If people look hard enough for signs of the apocalypse, they’re sure to find them. Donald Trump as President of the United States, if not a herald of the end of the world, certainly doesn’t bode well for its future—just ask the powers-that-be behind the Doomsday Clock. Other aspects of life today, while perhaps not damning in them of themselves, in sum total may likewise well presage our civilization’s decline. Selfies. All-you-can-eat buffets. The phenomenon that is “Cash Me Outside” Girl. The Human Centipede movies. Sandwiches and other meals in which fried chicken is the bread. OK, maybe these are just things for which I personally have low regard, but I have my reasons. (Especially for The Human Centipede movies.) In fact, the breakdown of society is a popular trope across entertainment media. A show about the zombie apocalypse is not only one of the biggest shows on television these days—it has a spin-off that is essentially just the same show in a different location! In short, imagery of global destruction is all around us, such that it’s hard not to adopt feelings of doom and gloom surrounding the current state of affairs, at least now and again. Sometimes, all we can do is to latch onto something which grounds us in the here and now and brings us some measure of comfort.
It is within this context that I invoke a recently-published study conducted by a group of scientists regarding fairly recent trends in animal populations from which they’ve concluded Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction. The study cites significant declines in numbers of close to 9,000 vertebrate species just since 1900, including the outright extinction of almost 200 species, and does not mince words, depicting the situation as a global “biological annihilation.” Furthermore, these scientists caution that the window for effective action is a small one. Like, a mere 20 or 30 years. With Pres. Trump set to run the country—if you can call what he’s doing “running” the country—for the next three-and-a-half years, if not more, this puts us behind the proverbial 8-ball. While one might be careful not to overstate the damage Trump can do with so much momentum already behind efforts to create sustainable operations in both the public and private sectors, his ability to stunt this growth by halting regulations is nonetheless worrisome given the narrow time frame for intervention on the Earth’s behalf.
As reports on this study such as this one from Kristine Phillips of the Washington Postindicate, there is far from a consensus on the point of where are we on the timetable of mass extinctions or if we are in the midst of one at all. The researchers use data to back up their assertions, finding about a third of their sample of 27,600 vertebrate species have seen significant declines in population and habitat size over the course of study. More specifically, more than 40% of mammals (that’s us) in the sample, of which 177 species were scrutinized for the sake of this study, saw their numbers plummet. For the sake of an example, African lions have declined in number by more than 40% in just the last 20 years.
These findings seem stark and substantial, but not everyone in the scientific community is convinced. One expert in the field cited in Phillips’ report says that a mass extinction may well be underway, but it is only just beginning, and regardless, “telling people that we’re all doomed and going to die isn’t terribly helpful.” Well, no, but let’s also not undersell the whole mass extinction angle because it might frighten some people or bum them out, OK, guy? Another critical expert quoted within believes comparing prevailing trends in animal populations to the previous five established extinction-level events amounts to little more than “junk science,” as this is somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Or, perhaps to be more animal-centered, a baboon-to-porpoise comparison?
Regardless of whether or not animal population declines mediated by disappearing habitats qualifies as a distinct era of extinction, however, what these scientists can all seem to agree on is that humans have played a role in a number of these species extinctions, and that more are likely to come. Besides, there are those cohorts within the scientific community who believe such direct language on the need for conservation is not only advisable, but necessary. Sound the alarm bells! We’re going downhill—fast! As Kristine Phillips also notes, this is not the first time the idea has been advanced that we are in the midst of a mass extinction; some of the same researchers behind the current study raised concerns along these lines with a study only two years ago. In addition—and for those of us who might be standing on a ledge about now—there may be hope for all of us animals yet. Efforts to conserve endangered species and their habitats can and do work, and moreover, with regard to imperiled species numbers, safeguarding these populations can allow them to rebound like Shaquille O’Neal in his prime. (Note: O’Neal may or may not have been as prolific a rebounder as I remember him. The majority of my familiarity with basketball from that era is limited to playing NBA Jam.) Right down to planting native plants in one’s yard, we, as concerned citizens, can help.
Now that you’re clambering down from the ledge and heading back through the skyscraper window, let’s bring in the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress. Wait—don’t turn around and head back for that ledge! With respect to paths to action as outlined by Phillips and the scientists she cites, the caveat in recommending readers contact their elected representatives is that any number of them currently occupying seats don’t feel quite the same zeal for looking after the Earth and the fauna inhabiting it, particularly when espousing conservative or otherwise industry-centered views. As Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, sets forth, the current Congress is the “most anti-endangered species in history,” and his organization has identified 34 different active pieces of legislation which would weaken protections for the most vulnerable species.
