President-Elect Donald Trump’s cabinet and top nominees draw more deeply from an extremist faction of the corporate class than any in memory, and likely in history. We are witnessing the wholesale corporate takeover of the American government.
Nothing more plainly shows Trump’s complete cynicism and dishonesty than his absolute betrayal of the core claim of his campaign – to rid Washington of corruption, cronyism and insider dealing. The corporate interests who he properly alleged in the campaign buy politicians will now themselves be directly in charge of the government.
With this cabinet, it is a virtual certainty that this administration will be the most corrupt and scandal prone in American history.
And it is absolute certainty that, by design, they will pursue a policy agenda that serves the interests of the corporate class against and does deep harm to the American people.
To understand the scope of what we are facing, it’s useful for a moment to step back and consider not just one or two of Trump’s nominees, but the totality of his handover to corporate interests:
- Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who has strong ties to Koch Industries and raked in eye-popping sums from the finance sector, construction industry, pharmaceutical industry and chemical industry;
- Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state pick, spent his entire career at Exxon Mobil, which is not just among the world’s largest oil companies, but the corporation most responsible for spreading climate denial and intimidating climate activists.
- Steven Mnuchin, treasury secretary nominee and longtime Goldman Sachs executive, through a hedge fund took over the failed IndyMac, turned it into One West and went on a foreclosure rampage, engaging in robosigning and other abuses such that one judge found the bank to have engaged in practices that were “”harsh, repugnant, shocking and repulsive.”
- General James Mattis, the pick for secretary of defense, has spun through the revolving door, leaving the military to serve on the board of General Dynamics, a multinational military contractor, and the scandal-ridden Theranos, a start-up company which misled investors and consumers about its blood-testing technology.
- U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), under consideration for attorney general, despite a racist record that disqualified him from a federal judgeship three decades ago, and who has a record of gentle treatment of the finance, tobacco and other industries.
- Betsy DeVos, named to be education secretary, is a billionaire scion and whose husband is heir to the Amway fortune, is a purveyor of extremist education privatization proposals and has herself invested in for-profit education companies.
- Elaine Chao, up to run the U.S. Department of Transportation, who served on the board of directors of Wells Fargo during the cross-selling scandal, as well as a half dozen other corporate boards.
- Former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, slated to head the National Economic Council, who led Goldman Sachs as it profited off the housing market collapse in part by misleading its own clients;
- Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to the run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, believes that climate science is “far from settled,” has repeatedly sued the agency he will be tasked with leading, and as Oklahoma attorney general sent letters to federal agencies that were literally drafted by Devon Energy, one of the state’s largest oil and gas corporations.
- Steve Bannon, a special adviser to Trump who once ran and may maintain undisclosed business or other ties with Breitbart.com, a far-right, racist website, and is a former Goldman Sachs executive;
- Linda McMahon, picked to run the Small Business Administration, who as World Wrestling Entertainment CEO helped ensure the wrestling industry remained largely unregulated, putting the health and safety of wrestlers at risk;
- Andy Puzder, who is to head the U.S. Department of Labor, the long-time mogul in charge of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains, companies known for being anti-worker and anti-union, and who opposes many or all of the most important, recent, pro-worker initiatives of the Obama Labor Department, including a rule to ensure that worker are properly compensated for overtime.
- Wilbur Ross, a billionaire whose firm has profited from buying distressed firms and cutting workers’ benefits, named to take the post of secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
- Carl Icahn, named as Trump’s “special advisor on regulatory affairs,” is the emblematic corporate raider and epitomizes predatory corporate capitalism, with financial holdings that give him a direct stake in many of the matters about which he will be advising the president.
In any prior administration, it would have been a tempest if even one of these individuals had been named to the cabinet.
The totality of the harm these individuals can inflict on America is hard to overstate. Consider some of the particulars.
First, the Trump administration with a huge assist from Senate Republicans is displaying a stunningly cavalier attitude toward ethics rules. Nominees for cabinet positions are being rushed through Senate confirmation hearings without full vetting of ethical issues (as well as security issues). States the head of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), the agency in charge of ethics reviews: “It has left some nominees with potentially unknown or potentially unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings. I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process.” In 2009, now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell demanded that no hearing be held on a cabinet nominee until ethics reviews were complete – now, well, not so much.
