Home > Uncategorized > The Trump cabinet: strangest show on Earth

The Trump cabinet: strangest show on Earth

from Dean Baker

As we start the Trump presidency, events just keep getting more bizarre. At his first and last press conference as president-elect, Donald Trump boasted about his divestment plan in which he was “sort of, kind of” turning over the management of his business enterprises to his two adult sons. He displayed a table full of documents that were supposed to indicate the extent of his divestment, but the documents were not made available for the press to examine.

Furthermore, in spite of claiming that he was stepping away from his business enterprises, Trump was still boasting being offered a $2 billion deal from a Dubai businessman. While Trump assured us that he turned the deal down, the obvious question is why he was discussing it in the first place.

Insofar as Trump is actually stepping away from his business, this is very far from the sort of blind trust arrangements made by presidents of both parties for the last half century. The public can never be sure that his actions as president are not motivated by a desire to fatten the profits of Trump enterprises. Nor can we be assured that actions by foreign governments won’t be affected by their country’s dealings with the president’s business empire.

The ethical lapses from the top carry through to his cabinet appointments, which seem destined to replace Ringling Bros. Circus as the strangest show on Earth. Andy Puzder, Trump’s pick for secretary of labor, runs two chains of fast-food restaurants that have repeatedly violated wage and hour laws and has been legally forced to make payments to workers. These are the laws that Mr. Puzder will be responsible for enforcing if he gets approved for the job.

Also, it appears that the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee may legitimately have to ask Mr. Puzder when he stopped beating his wife. His first wife accused Mr. Puzder of repeatedly assaulting her in divorce filings, although she has recently issued a statement claiming that her earlier accusations were not true.

Betsy DeVos, the Amway heiress who Trump designated to be his secretary of education, will be forever remembered as the person who suggested that we need guns in schools to defend children against grizzly bears. She also would not commit herself to saying that the schools have an obligation to educate children with disabilities. In addition, she seemed completely unfamiliar with the major debates in recent decades on education policy, for instance, growth versus proficiency.

Rep. Tom Price, the pick for health and human services secretary, appears to have bought stock in a medical device company the day before he introduced legislation that would improve its regulatory status. His lawyers are now threatening CNN with legal action for reporting this fact.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been designated for secretary of energy, a department that he previously advocated eliminating, although he famously could not remember its name in a Republican primary debate. Apparently both Trump and Perry misunderstood the department’s duties at the time of his selection, failing to realize that its primary responsibility is overseeing the country’s nuclear weapon arsenal, not promoting oil and gas development.

Treasury secretary designate Steve Mnuchin made much of his fortune running OneWest bank, which was known for rushing foreclosures and evictions following the collapse of the housing bubble. The California attorney general’s staff recommended legal action against OneWest for questionable practices, including backdating legal documents. In his original disclosure documents, Mr. Mnuchin apparently forget to mention over $100 million in assets, as well as his position as director of a hedge fund headquartered in the Cayman islands.

Rep. Rick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, neglected to pay over $15,000 in taxes for a household worker. This is the same offense that wiped out several high level nominees in Democratic administrations. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for secretary of defense and perhaps the most qualified selection in the group, has earned notoriety as a member of the board of directors of Theranos, a company now famous for fraudulent claims on its medical tests.

In addition, we have a designee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, whose entire foreign policy experience has been doing deals for Exxon-Mobil for 40 years. And then there is the billionaire investor Carl Icahn, who has apparently offered to serve as an unpaid economic advisor to Trump, while he remains free to invest his fortune in ways that take advantage of the advice he offers.

Mr. Trump certainly has assembled a formidable crew for his cabinet and top advisory posts that seem well-suited to follow through on the ethical standards to which he himself adheres. There is an old saying that a fish rots from the head. Trump seems intent on proving this true, even if he gets nothing else done in his administration.

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  1. patrick newman
    January 28, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    Should be able to get a couple of impeachments out of that lot!