And don’t even get me started about Donald Trump and his flunkies. Talk about setting a tone at the top—Trump not only once infamously espoused the belief that climate change was a myth created by the Chinese, but as President, he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a non-binding international commitment to combat the adverse effects of climate change. Non-binding. With no penalties. You get it—why doesn’t he? His selections for prominent positions in his Cabinet likewise fail to inspire on an ecological front, and for that matter, appear designed as deliberate attempts to undermine the departments to which the confirmed candidates have been assigned. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, is a former CEO of ExxonMobil. Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, marked his confirmation by approving a measure that would roll back restrictions on the use of lead ammunition for hunters on federal lands. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, sued the EPA umpteen times as Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, would’ve advocated for the dissolution of this department when campaigning for President—but he was too blockheaded to recall its name during the debate when asked.
These are the jokers who have aided and abetted Trump in his crusade to undo every meaningful environmental regulation from Barack Obama’s tenure, and so many of these reversals of policy are evidently unnecessary. We need more lead ammunition so—what, exactly? More birds of prey can get sick and die from lead poisoning from feeding on animals shot with it? It was so vital to repeal the Clean Water Rule because—oil/gas and fertilizer/pesticide companies were so inconvenienced by having to not dump shit in our streams and other waterways? Trump and Co. are very clearly putting profits over people and animals here, and in doing so, are ascribing to the belief that conservationism is bad for our bottom line. This, however, like so many of this administration’s ideas, is dead wrong.
Like so much of President Trump’s agenda, the shift toward an even more lax regard for the natural environment seems predicated on a short-term reward—and not one that the country as a whole will reap. Oh, sure, the part of the constituency for whom this plays may be thrilled at the vague idea we as a nation will start to do more for Joe the Miner than we did under Barack Obama or would have done under Hillary Clinton. From the outside looking in, though, we know better than to think Donald Trump is playing fast and loose with the fate of the planet primarily for their benefit. Instead, it’s on behalf of other rich assholes like himself, especially leaders of industry, and of course, himself, in terms of their vote come 2020. What facilitates this tacit agreement between the governor and the governed—or at least the portion of the governed that comprises his would-be supporters—is a larger shift away from confidence in science and the scientific community that supplies all the inconvenient facts climate change deniers and their ilk don’t like so much. In recent years, we’ve seen a sea change in the public’s credence of scientific principles and verifiable evidence.
As this intersects with politics, Newt Gingrich somewhat unwittingly invoked the seemingly growing divide between facts—those tidbits which are verifiably true or are generally accepted to be true based on a broad scientific consensus—and feelings—those assumptions which are based on assumptions and prejudices which may be true, but are not supported by evidence and are thus prone to error. In an interview with Gingrich on CNN during the Republican National Convention, the at-one-time-vice-presidential-nominee to Trump was pressed on the matter of whether or not violent crime had gone down over the years. Trump’s tone in his keynote speech was one of dystopian hyperbole, fire, and brimstone, in which he depicted the United States of America as a few murders short of a scene out of the Purge movies. The facts, unsurprisingly, don’t support Donald Trump’s claims; all one needs to do is access recent publicly-available data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, read about the trends, and see the line graphs going down. Easy-peasy.
Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, argued that these verifiable facts and figures were of less importance because Americans don’t feel them to be true. That is, John and Jane Public, good friends of Joe the Miner, don’t feel we are any safer of late. The implications of this line of thinking are all-too-frighteningly clear. By prioritizing feelings over facts, we are encouraging the cherry-picking of data to be used in analysis that only serves the purpose of the persons skewing this information to promote their desired narrative. Furthermore, by sanctioning the use of data in this way, we are implicitly approving the creation of policy and voting in accordance with the figures extracted using faulty science. Essentially, Gingrich is arguing it’s OK to mislead an American electorate which already tends to fall prey to trusting what their gut tells them as opposed to what their mind, aided by provable data, does. In other words, it’s not politicians’ fault that the rank-and-file among us can be guided like sheep into an enclosure. To a certain extent, he’s not wrong that we bear some culpability, but the ends certainly do not justify the means.
Ethan Siegel, astrophysicist, author, and primary writer on the science site Starts with a Bang!, wrote a post in response to Newt Gingrich’s arguments regarding the merits of feelings over facts shortly after the actual event occurred. Surely, as a member of the scientific community and an expert in his field, Siegel is not neutral on this subject, nor should we expect him to be. Still, as someone who, like so many of us, is concerned about the future of our country and of our world, his perspective on how we see expertise and its bearing on our relationship with factual information is potentially quite valuable, and certainly not one to be automatically dismissed. Siegel offers these thoughts on humans’ tendency to cherry-pick data and otherwise resist disconfirming evidence:
Most of us are uncomfortable with relying on others — even experts — even when we ourselves don’t have expert knowledge, expert training or the expertise of the full suite of all relevant facts. Particle physicist Brian Cox recently discussed this, saying: “It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.”
