WASHINGTON, April 17, 2017 — What Americans can expect from the Trump administration is increasingly unclear. What Donald Trump promised as a candidate and what he has been doing as president so far have often been contradictory.
The list of contradictions and reversals is a long one. Trump has abandoned his non-interventionist campaign rhetoric and ordered military strikes in Syria. In 2013, when President Obama sought congressional approval for military action in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Donald Trump, in a series of tweets, rejected any intervention. But on April 6, without consulting Congress, he authorized an attack on Syria.
He says that he no longer considers China a “currency manipulator” and no longer believes that NATO is “obsolete.” At his campaign rallies, he led chants of “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton. Once elected, he said any violations of law Clinton may have committed would be ignored.
Trump promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and said at every rally, “Mexico will pay for it.” Now American taxpayers will get the bill, if the wall is ever built.
Candidate Trump vowed not to cut Medicare or Medicaid. President Trump embraced a Republican Obamacare replacement that would have hiked costs for older Americans. It failed, despite his threats to conservative Republicans that if they voted against it, he would support primary challenges. Now he says he will force Democrats to negotiate by cutting Obamacare health insurance subsidies for seven million poor people.
Candidate Trump criticized Obama’s vacations, accused the Obamas of extravagance with taxpayer dollars, and said that as president, he would “rarely leave the White House because there is so much work to be done.” President Trump spends most weekends at Mar-a-Lago and is on his way to spending more taxpayer dollars on personal travel in his first year than Obama did in eight.
Candidate Trump told workers in Michigan that on Day 1, “A Trump administration will renegotiate NAFTA, and if we don’t get the deal we want, we will terminate NAFTA and get a much better deal for our workers and our companies.” President Trump has done nothing—and he no longer mentions NAFTA.
In 2015, candidate Trump called the Export-Import Bank “featherbedding” for politicians and big corporations, the kind of crony capitalism conservatives have opposed. In April, President Trump called the Export-Import Bank “a very good thing” and said, “lots of small corporations are really helped.”
Most glaring is Trump’s neglect of his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington and provide Americans with open and responsive government. What we have is business as usual: growing secrecy in government; lobbyists and former lobbyists, the ultimate Washington insiders, more and more in charge.
Candidate Trump said he would release his income tax returns after an audit. President Trump says they will not be released after all. The White House still says that Trump cannot release his tax returns because he is under audit, but the tax returns of presidents and vice presidents are automatically audited every year. That has not prevented every other president since Richard Nixon from making public at least a portion of his tax records.
The Trump presidency is rejecting the idea of government transparency in favor of secrecy, something opponents of big government have always opposed. In April, the White House announced that it will not routinely release White House visitor records, as Obama did. The reason given was concern for “grave national security risks and privacy concerns.”
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, observes:
“This, however, is specious—since a national security exception is already built into the policy. The only reason to keep secret White House visitor logs is to hide from the American public the corporate influence-peddlers who are seeking favors and gifts from the White House. More secrecy equals more cronyism, more insider dealing, and more corruption.”
Lobbyists, Washington insiders, the very establishment candidate Trump ran against, now seem to be in charge of much of President Trump’s administration. Upon taking office, Trump eliminated an ethics provision that prohibits lobbyists from joining agencies they lobbied in the prior two years. The government is now being staffed with former lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants who in many cases are helping write new policies for the industries for which they recently worked.
Michael Catanzaro, who serves as the White House energy advisor, worked until late last year as a lobbyist for industry clients such as Devon Energy of Oklahoma, an oil and gas company, and Talen Energy of Pennsylvania, a coal-burning electric utility. In this capacity, Catanzaro fought environmental regulations including the Clean Power Plan. Now, he is in charge of some of the same matters for the Federal government.
Chad Wolf spent the last several years lobbying to secure funding for the Transportation Security Administration to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new carry-on luggage screening device. He is now chief of staff at that agency, at the same time as the device is being tested and evaluated for possible purchase by embassy staff.
At the Department of Labor, Geoffrey Burr has been hired as a special assistant. Previously, he was a lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors, which pressed the agency on its overtime pay rule, wage requirements for government contracts and other regulations.
Lance Leggitt, chief of staff to Tom Price, the administration’s Health and Human Services Secretary, worked last year as a lobbyist for ten different health care companies, including United States Medical Supply and Advanced Infusion Services. He lobbied the agency concerning Medicare billing rules, as well as rules for health care supplier accreditations. These issues are handled by the agency he now helps to oversee.
The man named to head the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, received more than $350,000 in payments in 2014 and 2015 from nearly a dozen pharmaceutical companies, including Vertex Pharmaceuticals, whose two approved drugs for cystic fibrosis carry list prices of more than $250,000 per year. Dr. Gottlieb has served as the director of eight pharmaceutical companies and one laboratory company.
It is hard to understand how hiring lobbyists to staff government agencies drains the Washington swamp. Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight, says that the number of potential conflicts—which will require recusals, necessitate waivers or result in violations of the ethics rule—is disturbing, as is the secretive approach the administration is taking.
“This is not just a matter of checking a box—this is about protecting the integrity of the operation of federal government,” said Brian. “But our worst fears are coming true. We know people coming in who have conflicts, and we cannot see what restrictions they are under if any.”
The people who voted for Trump are getting an administration far different from the one they were promised. Draining the swamp is no longer on the agenda.
Will Republicans and conservatives acquiesce to Trump policies that they lambasted when embraced by Democrats? Perhaps the biggest thing the parties have in common is a narrow partisanship which dictates that anything a president of their own party does is perfectly acceptable.
If this is the case, Winston Churchill’s observation that in a democracy, people get the kind of government they deserve, once against proves itself to be true.
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