At some level, we’re all trying to normalize the cosmic disaster that the Trump presidency is showing every sign of becoming. Some level of normalcy has to be assumed, so that we can get on with our lives, right? It isn’t easy to maintain that optimism though. Forget the Putin factor. Daily, the team of charlatans, bigots and stunningly ignorant crackpots that Trump is appointing to head key federal agencies is just as alarming. These are positions with vast power and budgetary discretion over policies that stand to affect tens of millions of vulnerable Americans. Sad!
For the record, here are a few of my recent Trumpian meltdown moments. Largely, they’ve been to do with the conflicts of interest among the Trump team – starting at the top, with the lack of disclosure of Trump’s tax returns, and the corresponding lack of resolution of the potential conflicts between his family businesses and the affairs of state. The same issues – and the same failures to resolve the ethical paperwork – have been blazingly evident among his Cabinet appointees.
For a partial overview of the ethical issues being raised as the candidates appear before the various Senate vetting committees, this is a useful starting point.
Also, here are a few of the more striking aspects of the Trump Cabinet that have emerged over the past ten days or so :
1. Tom Price : Health and Human Services.
Price is Trump’s pick for Heath Secretary and will oversee the replacement of Obamacare, once he’s confirmed. Price’s powers do not end there. As Wired magazine has also pointed out:
The six-term Georgia Republican will oversee vast social programs and lead the Food and Drug Administration, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and other agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services, with a budget of $1 trillion, is the world’s largest source of funding for medical research, and it sets the course for how the national healthcare system navigates the increasingly digitized world of personal health data. Price would have broad oversight over FDA policies regulating drugs, medical devices, and diagnostic tests.
But…as CNN have revealed, Price traded shares in a medical appliances company last year, and then a week later introduced legislation that would directly benefit it.
This is not the first time that similar concerns about Price have surfaced :
The new revelation is the latest example of Price trading stock in a healthcare firm at the same time as pursuing legislation that could impact a company’s share price. The issue has become a major liability for the congressman after The Wall Street Journal reported last month that he traded roughly $300,000 in shares over the past four years in health companies while pursuing legislation that could impact them.
2. Betsy DeVos : Education Secretary
Trump’s pick to head the US system of public education is a major Republican donor, a leading lobbyist on behalf of charter schools and voucher education, and an advocate of school privatization. In Michigan, DeVos led a campaign to exempt charter school outcomes from adequate oversight.
She and her husband have major investments in a web of companies in the education sector. (There are DeVos investments in some 250 companies registered at a single Grand Rapids address, a web that a credible confirmation process would require weeks or months to untangle.) DeVos had failed to complete the ethical filing papers detailing her potential conflicts of interest before she appeared at her confirmation hearing.
At those hearings, DeVos appeared ignorant of basic federal laws regarding the education sector, eg regarding the rights of disabled children. Under questioning, she seemed unable to grasp the significance of the difference between growth and proficiency on national test score outcomes. She also refused to endorse gun-free zones at the nation’s public schools on the grounds that guns might provide necessary protection against the threat posed by grizzly bears. (!)
3. Steven Mnuchin : Commerce Secretary
Mnuchin is the former Goldman Sachs hedge fund millionaire selected by Trump to run the US Treasury.
Meaning : the guy who made millions advising his clients on how to hide their money in offshore tax havens will now be in charge of assessing and enforcing the tax liability of the same class of corporates and wealthy individuals. Given the potential for serious ethical conflicts here, you’d think Mnuchin would have been extra-careful about his asset disclosures. Not so.
Mnuchin…. was grilled by the Senate finance committee on Thursday over his role at a California bank that foreclosed on thousands of vulnerable borrowers, his attitude to tax havens and the future regulation of the US financial system.
On Wednesday night the committee learned Mnuchin had initially failed to disclose he was a director of Dune Capital International, an investment fund incorporated in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. He also omitted other assets, including $95m in real estate and $906,556 worth of artwork held by his children.
4. Wilbur Ross : Commerce Secretary
Drain the swamp. Keep jobs in America. We know the rhetoric. Yet the guy tasked by Trump with keeping jobs in America has been – to date – as much part of the problem, as part of the solution.
Companies controlled by Wilbur Ross, a billionaire known as “the king of bankruptcy” for buying struggling businesses and turning them around into profitability, cut roughly 2,700 jobs since 2004 by shipping their production into other countries, according to data obtained by Reuters under a Freedom of Information Act request on Tuesday. These included textile, finance, and auto-parts companies.
5. Jeff Sessions : Attorney-General
Sessions is a particularly disturbing choice for the country’s leading federal legal position. His political career has been marked by a series of accusations of racism, including his public joking about thinking the Ku Klux Klan were alright, until he heard they smoked marijuana.
Sessions has been a long time opponent of LGBT legal rights, and of same-sex marriage legislation. In addition:
In 2000 and 2009 he voted against legislation which would expand the definition of a hate crime to include offences based on sexual orientation. In 2015 after the Supreme Court voted to allow same-sex marriage across the US, he dubbed the decision an “effort to secularise, by force and intimidation”.