The facts do not change because of how we interpret (or misinterpret) them. Homeopathy is scientifically, robustly 100% ineffective against cancer. Fluoridated water results in a blanket 40% reduction in cavities, on average, on top of any other dental health programs in children. Violent crime has continued to decrease in America, continuing a trend that has persisted for more than 20 years. […] And human-caused changes to the environment are causing the Earth to warm, a long-term trend that is visible in the global temperature records for many decades now.
Both Ethan Siegel and Brian Cox (the man he quotes) come from a similar place when it comes to recognition of experts. This is to say that even they recognize experts aren’t always right about what they study—I’m sure some of you are recalling past errant weather forecasts made by meteorologists and nodding your heads in agreement—but they nonetheless understand that expertise is our best path toward some kind of truth. As Siegel tries repeatedly to reinforce, facts don’t become any more or less true depending on our personal beliefs. It is incumbent upon us as end users of documented scientific information to sift through the findings and draw our own conclusions, as it is with politics.
Coming back to the notion that started this whole meditation on the nature of scientific inquiry, you may choose to believe or disbelieve the idea that a sixth mass extinction is underway. Whatever you decide, though, the science on climate change is substantially less arguable, and at any rate, the value placed on factual information must be held sacrosanct. Whether it’s a literal cave in which one would isolate himself or herself from the outside world, or a figurative bubble into which to recede and ignore the inconvenient truths which cause us discomfort, becoming too entrenched has its certain perils.
Though it’s been fairly quiet on the confirmation front lately (President Donald Trump has been repeatedly criticized for his—shall we say—dilatory commitment to filling vacancies in his Cabinet), even ex post facto, it can be educational to see how our U.S. senators voted on the 19 nominees thus confirmed. A particularly valuable resource in this regard is an interactive graphic from The New York Times authored by Wilson Andrews, Times graphics editor, that plots the confirmation vote records of each and every senator, sorted by most “no” votes to least.
On the Republican side, the results are disappointing, if not unsurprising. Of the 52 Republicans with a seat in the Senate, only four have registered at least one “no” vote: Lisa Murkowski (DeVos), John McCain, (Mulvaney), Rand Paul (Pompeo, Coats), and Susan Collins (DeVos, Pruitt). Aside from Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name for consideration for the role of Secretary of Labor, and Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, who required Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie and has been the only nominee to receive multiple “no” votes from Republicans, no one else has really been in doubt to pass confirmation proceedings. The only other candidates who have failed to garner even 55 votes are Mick Mulvaney (Office of Management and Budget), Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), Tom Price (Department of Health and Human Services), Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency), and Steven Mnuchin, the likes of which, either based on their past conduct, their conflicts upon conflicts of interest, or both, haven’t exactly distinguished themselves—well, at least not in the positive sense.
As for the Democrats and independents, the results are decidedly more varied. The top “no” voter in the Senate, tallying 17 of 19 nays, is Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who is not really regarded as a progressive heroine, but has seemingly moved further left as she has gone along, and certainly more so than in her days in the House. Also high on the list are some of the more popular and well-regarded senators in terms of their principles—Cory Booker, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom have issued 16 of 19 “no” votes. These senators and others who have voted no roughly two-thirds of the time—13 or more “no” votes, let’s say—comprise a minority even within the group of just Democratic and independent senators. Only 15 of this bloc of 48 senators have voted “no” 13+ times (31.25%), and that clip decreases to a scant 15% within the U.S. Senate at large. On one hand, that more Democrats are willing to break ranks is perhaps encouraging in terms of the desire to not merely rubberstamp or preemptively dismiss nominees along the path to confirmation. On the other hand, if you were looking for a unified front from the Dems, you can go ahead and keep looking, and moreover, the divide in votes may be indicative of a larger ideological divide within the Democratic Party.