Now, Senator McConnell says these are picayune and technical requirements and the process of governing must proceed. But he’s wrong. The ethics pre-clearance process – by which nominees disclose their financial holdings and work with the OGE on an arrangement of divestitures and commitments to recuse themselves from issues relating to current and former investments – is vital to avoid transgressing criminal conflict of interest standards. It is the moment when there is, or should be, the most attention to conflict of interest rules. If attention is not paid now, it is a virtual certainty that scandal will emerge later.
Second, the unprecedented wealth and corporate entanglements of cabinet nominees means those inevitable scandals won’t just involve conferring relatively small benefits on favored businesses. It means that policy-making itself will be corrupted. Consider the case of Carl Icahn. The corporate raider is known for his aggressive investment strategies that involve complex disputes about securities laws and has been implicated in Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigations over wrongdoing himself. Now Icahn has reportedly played a major role in selecting Trump’s nominee to chair the SEC.
Even more troublingly, Icahn had a key role in vetting Trump’s candidates to run the EPA, and had enthused over the selection of Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who has shown much more loyalty to oil-and-gas interests than environmental protection. Icahn has a controlling stake in CVR Energy Inc., which claims pending EPA rules will cost it hundreds of millions of dollars, and Icahn has stridently attacked EPA’s renewable fuel standards and shows no compunction about using his influence to get them removed. Are we all going to breathe dirtier air just to help Icahn earn his next few hundred million dollars? It’s entirely possible.
Third, even if the legal conflict issues are resolved, the bigger revolving-door problem will nonetheless pervade this administration. The revolving door refers to people moving back-and-forth between government and industry positions, and particularly between corporate jobs and in regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over past and future employers. People passing through the revolving door into government bring with them the views they had in the private sector, and project those corporate interests as governmental policy. People passing through the revolving door back into the private sector may capitalize on their prior associations; even more important is what they do while in government in anticipation of going back to corporate jobs.
This revolving door problem will define the Trump administration. Exxon’s worldview will now fundamentally shape the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, including over the transcendentally important matter of negotiating global climate accords. The agency charged with enforcing worker protections will be headed by a fast-food chain mogul who has run afoul of those very standards. The Defense Department is to be headed by a retired general who rushed to join the board of directors of one the largest military contractors just five months after retiring from the marines. The Goldman Sachs view will once again control economic policy-making (Gary Cohn at the White House) and have a controlling power in financial regulation (Steven Mnuchin at Treasury). And on and on.
Fourth, these aren’t just your every day corporatists and billionaires. We know from extensive poll and survey data that the super rich generally see the world very differentlythan the rest of us. But the Trump picks go way beyond that, hailing from an extremist faction of the super rich. Education Secretary pick Betsy DeVos’s primarily qualification is that she is an extremist, corporate libertarian ideologue. She has paid a great deal of attention to public education, with the primary objective of gutting it, in favor of vouchers and for-profit enterprises. Says education historian Diane Ravitch, “Never has anyone been appointed to lead in the past 150 years who was hostile to public education.”
DeVos and her husband and their family are part of what is colloquially known as the “Koch network” of corporate libertarian zillionaires, and the Koch Brothers are poised to have a surprisingly far-reaching influence in the Trump administration, given their hostility to the president-elect. “Trump has surrounded himself with people tied to the Kochs,” reports Politico in an article titled “Trump’s Koch Administration,” referencing Devos, Pence, White House Counsel Don McGahn and a host of operatives on the transition team; more, including Marc Short, former financial director for the Kochs’ Freedom Partners, who will serve as White House legislative affairs director, have since joined the White House staff-in-waiting.
Fifth, all of this matters more than it might in other administrations because of the, shall we say, unconventional governing style expected of the incoming president. The cabinet members are going to have unprecedented degrees of autonomy to pursue their preferred agendas.
Those in and around the transition, and those who have had prior business dealings with Trump, tell Politico that Trump “doesn’t usually like getting into day-to-day minutiae or taking lengthy briefings on issues. He doesn’t have particularly strong feelings on the intricacies of some government issues and agencies, these people say, and would rather focus on high-profile issues, publicity and his brand.”
Not only will the cabinet officials be given lots of latitude, Trump will encourage them to carry out extremist agendas – even if Trump himself has little idea what changes are merited or what they are doing.
Get ready, America. We’re in for some very tough times. A massive resistance – including demands to block the confirmation of this motley collection of corporate cabinet nominees – our best hope to limit the damage.