The executive-branch brain trust that President-elect Donald Trump is putting together is truly is a marvel. In one corner, you have the appointees who would like the U.S. to become a client-state of Russia. In another, you’ve got a host of Wall Street billionaires who are probably not what Trump’s working-class voters were hoping for. And then there are all the folks who are just straight-up hostile to the very existence of the same agencies Trump would have them lead. Whee!
Look, irony is not a new thing in Washington. Just about everyone knows that if Congress introduces, say, a bill called “The Sugar Plum Preservation Act,” that bill is intended either to weaponize sugar plums or eliminate them. And yes, we’ve had Cabinet officials in the past whose visions have had little to do with the functions of government as traditionally understood. What always ends up mattering most is whether any particular government entity is given the manpower and funding to do the job it’s intended to do. If you don’t want the Securities and Exchange Commission to police Wall Street, you have a lot of options, from appointing a quisling head to keeping any go-getters within the agency’s bureaucracy overworked and underpaid.
All the same, there’s something sort of impressive / stomach-churning about Trump’s instinct for finding the worst possible people for job after job after job. If a president’s Cabinet is a reflection of himself (OR HERSELF, EXTREMELY SAD LOL), then it’s almost like we’ve got an incoming chief executive who believes in nothing beyond his own ego, who’s not for anything in particular except seeing his face on TV, and who doesn’t feel strongly about preserving or defending any aspects of American life that are not actually named after him. In a way, the steady stream of nominations, one after another, has come to resemble that sort of overkill comedy where the gag starts out hilarious, then grows tiresome out of repetition, until the relentless pounding of the punch line finally starts to seem funny once more.
We recently hit the “it’s funny again” stage with the announcement that Trump had picked former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy. Like a peak-season “Arrested Development” punch line, this is a joke with many layers. After all, ‘twas Perry who, in his lowest moment as a presidential candidate, failed to recall that the Department of Energy was one of the Cabinet agencies he wanted to dissolve. Now he might end up running it, which is just a comic masterstroke. What’s more, he’ll be doing so at the pleasure of a man he once called a “cancer.” Weird how things just metastasize.
As Deadspin’s Albert Burneko noted yesterday, it’s easy for a “casual observer to believe, incorrectly, that the department’s primary function has to do with the production of fossil fuels, like oil.” Perry’s appointment definitely seems like, shall we say, the kind of idea a casual observer would come up with. But the Department of Energy is an organization with many missions, including determining the future of our radioactive nuclear waste. It’s also, as Stanford astrophysicist Rita Wechsler pointed out this week, a core institution of scientific innovation in the United States (and, by extension, the world), running key research facilities that contribute to Nobel Prize-winning scientific breakthroughs.
If you’re wondering how Perry might preside over an agency largely concerned with sound science ― well, the outlook isn’t good. It was, after all, Perry’s self-imposed ignorance of physics that directly led to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. And as Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy elucidated at length this week, Perry’s hostility to climate science is boundless.
In this way, Perry fits in well with a Trump administration that’s already tilting toward Lysenkoism. It looks like the incoming administration is planning some kind of purge of climate researchers in government, sending scientists on a mad dash to collect and duplicate as much data as they can to keep it out of Trump’s hands. (It’s going to be a good year for private servers after all!)
It’ll be ironic if Perry, who’s been notably hawkish on protecting incursions of any kind on our borders, ends up being responsible for some of America’s top scientific talent fleeing to more hospitable climes. But that’s a likely outcome.
Meanwhile, to environmentalists, the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency signals the death knell of most efforts to curb pollution and protect people from its effects. As The Huffington Post’s Kate Sheppard reports, Pruitt has happily characterized himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
Sheppard notes that Pruitt is “currently suing the EPA... to stop the Obama administration’s effort to curb emissions from power plants, and he was caught letting oil industry lawyers draft letters to regulators on his behalf.” All in all, it seems unlikely that the Environmental Protection Agency would do much environment-protecting under Pruitt’s leadership. Maybe a name change is in order?
Funnily, Pruitt isn’t the only Trump appointee who might soon find himself leading an agency with which he’s been involved in a legal entanglement. Andy Puzder, who’s been tapped to lead the Department of Labor, is chief executive of CKE Restaurant Holdings. In that life, Puzder is best known as a serial scofflaw of labor rights and a frequent target of the Department of Labor’s regulators. As HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson reports, CKE’s main brands ― Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. ― have been a festering swamp of wage theft and workplace safety issues.
You know who doesn’t complain about wage theft and workplace safety? Robots! Puzder has spoken glowingly of inanimate laborers, gushing that “they’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.” As for those ― what are they called ― right, humans, Puzder has opposed President Barack Obama’s expansion of overtime protection and has generally, per Jamieson, “spent his career as someone who would want to lower workplace fines, not dole them out.” In short, it seems improbable that a Puzder-led Labor Department would do much to improve the fortunes or expand the rights of working-class strivers.
Other Trump nominees are similarly-minded. Betsy DeVos, a billionaire who’s made it her life’s mission to destroy public education by steering vital funding to private and charter schools (an effort at which she’s been a complete cock-up), is Trump’s pick for the Department of Education. The main qualification of Linda McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment and Trump’s selection to lead the Small Business Administration, seems to be her ability to crush small businesses (and, uh, give money to the Trump Foundation).
And then there’s prospective Housing And Urban Development head Ben Carson, who... doesn’t seem to know anything about housing or urban development? At all? But as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait points out, Carson has distinguished himself as a scammer par excellence, and HUD’s “program structure lends itself naturally to profiteering.”
If you’re worried about the future of these agencies, and the odds that people like Perry will simply order them to be stripped down to the joists, that’s sort of the ironic twist. At some point, Trump’s appointees are going to discover one thing to love and admire about these institutions: the billions of dollars that sluice through them, ready to be channeled into any number of exciting patronage schemes and clear the way for these blackguards to enjoy lucrative post-administration careers based on favors offered and connections made.
Say what you want about kleptocracy, dude, but at least it’s an ethos ― one that requires an infrastructure to exist. In this way, these institutions of government may yet survive to fight another day. Unfortunately, whether you do the same is something of an open question.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.