Though a minority in its own right, a group of eight Democratic or independent senators has failed to record 10 or more “no” votes in 19 confirmation vote proceedings, with five of them failing to eclipse even six of 19, or a third of votes. These are the lowest of the low, literally speaking, regarding “no” votes:
Joe Manchin III (D-WV)
“No” Votes: 4 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Price, Ross)
Joe Manchin, a professed Democrat, has cast as many “no” votes as Republican Senators who have voted “no” altogether during the confirmation process. As noted, that’s a bar that should be fairly easy to clear—and he hasn’t. The votes for Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson don’t come as that much of a surprise for Manchin, hailing from a state that is synonymous with coal, but the “yes” vote for Jeff Sessions is particularly egregious. Some are comparing Joe Manchin, based on his willingness to break from other Dems, to Joe Lieberman, a comparison which is not all that endearing. Though obviously a joke, it’s telling when the official Twitter feed for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee suggests Democrats oppose Manchin in the 2018 primaries with a lump of coal. Brutal, but not wholly undeserved.
Heidi Heitkamp, like Joe Manchin III, suffers the ignominy of voting “yes” on both Pruitt and Tillerson. Also like Manchin, she hails from a state in North Dakota of which fossil fuels make up a significant part of the economy, so not a huge shocker there, but still disappointing. That she would be so principled on nominees like Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, and Steven Mnuchin makes her positions on Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson all the more jarring. Either way, Heitkamp and Manchin are the only two Democrats to vote for both Pruitt and Tillerson, and the former, like the latter, should receive her due censure from progressives within the party.
Angus King of Maine is one of two independents in the Senate, alongside a certain senator from the state of Vermont who gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money regarding the Democratic Party nomination. Like Bernie Sanders, he caucuses with the Democrats. Apparently, though, he doesn’t vote with them nearly as often as his counterpart. Certainly, the “yes” vote for Rex Tillerson is concerning, but his approval for the likes of Ben Carson and Rick Perry is also vaguely disconcerting. Mr. King, you may be independent and may caucus with the Dems, but you are no Bernie Sanders. Not even close.
Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
“No” Votes: 6 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Price, Mnuchin, Tillerson; did not vote on Pruitt)
If you believe Joe Donnelly, he is a lawmaker committed to making life better for his fellow Hoosiers, and this includes working across the aisle when necessary. If you approach his statements and his voting record from a more pragmatic or even cynical viewpoint, though, you might say he capitulates to conservatives when he has to. As both a member of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator, Donnelly’s record has been marked by his being more moderate on both economic and social issues. While I respect that this likely has caused him stress in being the subject of attacks from both the left and the right, speaking as someone from the far-left, I and other progressive-minded individuals are looking for better than 6-for-19 on these confirmation votes. That would be fine in baseball, but Indiana does not have a major league team, and these matters are more important.
Mark Warner has the exact same voting record on Cabinet position confirmations as the aforementioned independent Angus King. That’s not an endorsement—nor should it be considered as such. Once again, the principled stance on Pruitt alongside a “yes” vote on Tillerson is an odd juxtaposition, and even casting votes in favor of Rick Perry or even Ryan Zinke raises the progressive brow. Warner, it should be noted, is the top Senate Democrat investigating ties between Russia and Trump, particularly in the arena of interference in the 2016 presidential election. That said, being recently spotted having a chat over wine with Rex Tillerson doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for Democratic supporters that his interests and party loyalty are all that pure. Mark Warner, you’re on notice.
Even for those Democratic senators who have cleared the low hurdle of six “no” votes, a few others have yet to garner double digits, putting their judgment in question, or, if nothing else, suggesting they may be too close to center to really inspire enthusiasm among younger members of the party base. The following senators, if not getting an explicit wag of the finger, are nonetheless worthy of a wary eye:
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
“No” Votes: 7 (DeVos, Mulvaney, Sessions, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tillerson, Carson; did not vote on Price)
You may have heard Claire McCaskill’s name in the news recently, when she called upon Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from any investigations into Russia and Trump, averring that she personally had never met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—when, in fact, she totally had. She also has recently been making a push to Bernie Sanders supporters in her bid for re-election—you know, despite endorsing Hillary Clinton early in the primaries and criticizing Sanders’ campaign at the time. These stories may say enough about the Democratic senator from Missouri, but her voting record alone on Trump’s Cabinet nominees should prompt criticism from the left.
As far as moderates go, Jon Tester is fairly well regarded among liberals based on a number of his votes in the Senate, as well as policy positions which have evolved and moved further left over time (e.g. same-sex marriage, Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell). A bleeding-heart liberal Tester is not, though, with his pro-gun stance, for instance, painting him as more of a “your grandpappy’s” kind of Dem than the “elitist liberals” that are always being decried in right-wing circles. At least on the gun issue, this is perhaps to be expected in a red state like Montana. Still, one might have liked to see more push-back on nominees like Wilbur Ross or even Linda McMahon given his past diatribes against the wealthy. You get a pass this time, Sen. Tester. This time.
