It can be tough to keep up with all the antics of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, especially when they’re cruising around the country on all those private jets. But eight months into the Trump presidency, it has become clear that never in our history have we seen so many Cabinet officials who are fundamentally opposed to the mission of the department they’ve been chosen to lead.
What is happening now goes far beyond the standard Republican desire to cut government and restrain regulation. It is nothing less than a war waged on governing itself from inside the executive branch.
To illustrate what’s going on, let’s start with this report from Charlie Savage of The New York Times:
“Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator who has aggressively pushed to dismantle regulations and downsize the organization, is threatening to reach outside his agency and undermine the Justice Department’s work enforcing antipollution laws, documents and interviews show.
“Under Mr. Pruitt, the E.P.A. has quietly said it may cut off a major funding source for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. Its lawyers handle litigation on behalf of the E.P.A.’s Superfund program seeking to force polluters to pay for cleaning up sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste.”
This is just one of the many things that Pruitt is doing, but it shows how he has utterly and completely rejected the premise that the role of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect the environment. Just the opposite, in fact — everything Pruitt is doing seems designed to produce more pollution and a dirtier environment. He has now turned himself into a roving pollution advocate, trying to undermine environmental protection wherever it might be going on.
Before you say, “Well, what did you expect?,” remember that this isn’t how previous Republican presidents have done things. They were never fans of the EPA, but even if they were trying to loosen environmental regulations in a variety of different ways, they’d usually find some moderate Republican to put in charge at the EPA, at least for show if nothing else. George W. Bush appointed Christine Todd Whitman, one of a dying breed of northeastern moderates. His father appointed William Riley, who had been president of the World Wildlife Fund. The worst EPA administrator up until now was undoubtedly Ann Gorsuch (yes, Neil Gorsuch’s mother), but even she didn’t do the damage Pruitt is attempting, and after scandal engulfed her, Ronald Reagan replaced her with William Ruckelshaus, who had been the agency’s first administrator and was a strong environmentalist.
Now let’s go to our next example.
Many assumed that if Republicans failed to destroy the Affordable Care Act through legislation, the administration would put some effort into making it work properly, since they’re now responsible for it and will be held accountable for whatever problems there are in the health care system. But just the opposite has happened. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services under Tom Price has undertaken a positively breathtaking campaign of sabotage. It is no exaggeration to say they are doing everything they can to create a death spiral in the individual health care market, trying to discourage as many people as possible from getting insurance so that the only ones who do are the sick and the old, which will drive premiums ever higher until the market completely melts down.
They have threatened to withhold cost-sharing payments from insurers, which has already driven premiums up substantially. They cut the open enrollment period in half. They slashed the budget for advertising to encourage people to enroll by 90 percent, and used some of what was left to create videos meant to discourage people from getting insurance. They canceled contracts with community groups that assist people in the sometimes complicated process of signing up. And in a particularly creative move, they’ll be shutting down healthcare.gov on all but one Sunday during open enrollment, for “maintenance.”
And when Vox asked HHS about its decision to abruptly pull out of all outreach events in the South, the department issued a statement that read in part:
“The American people know a bad deal when they see one and many won’t be convinced to sign up for ‘Washington-knows-best’ health coverage that they can’t afford. For the upcoming enrollment period, Americans are being hit with another round of double-digit premium hikes and nearly half of our nation’s counties are facing Obamacare monopolies. As Obamacare continues to collapse, HHS is carefully evaluating how we can best serve the American people who continue to be harmed by Obamacare’s failures.”
I have truly never seen anything like that in all my years of observing politics. This is the agency that is mandated by law to implement the Affordable Care Act, which includes taking all the steps it can to maximize enrollment, proclaiming that it has no intention of doing so. It’s mind-boggling.
I’d contend that this is a direct result of Donald Trump’s personal style and approach to government, which is in large part about not bothering to pay lip service to commonly held norms of behavior or even explicit rules. Trump doesn’t bother to pretend that he cares about Americans who didn’t vote for him, or that he has a commitment to foundational democratic principles, or that there’s something wrong in using the presidency for personal financial gain. Every element of his repugnant personality and utter lack of morality is right on the table; there is nothing hidden or subtle about him.
Just as his railing against “political correctness” gave his supporters permission to let their hate flags fly, his naked contempt for anything resembling integrity in government gives his appointees permission to be open about their intentions. In another Republican administration, these same people at HHS would have issued a statement saying something like, “We’re carrying out all our duties as the law requires, but this particular meeting was inconvenient.” They would have continued to find ways to undermine the ACA, but they would have done it quietly, on the assumption that attracting too much attention to their efforts would have been problematic. But now, they just don’t care.
There are other Cabinet officials who are waging their own wars on their departments. There’s Rex Tillerson, who can’t seem to figure out why the State Department exists. There’s Ryan Zinke, who acts as if the purpose of public lands is to be nothing more than a receptacle for fossil fuels that private companies should extract at their will. And there’s Betsy DeVos, who leads the Education Department despite having devoted her adult life to the destruction of public education in America.
At the same time, we should acknowledge that some of Trump’s appointments are repugnant but not much different from what you’d expect from another Republican president. For instance, you could easily see Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz putting a coal mining executive with a history of safety violations in charge of the agency that polices mine safety, as Trump has done. Trump has also picked a lot of people for key positions who are simply unqualified, like Ben Carson or Rick Perry.
But the kind of outright assault on the core mission of the departments many of Trump’s appointees are leading, and the unapologetic way in which it’s being done, are something new. The equivalent for a Democrat would be if they appointed the leader of Code Pink to be secretary of defense and instructed her to set about dismantling the American military. Which of course a Democrat would never do.
There’s an old saying that Republicans claim that government doesn’t work, then when they get control of it they set about to prove themselves right. But Trump is going much further than Republicans have before. And who knows how long it will take to undo the damage.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog at The Washington Post, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.