Incredibly, in a country supposed to be careful about the separation of church and state, Sessions has consistently argued that a secular mindset is incapable of identifying objective truth. (Secularism leads inevitably to relativism, according to Sessions. Only the religious faithful, he argues, can grasp the ‘objective’ difference between right and wrong.) This line of reasoning has marked his prior criticism of liberal Supreme Court judges, and was repeated during his confirmation hearings.
There’s nothing wrong with citing one’s faith in discussing the existence of objective truth. But that’s not what Sessions is doing here. Instead, he has repeatedly cast doubt on whether someone who doesn’t share his faith, or a person of faith with a “secular mindset,” would be able to recognize objective truth, and should have a role in government.
6. Andrew Puzder : Labour Secretary
The guy picked to oversee US workplace legislation and worker rights is a former head of Carl Jnr’s and Hardees restaurants. In 2015, Puzder defended the use of blatantly sexist advertising by these companies:
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a beautiful woman in a bikini, eating a burger and washing a Bentley or a pickup truck or being in a hot tub,” Puzder said in an interview with CNNMoney in 2015. “I think there’s probably nothing more American.”
Puzder also has a track record of opposition to increases to the minimum wage and to paid sick leave for federal contractors. Moreover:
Speaking to Business Insider this year, Mr. Puzder said that increased automation could be a welcome development because machines were “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.”
Just the guy to make job opportunities and workplace conditions in America great again, right?
6. Elaine Chao : Transportation Secretary
Trump has talked of spending $1 trillion to improve America’s ageing transport infrastructure. Good. However, Elaine Chao, his choice as Transportation Secretary will continue –– while doing this job – to receive a $1-5 million retainer from Wells Fargo, a firm with major financial interests in exactly these kind of projects.
During her first day of hearings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Chao emphasized her interest in utilizing private sector solutions for infrastructure projects, saying she would use “innovative financing tools, such as public-private partnerships” to build the next generation of roads and bridges.
Such deals are attractive because they require limited taxpayer investment. But they are also controversial, as privatized toll roads, parking meters, water projects, and other infrastructure deals end up costing government entities more over the long term as costs balloon over time, and in many cases, private operators are awarded handsome profits by charging consumers increasingly inflated fees.
Wells Fargo, notably, has taken a close interest in such financing schemes. After the election last year, Wells Fargo published an article highlighting Trump’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan using private-public partnerships, noting that such deals are often financed through tax-exempt municipal bonds. These arrangements “may provide an investment opportunity for municipal bond investors,” the article declared.
7. Ben Carson ; Housing and Urban Development Secretary
Carson’s shortcomings (and limited attention span) were exposed last year during his bid to win the Republican presidential nomination. As head of HUD, Carson will oversee vast budgets and wield extensive power over housing policy for needy Americans. He brings no expertise to this role, or much in the way of visible interest in it. As this encounter with Elizabeth Warren at his conformation hearings shows, he’s not particularly interested either, in ensuring that the Trump family do not financially benefit from his decisions.
8. Scott Pruitt : Environmental Protection Agency.
As this report in Business Insider indicates, Pruitt has c0nsistently taken legal action against the Environmental Protection Agency that he will now head.
[Pruitt] has filed 14 lawsuits against the EPA (some of which are ongoing) during his time as Oklahoma state attorney general and broadly opposed EPA air quality and other environmental efforts across the country. In 2014, for example, Pruitt joined 20 other state attorneys general in an amicus brief opposing a cleanup of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay —1,400 miles from his home state. Pruitt has more than once sent letters to the EPA on official attorney general letterhead that were written by oil companies….
He acknowledges that the climate is changing and that humans play some role in it, he said in his opening statement, but maintains that the details, severity, and consequences of climate change are “up for debate.”
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Pruitt was asked what level of lead consumption would be acceptable for children — a question related to the water crisis in Flint, Mich. His answer suggested that again, in his view, the research was not decisive.
“That’s something I have not reviewed nor know about. I would be concerned about any level of lead going into the drinking water, or obviously human consumption,” Pruitt said. “But I have not looked at the scientific research.” Public health officials have long said there is no safe level of lead, especially for children.
In essence, the concern is not simply about what damage Trump may do personally do. It is also about the harm that this wrecking crew he has assembled will do to the fabric of American society that’s been built up with such difficulty, since the New Deal of the 1930s. From the outside, it looks as if America is being asset stripped, and sold for scrap.
On inauguration day, Foxygen plan to release their Hang album, which is shaping up as the first great album of 2017. Those familiar with this band will know their skill at combining dead-on 1980s pastiches with their own skewed take on tropes they evidently know backwards. On this new album, they’ve also marshaled a 34 piece orchestra to make these songs sound as big as Broadway. Here’s the “Follow The Leader” single:
And on the “On Lankershim” track they do over the likes of the Eagles and other 1970s groups, in their own peculiar fashion :
From the back catalogue, here’s their take on “San Francisco,” the city where the forest meets the bridge :
And here’s where it all started a few years ago, with the stoned “No Destruction” video from their breakthrough album :