Tim Kaine’s presence on this short list means Virginia has two under-10 “no” vote senators to its name, the only such state to earn that distinction given two Democratic/independent senators. Kaine, as you’ll recall, was Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president, and a way too “safe” one at that. He is the sort that is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm from even party loyalists, let alone a younger portion of the base looking for more conviction on important issues, such as free trade (like Clinton, Kaine has supported NAFTA and came late to his resolution against the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and regulation of the banking industry (proposals of his, while under the guise of being pro-regulation, have been criticized by progressive groups as being anything but). Tim Kaine may be a nice enough guy, but he was the wrong choice for Clinton’s presidential campaign, and may be symbolic of the “mainstream” wing of the Democratic Party that is keeping it from more enthusiastically embracing more liberal views.
To be fair, one might argue that “no” votes without much hope of dramatically altering the outcomes of these Cabinet nominees mean very little. In this regard, stances taken against potential office holders amount to little more than posturing. By the same token, however, for those who have registered more “yes” votes than “no” votes, perhaps these confirmation votes presage a deeper reluctance to embrace the Democratic Party as a whole, or at least magnify the effect of their senator’s centrism.
Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, then, is with the looming vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch as the next Supreme Court justice. In a vacuum, Donald Trump’s choice of Gorsuch to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Antonin Scalia might not be so hotly contested by Democrats. As things in the political world have shaken out of late, though, there is additional context to consider. Republicans already had majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate before the fateful events of November, and with Trump—a loose cannon if ever there were one—ascending to the highest office in the nation, the stakes are higher than ever for a party in the Democratic Party that is reeling from electoral defeats up and down the levels of government.
Of even higher relevance, meanwhile, is Merrick Garland’s stalled nomination for this same vacancy. As you’ll likely recall, Garland was tapped by President Barack Obama near the end of his tenure, which he was perfectly justified in doing. Effectually, Obama called conservative Republicans’ bluff, nominating the kind of jurist that appeals to those on both side of the political aisle, and thus requiring GOP lawmakers to all but in name concede their refusal to confirm or hear Merrick Garland was petty gamesmanship. Which, of course, they did. Mitch McConnell and Co. held their breath and waited for Obama’s second term to conclude, rejecting calls from their Democratic counterparts and their constituents alike to “do their jobs.”
With all this in mind, we return to the current kerfuffle over Neil Gorsuch. Whereas Trump’s various Cabinet picks have only needed a 51-vote majority to secure confirmation, the role of Supreme Court justice, because it is so vital and because it is a lifetime appointment, would require 60 votes as part of a procedural cloture vote to end debate and move on to the actual confirmation vote if Senate Democrats are determined to filibuster the nomination. So, how committed are the Dems and independents in the Senate to staving off the confirmation vote? Well, let’s just say they should have enough votes—a minimum of 41 would be required—to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination. But it’s not exactly a safe margin, and fairly significantly, I feel, a few senators have either wavered on whether or not they will support a filibuster, or have outright indicated they are against this measure. Once again, Wilson Andrews and The New York Times, with the help of Audrey Carlsen, Alicia Parlapiano, and Jugal K. Patel, have devised another helpful graphic to help us sort out the positions for or against filibuster.
Undecided or Unclear: 2
Up for Re-election: 2 (Benjamin L. Cardin, Robert Menendez)
Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez are likely to vote against Neil Gorsuch in a final vote to determine if he is confirmed or not. Remember, though, we are talking about specifically pledging to support the 60-vote filibuster, and as of Tuesday, April 4, 4:30 P.M. EDT, their commitment was judged by the team at the Times to be undecided or unclear on that front. Cardin, for what it’s worth, has said he supports the filibuster on social media, and Menendez has apparently followed suit. Both senators are facing re-election in 2018, but that provides only slight plausibility as to why they would wait until Democrats were all but assured of having the necessary 41 votes given they do not really hail from strong red states. In short, and to be quite frank, it’s pretty cowardly of Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez to make their intentions known after the fact. The above-cited article from The Hill also name-checks Angus King, who, as we know, is an independent and has only managed a scant six “no” votes (and is up for re-election), as a late decider. As Democrats, however, you would expect better of Cardin and Menendez, both of whom have gone 12-for-19 in “no” votes, and as a progressive hailing from the state of New Jersey, I am severely disappointed in the latter.
Against Filibuster: 4
Up for Re-election in Solid Trump State: 3 (Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III)
Not Up for Re-election: 1 (Michael Bennet)
Joe Manchin. Heidi Heitkamp. Joe Donnelly. We’ve heard these names before, haven’t we? Suddenly, their positions on Cabinet nominees, viewed through the lens of their opposition to the filibuster, make a lot of sense. All three are running for re-election in what are deemed “solid Trump states,” meaning Donald Trump carried them by more than five percentage points in the presidential election.