  2. January 28, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    Dean is right: bizarre is the word that keeps showing up in the commentary, starting with that press conference before the inauguration. It’s not an exaggeration.

    At some risk, I have sought out Newt Gingrich’s speech – his take on what Trump(ism)onomics might stand for – in his December presentation at the Heritage Foundation.

    Of course, Newt is a famous systematizer and rationalizer, and one has to keep in mind that the form he wants to fit Trump into is the long-standing one of the Republican Right: to complete the dismantlement of what’s left of FDR’s New Deal. So I’m looking at this cast of cabinet characters partly through that lens, and it seems to fit pretty well: many stand for major policy orientations (education, labor, Health and Human Services, Housing) directly opposed to a strong federal role for departments, unless that role is to dismantle their traditional functions and/or to privatize them.

    In preparation for some future challenging writing about what Trump represents, I’m increasingly inclined to view his efforts on trade along two lines of thought: that he is in the mainstream, if that is not an oxymoron of a term, of the Western reaction to globalization and the terribly disruptive effects it has had on the working and lower middle classes…the rise of the nationalist right across Western Europe and now extending to eastern countries.

    Mainstream American economic thought, and the German dominance in Europe, has vastly underestimated the level of social pain and disruptions of labor markets that globalization has caused.

    And second, keeping in mind the electoral map which won him the Electoral college, the fact that it is exactly the vision George Wallace held out in his 1968 and 1972 runs, that Trumpism also reflects an American version of the revolt against all that we mean by modernity/modernization.

    The rise of the religious right in the 1970’s, the fight against the sexual and gender revolutions which seem to go hand and hand historically with technological creative destruction which is the driving forces behind globalization…disruptive to old social orders within the West as well as many other parts of the world,,,Trump building his winning electoral majority by winning over the religious right, as strange and incongruous as that might seem for his geographical home in New York City, and his lifestyle.

    One has to push deeper into the connections of some of his cabinet members to realize these aspects, but it is there in Betsy DeVos and certainly Ben Carson and perhaps his choice for H&H Services.

    I have no trouble in seeing Trump as a logical extension of the trend towards the “Southernization” of American national politics, which began with the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948, gave rise to George Wallace, Richard Nixon (a much milder version of these trends) Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot…Sarah Palin…built upon the building blocks of economic nationalism, hyper militarism, law and order, and a last ditch defense of the moral certitudes of late 19th century Protestantism…and perhaps most importantly, merging the anti-government orientation that has been the dominant outlook of the American South since the 1840’s and merging it into the anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulatory foundations of the neoliberal governing order.

    Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time,” which came out in 2013, painted a pretty clear picture of the rise of the once latent, now realized coalition as early as 1937-1938, in reaction to the powerful federal actions the New Deal was built upon, threatening the Jim Crow racial regime in the South, and the pro-union labor policies which were equally threatening.

    The real question before us is whether anything systematic and sustained can come out of the ideological incoherence of Trump’s “coalition,” coherent enough to improve the lives of those who have formed the backbone of his electoral map.

    The left has not been able to pull such coherence off, despite the surprising appeal of Bernie Sanders efforts. His version of a modernized New Deal social contract broke apart on the shoals of the separate reefs of Democratic Party identity politics…racial, immigrant, and gender based.

    My great fear is that we will face a sharp economic crisis, a recession or financial panic in the midst of this great intellectual and moral confusion that represents the current state of American politics, and perhaps, as well, following the reasoning laid out for us by philosopher John Gray as early as 1998 in his very relevant book about globalization, “False Dawn,” the actual chaos in the existing international “order”…another oxymoron.

