions that would make money for his civilian employer.

He said he would not recuse himself, making him a perfect fit for the Trump cabinet.

7. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in the line of succession, I had to wonder if cross burnings would replace the White House Easter Egg Roll, but we shall never know because Mr. Trump ran off General Sessions and replaced him with the architect of the Iran-Contra pardons.

William Barr applied for the job with an unsolicited memorandum of law purporting to show that a POTUS could not be subjected to pesky investigations while in office. Now, after an investigation was done, General Barr did his best to keep the taxpayers who funded the project from seeing the result.

8. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, in addition to wasting money on airplane and helicopter rides, was accused of a pay to play scheme involving Halliburton in a development deal that would profit Zinke while the Secretary was pressing policies that would open virtually all public lands to oil exploration.

Zinke also thought it reasonable that the taxpayers put new doors on his office….at a cost of $139,000.

Future National Park in Trumpland Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

Zinke resigned ahead of several ethics investigations and Trump replaced him with former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt. Interior, of course, is involved in decisions involving mineral exploration and production on public lands.

Until 2017, Bernhardt served on the board of the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability (CESAR). Based on substantial evidence, CESAR is believed by environmentalists to be an industry front group.

9. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is a climate change denier, which means farmers can’t look forward to much help to prevent or compensate for climate-related crop destruction. Perdue refused to put his assets in a blind trust and violated his own executive order on not taking gifts when he was governor of Georgia.

On the other hand, when Georgia had a drought in 2007, he organized the whole state to pray for rain. As a direct result, 2009 saw the most severe flooding in Georgia’s modern history.

Perdue would be the tip of the Trumpian spear against climate science…if he were sharp enough.

10. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross carries the primary qualification for service in the Trump cabinet — great wealth. It was Ross and the cowboy capitalist Carl Icahn (a former Trump advisor on cutting regulations) who cut the deal that kept Trump in control of three casinos on the brink of bankruptcy.

Ross paid back $11.8 million to investors and paid a fine of $2.3 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission to settle claims his company was overcharging fees. Clearly qualified for higher office, no?

11. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta is one of the smartest and was thought to be one of the cleanest of Trump’s cabinet appointments. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former dean of Florida International University College of Law. He had never been accused of stealing, but Trump could overlook the lack of light fingers because Acosta answered Trump’s crying need for a Hispanic in his cabinet. People were talking, y’know?

Then the pesky Miami Herald followed the chain of child sexual abuse victims left by Jeffrey Epstein. The FBI had to abandon the child victims when Acosta, in his role as U.S. Attorney, cut a deal with Epstein’s lawyers that beggars the imagination. Acosta agreed to put the kibosh on the FBI investigation and to immunize perps who were at the time of the deal unknown to law enforcement.

In a normal administration, Acosta would be a dead man walking, but among Epstein’s past running buddies were two presidents. Those would be Bill Clinton….and Donald Trump.

12. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price holds a BA and an MD from the University of Michigan. Until he started to move up in the political world, Price was a member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which is to the American Medical Association as Gun Owners of America is to the NRA. AAPS is opposed to Medicare and to mandatory vaccination.

Price pissed off Mr. Trump for taking too long on the task of undermining Obamacare. When the Secretary was caught spending $400,000 in taxpayer money on chartered aircraft, the President accepted his resignation. Esquire reported that if you added in his use of government jets, Price’s travel cost over a cool million.

Price’s replacement is Alex Azar, hired away from Big Pharma to regulate how the government makes purchases from Big Pharma. That odd noise was chickens decamping the henhouse, having decided to take their chances without a guard.

13. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson said he was not qualified to serve in the cabinet after running for POTUS and then he accepted a cabinet post. Any further questions?

Carson was doing well in his assignment to cut funds for housing the poor, when he got caught spending $31,000 of the money he saved on a dining room set. He blamed his wife, but that turned out to be a lie.

14. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has a qualification that is very Trump. When making appointments, nepotism comes just behind wealth. Chao’s husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).

She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke and Harvard Business School and she has an impressive resume, but she is disqualified from serving as POTUS because she was born in Taipei, Taiwan.

15. Energy Secretary Rick Perry? No pressure, but Obama’s first Secretary of Energy was Dr. Stephen Chu, Nobel Laureate in Physics. His second was Dr. Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist whose last accomplishment in office was his refusal to turn over to the Trumpistas a list of Department employees who worked on climate change.

Perry famously earned a D in a course at Texas A & M University called “Meats,” leading a Texas wag to suggest this snippet of a lecture:

16. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos comes from the 88th richest family in the U.S. according to Forbes in the year of her appointment and she has reversed the Obama administration’s crackdown on diploma mills like Trump University. She was confirmed when VP Pence cast a tie-breaking vote. It was so close because she’s a woman ahead of her time, an education secretary hostile to public education.

17. Veteran Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin was the only appointee to the Trump cabinet confirmed on a vote of 100 to zip. He was the first non-veteran to head the VA, but he was highly qualified, having headed hospitals and hospital organizations.

He considered veteran suicide a “top priority,” but he found Trump’s bad side over his opposition to privatizing the VA, on the ground that it’s “a different model of medical care.”

Shulkin claims he was fired while Trump claims he resigned.

Trump appointed his personal physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, to head VA, but Jackson’s confirmation was scuttled on the technicality that he was utterly unqualified for any executive position, let alone heading a behemoth like VA.

Trump went through two acting secretaries before he looped back and got the first one, Robert Wilkie, confirmed as official successor to Shulkin.

Wilkie is a former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. How “former” is unclear, and it appears he misled Congress about his ties to SCV during his confirmation hearing. He once gave a speech denouncing abolitionists in colorful terms and he has spoken to honor Robert E. Lee a number of times.

Hey, confederate veterans are veterans, right?

18. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly clocked in dead last in the order of succession. His work as commanding officer of the Southern Command, which takes in Central and South America, won bipartisan praise. For those who — unlike President Trump — have a working knowledge of U.S. history, Kelly was more George C. Marshall than Douglas McArthur.

Kelly left to become White House Chief of Staff/Adult in the Room. Like most adults in the room, he got tired and quit.

The last confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security was Kirstjen Nielsen. She had no problem with seizing migrant children at the border or with maltreating them, but she drew the line at violation of any standing court order. As is often the case, Nielsen claimed she was fired and Trump claimed she quit.

The conservative National Review wrote that Nielsen “was mediocre at best at public displays of sycophancy…” That will get you fired from the Trump administration every time. Got to drain that swamp, right?

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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