On one hand, I get that re-election in hostile territory, so to speak, stands to be difficult, and there are those of us who would be willing to accept a moderate Democrat who agrees with the party at least some of the time as opposed to a Republican who is more likely to promote a regressive political agenda. On the other hand, though, being, for all intents and purposes, light versions of Republicans arguably does little for the party and only helps depress turnout in elections, especially among independents and progressives. In this regard, the Dems who capitulate to conservative or even moneyed interests can be seen as conceding without making a concerted effort to expand their base among neglected demographic groups in their jurisdictions—playing politics in the short term and risking party support in the long term. In other words, the likes of Donnelly, Heitkamp and Manchin are playing not to lose rather than to win, and this same strategy as employed by Hillary Clinton and other Democrats only seems to be hurting the Democratic Party at the polls. Once again, speaking bluntly, Democratic leadership doesn’t seem to “get it.”
As for Michael Bennet, even for someone whose job is not immediately in danger, he has recognizably faced pressure from both the left and right regarding the filibuster. If Jon Tester, a senator in a red state up for re-election can support the filibuster, however, I submit Bennet (10-of-19 “no votes”) could have, too. Way to ride that center rail, Mike.
The Senate Republicans are expected to exercise the so-called “nuclear option,” essentially rewriting the rules so that 51 votes can advance proceedings to the actual confirmation vote. So, why bother with a filibuster? Democrats and others on the left would insist that this is more than warranted for the GOP’s refusal to hear Merrick Garland, and besides, with a president whose ethical conflicts are barely disguised as such, and who many contend is too unhinged to serve in his present role, there are those who call on Senate Dems to demand Trump release his tax returns at a minimum before considering Neil Gorsuch for the vacancy in the Supreme Court. Then again, Republicans would say that the Democrats “started it,” after rewriting Senate confirmation rules for executive and judicial nominees in their own right in 2013. Is all fair in love, war, and politics, or do two wrongs not make a right? I guess it depends on what side of the fence you’re on, honestly.
Even if the Republicans “go nuclear,” as President Agent Orange would have it, resisting the confirmation of Gorsuch and other picks until that point based on the merit of held ideals would convey to voters that the Democrats are willing to fight for their constituents and for what they believe in rather than merely trying to hold on to what seats they have. Moreover, claims from Joe Manchin et al. that politics should be kept out of the judiciary are weak sauce when politics so clearly stand behind the decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch in the first place. If Dems like Claire McCaskill want votes from Bernie Sanders supporters, they can’t just ask for it—they have to earn it. That is, they have to demand the kind of change that authentically speaks to the needs of their rank-and-file constituents, and not merely count on voters’ ability to distinguish their policies from those of the GOP, especially when calling for incremental or middling reforms. Otherwise, with Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?
You may have heard about President Trump’s plan to increase military spending in his outline for next fiscal year’s budget. According to a February 27 report by Andrew Taylor and Julie Pace for the Associated Press, the 2018 fiscal year budget proposal would increase defense spending at the expense of programs like the EPA and foreign aid programs. Programs like Medicare and Social Security are not included in the proposed cuts, though knowing of the plans of Paul Ryan and other prominent Republican lawmakers to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without a credible replacement, privatize Medicare, turn Medicaid into block grants, and defund Planned Parenthood, this might yet be coming, just from a different angle. Alex Lockie, an associate news editor and military/defense blogger at Business Insider, in conjunction with reporting by Reuters, helps flesh out the details with a report from that same day. Some $54 billion would be earmarked for the Department of Defense, and indeed, matching cuts would indeed be proposed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. On the side of the proposed funding to be slashed, these cuts shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. When you nominate Scott Pruitt, a man who sued the EPA over 10 times as attorney general of Oklahoma, to head that department, and Rex Tillerson, a man with close ties to Russia, no foreign diplomacy experience, and whose dedication to curbing climate change was nil as the CEO of Exxon-freaking-Mobil, to be Secretary of State, you get the sense Donald Trump is deliberately trying to undermine the authority of these divisions of the Cabinet.
Before we get to the idea of whether or not the Department of Defense is overfunded relative to other programs—a valid and worthy question, I might add—let me begin by providing two fairly recent anecdotes concerning why the mere notion of how the DoD accounts for and spends it money may be a problem right off the bat. Back in 2015, this tidbit of news made the rounds on national and international news, but soon got buried in the avalanche of other stories inherently created by the global, multimodal 24-hour news cycle: the United States spent $43 million on building and operating Afghanistan’s first compressed gas station and helping develop the natural gas market in Afghanistan. OK—that sounds pretty expensive for a gas station, but is it really? Maybe there’s things about natural gas or working in Afghanistan that we don’t understand.
