Friday, 16 March 2018

Trump’s cabinet of sycophants


Trump is moving towards the administration cast he is comfortable with.  And that is a problem.

At the very beginning of the Trump administration I, and many others, expected there would be a ‘house cleaning purge’ of key government departments.  Although the early White House was home to some of the ideologues that had flocked to Trump during the campaign, the administration was actually divided into a number of often competing power centres.   
But in addition to the first year’s historic cabinet turnover, over the past couple of weeks, Trump has lost his economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who resigned over the imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs; he fired his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, over Twitter, essentially for occasionally speaking is actual mind; and he is reportedly planning on moving his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, out of the White House and back into a military position as a four-star general.  McMaster – whose removal has been rumored for months – would be gone already, except the White House is apparently concerned about the optics of losing yet another cabinet member

Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, a cable news pundit; Tillerson by Mike Pompeo, the opportunist and extreme hawk CIA director. The leading candidates to replace McMaster are John Bolton, the GOP hawk who has publicly pushed the United States to make a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, and Fox & Friends co-host Pete Hegseth – although the latter is more likely to become secretary of veterans affairs. 

These changes suggest that Trump is now fully breaking free of the modest restraints that were erected around him early on in his presidency by GOP advisors to protect against his erratic instincts.  While scandal, chaos and incompetence have forced Trump to remake his cabinet, by now filling it with hawks and cable news pundits, he is turning it into a reflection of his own image.  

While fears of the inherent corruption of his own family members such as Kushner failed attempt to secure a loan from Qatar and subsequent Kushner green-lighting of the Saudi/UAE blockade of Qatar have been proved correct, the incomplete revelations of Russia investigation and scandal have caused the sideling of most of the familial wing of the White House.  Two White House aides who were close to the pair resigned. (Hicks and Kushner press aide Josh Raffel).  Kushner’s access to classified information has been curtailed.  Javanka” appears to be having fairly limited influence in Trump’s Washington.
The establishment GOP wing of the White House is also now basically defunct.  Far right ideologues like Steve Bannon and Seb Gorka are gone, but the extreme conservative views advocated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House senior adviser Stephen Miller — such as attempting to limit legal immigration — have become the policies of the administration. While Trump constantly complains about Sessions, arguing that the attorney general should not have recused himself in the Russia investigation, Sessions looks like he is staying, probably because Sessions acts on many of Trump’s other long-held views, including rolling back Obama-era measures to more closely scrutinize police departments and making enforcement of immigration laws a top priority of the Department of Justice. For all the drama about Sessions’ role, he is now leading the Trump administration in filing a lawsuit against California, the nation’s largest state, over immigration law.

And while the “economic nationalism” that was also central to Bannon’s ideology had been largely sidelined by Trump in his working with the GOP on lowering taxes, his decision to push forward tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, a policy backed by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, is a return to the position he and Bannon advocated as a candidate.
Meanwhile, social conservatives within the administration have either convinced Trump of their own agenda, Trump already agreed with it or they are just doing what they want while the president isn’t paying attention. DeVos, Pruitt and other agency leaders in the Trump administration are rolling back regulations at an aggressive pace with little interference from the White House. The administration has either tried to enact or actually adopted a number of limits to abortion, a priority of Vice President Mike Pence’s. In fact, it’s hard to think of many major decisions Trump has made that break with the ideology of his vice president.  It is for this reason, that no matter what he has said over the past weeks it seems very unlikely that Trump will move in any meaningful way towards gun control.

And now the so-called “adults in the room” Tillerson, McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have been removed or neutralized, and Chief of Staff Kelly has shown himself to be more Trumpian than many had anticipated.  All in all, Trump is moving towards creating the cabinet and White House that he wants: one that either shares key Trump views, channels the views of his socially conservative base, or won’t stand up to him in any meaningful way.  

Changes at the cabinet level mirror those that have been made in various key government departments.  On 15 March 2018, the ranking Democrats on the House of Representatives Government Reform Oversight committee and Committee on Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Trump Administration demanding a response to the claims made by a whistleblower that systematic ‘cleansing’ of career staffers not thought ‘loyal’ enough to Trump.  The letter builds on reporting going back over a year of political interference in the staffing of non-political positions in various departments.  Taking political considerations into account in hiring, or in other personnel decisions, for career positions is illegal under US law.  This is a core principle that reinforces the independence and professionalism of career government employees found in all mature democracies.  But independence and professionalism are concepts not just lost on Trump the bullshit artist, but are completely at odds with his notion of the government as a private business run to his whim and direction.

There is no reason to think that such political interference has been limited to the State Department.  Not only did Trump and his advisors likely run afoul of US federal law in that chaotic period from the transition to the leaving of Reince Priebus, but the quality of the hacks, hangers-on, and supplicants involved suggests they weren’t even aware of the boundaries they were running up against – a combination of malfeasance and cluelessness that sets up perfectly for politically motivated decisions not just in the State Department but across the government. 

All this suggests that despite the normalization of the administrative chaos of Trumpocracy, there has been a slow but steady movement towards the kind of supporting cast of sycophants that Trump was used to in his business.  This is absolutely not a good development.