Illustrations by Spencer Afonso
It comes as no surprise when a Republican President appoints corporate-friendly judges to the bench or industry-friendly chiefs to federal regulatory agencies. But Donald Trump has taken this practice to a whole new level of in-your-face graft, collusion and incompetence.
He promised to “drain the swamp.” Instead, he’s filled it with industry cronies, lobbyists and unqualified amateurs. These corporate imposters gut or refuse to enforce established rules before jumping back into the boardroom to claim their share of the profits. As a result, the revolving door between governmental agencies and big business is now spinning like a nuclear centrifuge.
In 2009 President Obama established a rule banning anyone who had lobbied for an industry in the past two years from running an agency regulating that industry. As soon as Trump took office, he rescinded that rule. Instead, corporate wolves could now be appointed to office. Yes, they would have to recuse themselves from the specific issues they lobbied for in the past; however, there’s a giant loophole—Trump can issue an ethics waiver, allowing even that limited ban to be circumvented. Such waivers are supposed to be public record, but the President has virtually classified them. Journalists and government watchdogs have to file slow and tedious FOIA requests to flush them out of the shadows. It’s basically a sneaky end run that totally eviscerates the Obama rule.
Further, Trump and his Republican Congress have used the Congressional Review Act (CRA) like a sledgehammer to smash a host of regulations enacted by the Obama Administration. Signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, the CRA allows Congress 60 working days after a new federal agency rule takes effect to review and overturn legislation. The CRA had been used successfully only once, in 2001, before the current administration took office. Now Republican lawyers say that if a rule passed even decades ago was not “submitted to Congress” back then, it can be submitted now and subject to review and repeal. With this new weapon the GOP is poised to dismantle longstanding regulations they abhor. And once a federal rule is invalidated under the CRA, future administrations are barred from ever again enacting a similar rule.
Every time a new President takes office, hordes of experienced employees in the federal government are dismissed and have 75 days to train the new crew of approximately 4,000 political appointees. Then they are prohibited by law from having anything to do with the new guys, who, hopefully, are curious and committed enough to learn the ropes. Unless, of course, they are ideologues who believe that all government is evil and should be abolished. Why learn the ropes if you never intend to sail the ship and would really love to just scuttle it? For example, nearly half of Trump’s appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency have blatant conflicts of interests, having worked for, legally represented or lobbied for the industries they’re tasked with regulating.
There’s another common trait—a large majority of the President’s agency appointees demonstrate a visceral hostility to science, as it often undermines their single-minded commitment to stoking corporate profits. Trump is the first POTUS since 1941 not to appoint a science adviser. But ignorance is bliss—and damn profitable if you can bury all the overwhelming evidence that disputes his case for manic deregulation.
Here are some of the more outrageous clown acts performed so far:
THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
Trump believes that environmental regulations are shackles on industry and that industry alone will Make America Great Again. As long as short-term profits can be squeezed out of the planet, the long-term health of the soil, air, water and inhabitants be damned.
So Trump went after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) like Genghis Khan, with warlord Scott Pruitt in charge. After the U.S. withdrew from the universally acclaimed Paris climate agreement, Pruitt announced intentions to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan, stoke the dirty coal business, gut vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and put a hold on rules aimed at cutting methane emissions from landfills. Power plants are now allowed to dump mercury and other toxins into our rivers and lakes. Overall, Pruitt sought to kill or roll back over 70 environmental regulations. According to an analysis of researchers at Harvard University, those rollbacks could lead to an estimated 80,000 premature deaths per decade and respiratory problems for millions. Incredibly, Trump is even trying to bring back asbestos, allowing it to be used in architecture and product manufacturing on a “case-by-case” basis. Maybe he’ll deregulate cyanide, thalidomide and lead next—no doubt, there’s profit in those poisons too!
Pruitt is finally gone now, after more than a dozen separate ethics investigations inspired even Congressional Republicans to abandon him. But he set the tone for all of Trump’s other lackeys, acting like he was some blue-blood baron in a private castle, spending $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth in his office, $1,500 for 12 custom pens and flying around the world first-class with a platoon of 20 armed guards. Like most GOP capos, he hates wasting taxpayer money—unless it’s greasing his skids.
Unfortunately, it’s possible that Pruitt’s replacement, Andrew Wheeler, will be just as dangerous to our environment, if not more so. He’s a former coal lobbyist and onetime top aide to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, Congress’s leading climate change denier.
DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
Not to be outdone by Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke quickly started gilding his own fiefdom. Every day that Zinke arrives at his D.C. office, a staffer climbs to the roof to raise a special secretarial flag, honoring the presence of His Highness. Zinke also racked up a huge bill for first-class jet-setting ($20,000), allegedly to meet with donors and lobbyists, which would be a violation of the Hatch Act.
In September Zinke told a meeting of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association that “Our government should work for you,” and his actions have echoed that sentiment. He promptly got to work, pushing to further open up our coasts to offshore drilling and selling leases to drill in the fragile Arctic. Then he rolled back regulations enacted after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, including a Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control Rule and requirements for independent safety auditors. Rather than promoting clean, alternative energy, like wave electricity generators, Zinke and Trump want giant offshore oil rigs. The way is now paved for more catastrophes in oceans that are already reeling from the accelerating effects of climate change: increasing acidification, coral bleaching, massively declining fisheries and suffocating plastic pollution.
And they love coal, the dirtiest fuel of all. Zinke canceled a new study on the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining and burning. Then he blamed California’s record season of wildfires on “environmental terrorist groups”—runaway climate change had nothing to do with it!—while calling for more bulldozers to raze carbon-sequestering trees on public lands. Zinke and company want to make the U.S. not just self-sufficient in energy, but an export powerhouse, even if we have to rape our public lands to fill energy stockholders’ pockets. Yes, Halliburton, the logging lords and coal barons are all raking in huge profits today, but at the cost of massive environmental degradation that will only become painfully apparent after these raiders are out of office.
DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
Trump’s third weapon against the environment is the Department of Energy (DOE). That it’s led by former Texas governor Rick Perry, who in a Presidential debate said he wanted to abolish three federal agencies but couldn’t remember the third (the DOE), really says it all. Soon after Trump’s inauguration, Perry’s new team stormed aboard, swashbuckling through what they regarded as enemy territory.
“We had tried desperately to prepare them,” says Tarak Shah, chief of staff for science and energy at the DOE. “But that required them to show up. And bring qualified people. But they didn’t. They didn’t ask for even an introductory briefing. Like ‘What do you do?’”
The DOE safeguards our nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons arsenal and trains every international nuclear-energy inspector. Along with tracking the proliferation of nuclear materials worldwide and preventing terrorists from obtaining them, these functions account for half of the DOE’s budget. From 2009 to 2017, its National Nuclear Security Administration located and sequestered enough enriched uranium globally to make 160 nuclear weapons. But Rick Perry “has no personal interest in understanding what we do…. He’s never been briefed on a program—not a single one, which to me is shocking,” says another DOE staffer.
If you can’t totally abolish a department, as Perry and Trump really want to do, then you just sleepwalk it to death—drain the oil, climb behind the wheel and grind the gears until smoke rises from the hood. One of the projects Perry is hobbling is a low-interest loan program to jump-start alternative energy innovation. Although Republicans trumpeted the demise of Solyndra (a DOE-funded solar company that went bankrupt in 2011), the program has actually turned a profit since its inception in 2009 and has helped 35 solar utility companies get off the ground—exactly what we need to adapt to climate change. Instead Perry has tried to force electricity customers to bail out failing coal and nuclear power companies and proposed eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program as well as funding for the DOE’s national labs, essential to exploring alternatives to finite fossil fuels. Of course, those alternatives might create “unhealthy” competition for Halliburton and pals.
This past August, David Fritch, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector at the closed San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Clemente, California, blew the whistle on a near catastrophe—a 100-ton canister of highly radioactive waste almost crashed to the ground to spill its contents. Fritch noted that the plant’s workers “who haven’t been around nuclear before, are performing these tasks—not technicians, not highly trained, and not with thorough briefs.” There are 99 licensed nuclear power plants in the U.S. With inspections and safety standards trashed, an American Fukushima disaster becomes increasingly likely. When Rick Perry took the reins, the DOE was DOA.
DEFENSE NUCLEAR FACILITIES SAFETY BOARD
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is a small independent agency created in 1988 after several dangerous lapses in the nation’s nuclear facilities were publicized. Its mission is to monitor workplace conditions for the nation’s 39,000-strong nuclear workforce and make safety recommendations to the DOE. The Trump Administration’s new rules eliminate the Board’s authority to inspect nearly three-quarters of nuclear weapons sites, even as we begin a $1 trillion production of new nukes. Private contractors helped draft the new rules to get the federal police off their backs. Yes, safety regulations and inspections cost money, but the price pales next to the costs of treating radiation-induced illnesses and cleaning up a nuclear accident. This is the ultimate penny-wise/pound-foolish policy.