    And the state of economic thought…represented by the “stalemate” between Democratic centrists and Keynesians and the Republican Right in Congress from 2009-2016…can’t help but remind me of a similiar one sketched out for us by Karl Polanyi in “The Great Transformation,” as the West faced the complete collapse of its existing economic order, and Germany, Britain and France couldn’t even come to a domestic political consensus (prior to 1933) about extending “unemployment insurance” benefits…

    My thoughts outlined in the above paragraphs come from the mental exercise of thinking about the possibility of creating a new Bretton Woods type arrangement to share “industrial jobs” across regions and nations…yes, it is a laughable notion, since we haven’t been able to put together a new financial Bretton Woods Order, even in the wake of 2008-2009. And remember, to add an additional layer of reality to the alleged Russian hacking of American politics stories, that high former members of the American intelligence community had been telling us just a few years ago that every major American international corporation had been thoroughly electronically compromised by Chinese efforts…unambiguous economic warfare…

    Efforts to reshape international trade more to American worker’s favor might have had a greater chance 20 years ago…I’m thinking of Bill Greider’s critique of the threat of China in his 1997 book “One World, Ready or Not” which so enraged Paul Krugman.

    Today, in 2017…it’s hard to imagine pulling anything like this scale of revision off …successfully…with no talk in the Trump camp that I’ve come across of a new long term industrial policy…just tougher SOB’s at the world negotiating tables.

    Good luck to us all.

  3. February 2, 2017 at 7:10 am

    This is not as black and white as it may appear. Many historians label U.S. Grants’ Administration as the most corrupt in American history. The ethical standards in many of Grant’s cabinet appointments were low, and charges of corruption were widespread. Starting with the Black Friday (1869) gold speculation ring, corruption would be discovered during Grant’s two presidential terms in seven federal departments, including the Navy, Justice, War, Treasury, Interior, State, and the Post Office. Nepotism was rampant, with over 40 family members benefiting from government appointments and employment. Corruption in the Grant Administration was so prevalent that it was given its own name, Grantism. Yet at the same time Grant also introduced America’s first professional civil service and several of his cabinet members cleaned up large illegal enterprises. Treasure Secretary Benjamin Bristow broke up and prosecuted the Whiskey Ring, a corrupt tax evasion profiteering ring that depleted the national treasury. Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont vigorously prosecuted the notorious Whiskey Ring, a national tax evasion swindle that involved whiskey distillers, brokers, and government officials, including President Grant’s private secretary, Orville E. Babcock. Pierrepont also quickly cleaned up corruption in Southern U.S. Districts to enforce Freedman’s rights.

    But Grant’s term was also torn by ideological conflicts. The Radical Republicans wanted to eviscerate the South. They put great pressure on Grant to do just this. The Reformers (a combination of Democrats and Republicans), who would eventually become the Progressives supported full equality and voting rights for the newly freed slaves. They also pressed Grant. Finally, the Democrats opposed equality of any sort for the races and hated Grant for his war record. The cabinet and the country reflected these ideological divides.

    It wasn’t by chance that Mark Twain called the years from 1869 to 1877 the “Gilded Age.” It was a time of political turmoil, financial speculation and scandal, and tremendous economic growth. Out of it came the largest demographic and economic growth spurt in history up to that point. Between 1870 and 1900, the United States population nearly doubled in size, gainful employment increased by 132 percent, and non farm labor constituted 60 percent of the work force. So take heart. Trump’s bumbling and xenophobic racism may turn out better than anyone expects. The biggest difference between Grant’s Presidency and that of Trump seems to be the rabid isolationism and race baiting of Trump. Grant improved the lives of the freed slaves in many ways and at least for a time silenced hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Trump seems intent on the opposite. Whether this will eventually be softened and reversed by strong push back or will lead the nation into civil war is the central unknown. In this Trump more closely resembles Andrew Jackson, whose racist and jingoist Administration did indeed prepare the way for the first Civil War.

  4. February 3, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    I certainly agree with much of the criticism of Trump’s cabinet, but I think you can understand better what he is trying to do when you consider an example comparison. A chess grandmaster has no business listening to a chess reporter at the local newspaper. Trump sees billionaires as people who have no business listening to non-billionaires on how to manage money. His analysis is certainly flawed in that Billionaires are arguable generally better at denying shared goals than achieving them, but his behavior becomes more understandable when looked at through that lens.

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