Nope—it turns it was really f**king expensive for a gas station. According to SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, that’s 140 times as much as it should have cost. 140 times! Any number of harsh language might have been used by John Sopko, the special inspector general, and—lo and behold he did—troubling, ill-conceived, gratuitous, extreme, and outrageous were all adjectives that came directly from the man himself. There was “no indication” that a study was done prior to construction to assess the feasibility or viability of the project, or what kind of difficulties might be faced in trying to complete this endeavor. Sopko could safely attribute this lack of care to sheer stupidity, and even hinted it could be related to corruption or fraud, but—get this—the DoD couldn’t cooperate with enough information to even make that determination. Per SIGAR, the Department of Defense initially responded to a request for more information with the idea it lacked the requisite experience to comment following the closure of the Task Force for Stability and Business Operations (TFSBO). Apparently, someone forgot to save the data, and/or everyone after him or her is a complete f**king idiot. John Sopko wouldn’t go as far as to claim “obstruction” on the part of the DoD, but noted the unreasonableness of its official response, as the task force had only shut down a few months prior. On this issue, the Department of Defense was not accountable, and what’s more, it didn’t care to go to any lengths to even pretend like it was. It becomes all the worse when you consider we, the taxpayers, are the ones on the hook for catastrophic blunders such as this.
Did you enjoy that story? No? Too bad—here’s another bag of dicks to wrap your mind around. (First, wrap your mind around the wrapping of your mind around a bag of dicks in the abstract. I’ll wait.) In 2016, the Pentagon’s inspector general discovered that for the 2015 fiscal year, the Department of Defense had reported $6.5 trillion in accounting adjustments. Once again, it sounds bad, but is it? Yes, it is. When your department’s entire budget is just over $600 billion, yes, it f**king is. In defense of the Department of Defense, the magnitude of these errors is compounded by the notion that improper recordings were likely made the first time, and based on the double-entry nature of accounting, multiple accounts would stand to be affected. Still, when you’re off by multiple trillions of dollars, and when the inspector general finds that you made several unsupported adjustments, that records were mysteriously missing, that financial statements are inaccurate, and that much went documented and that there are insufficient data for an audit trail, your department is pretty much just plain wrong.
As Dave Lindorff in a piece for FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) explains, the Pentagon has a long history of noncompliance with federally-mandated standards for accounting and auditability. Yet it doesn’t seem to feel the weight of any formal censure by the appropriate authorities, nor did it receive nearly the amount of media attention the super-expensive Afghanistan gas station did—and even that news story received limited play. Per Lindorff, while two articles appeared on Reuters related to the scandal, at the time of the publication of his article—September 2 of last year—both the New York Times and the Washington Post had yet to cover this story. Sounds bad, right? Like apparently everything else in this post, it is exactly as bad as it sounds. The DoD inspector general’s report was dated July 26, 2016. In other words, they had over a month to investigate and report on this, or even to respond to Dave Lindorff’s requests for a response. But they didn’t. Trillions of dollars in errors, and barely a peep from the mainstream media.
Which brings us to where we are today with the Trump administration and the prospective 2018 budget. The enacted FY 2016 budget, per the Defense.gov website, was $521.7 billion. Barack Obama, in his final defense budget proposal, put forth a proposal for a $582.7 billion FY 2017 budget, citing changes and threats in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, including China throwing its weight around in the Pacific, the continued fight to bring down ISIS, Iran and North Korea, you know, still being Iran and North Korea, and Russian aggression. President Trump, for FY 2018, has proposed a defense budget of $610 billion, which he has claimed is about a 10% increase and, like, the biggest in history. Whether we’re talking about his Inauguration crowds, or his electoral victory, or even his hands or likely his, ahem, presidential staff, we should gather that the size is overstated. According to an NBC News report penned by Phil McCausland, the White House’s calculation of a $54 billion increase is relative to the budget cap which Obama’s proposed FY 2017 budget already exceeded by about $35 billion. So, Trump’s proposed increase for FY 2018 is actually fairly modest by comparison: only about 3.1% more. Donald Trump is trying to sound like the strongman he is, and quite possibly take attention away from all the Russian drama that surrounds his administration and his own finances with the help of some patriotic bombast. With each new revelation (e.g. Jeff Sessions apparently lying under oath about speaking with a Russian diplomat before Trump was elected), this proves difficult, if not impossible, but if anyone can make you believe in the impossible, it’s a man who had no business winning a presidential race.
The Afghani money pit and the multi-trillion dollar oopsy happened before Donald Trump even was sworn in. Coupling these Obama-era SNAFUs with the notion Trump’s proposed defense budget increase is overstated and thereby more modest, why bother coming at the current President about it? First of all, I don’t even know that I need much of a reason to come at Pres. Trump under the premise of it being just for general principles, but let’s talk Trump’s campaign promises, which already are somewhat infamous in Democratic circles and likely have even independents and some Republicans confused or upset. As is oft cited, Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp,” and part of realization of that platform, one might presume, would involve eliminating government waste. Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University, agrees with this sentiment. As de Rugy notes, Trump, through various executive orders, has already signed orders that require federal agencies to establish regulation watchdogs and cut two regulations for every new one enacted. However, curbing government waste involves more than just cutting regulations, and de Rugy insists the President instead should focus on improper payments by government agencies, suggesting he begin with the Medicare fee-for-service program, which makes $137 billion in improper payments per year, and to expand the profile and authority of the Recovery Audit Contractor program, which exists for the very purpose of uncovering fraud, and which Democrats and Republicans alike have acted to undermine in deference to their special interests.
This would be a great place for Donald Trump to dig in and help distinguish himself from his predecessor. However, as we understand too well only a month and change into his presidency, Trump doesn’t seem to mind too much playing fast and loose with other people’s money. Every time he takes a trip to his Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach estate, it costs taxpayers $3 million. Reportedly, it costs the city of New York $1 million a day to protect Trump and his family. Eric Trump even cost taxpayers nearly $100,000 for a trip to Uruguay on behalf of the Trump Organization to pay for Secret Service members and embassy staff—not even for matters of true diplomacy, but to enlarge the profits of the business from which Donald Trump enriches himself. These are galling enough, and when we consider President Trump’s proposed increase for the Department of Defense as a subset of his administration’s adversarial approach to certain non-defense programs, his hawkish tone takes on a more sinister aspect, as with his administration’s increased focus on deportation, which, by the numbers, isn’t wildly out of line with Obama’s record, but because it vastly expands the powers of ICE agents and because undocumented immigrants without a history of violent crime are apparently being specifically targeted for removal (Google “Daniela Vargas” and prepare to be disheartened), seems comparatively that much worse.
We could go on about Donald Trump’s war on immigrants, much as we could or maybe even should go on about Jeff Sessions, Russia, and the tangled web prominent Washington figures have woven with respect to Vladimir Putin and his country, but let me make my point about Trump’s separate war against programs that are reviled by his base. As noted earlier, Trump wants to slash funding for the EPA and has lined his Cabinet with climate change deniers, or at least those who evidently have no problem rolling back environmental regulations at the expense of flora and fauna (see also newly-confirmed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s decision to bring back the use of lead ammunition in national parks and refuges). Along these lines, the President wants to cut funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s leading climate change research department, by 17%, roughly a sixth of its current budget. Reportedly, he also wants to decrease funding to the already-beleaguered Internal Revenue Service, a move which not only is geared primarily to benefitting other rich assholes like himself, but is patently self-defeating. A central point of the IRS—the Internal Revenue Service—by its namesake, is to generate revenue. If it can’t properly fund and staff its intended functions such as conducting audits or going after tax shelters, that’s needed money that the United States can’t access. Especially if Trump and congressional Republicans want to lower taxes and yet still somehow expand defense spending and address our crumbling infrastructure. If you keep spending more than you take in as a nation, eventually, you’re going to have a problem.
Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” as President, but by now, it’s painfully obvious he’s only intent on feeding its alligators, and then after feeding those alligators, apparently killing them off by de-funding all the environmental organizations that help protect their numbers. If Trump really wanted to separate himself from Barack Obama and help the little guy, he could start by curbing waste at the Department of Defense, which I see as the poster child for government inefficiency, rather than boasting about vastly increasing its funding, but let him only try to keep up appearances as being a commanding Commander-in-Chief, much as he tried to maintain his image as someone who didn’t support the Iraq War like Hillary Clinton did—even though he totally f**king did. In other words, Trump can’t have it both ways. He can’t be a champion of the people and of his rich, white conservative base at the same time. Donald Trump wants to augment the Department of Defense, but simply put, there’s no defense for him in this regard.
In Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers and the HBO program on which it is based, millions of people suddenly vanish from the Earth in a Rapture-like event. Spoiler alert? No, this is the very premise of the book and the show. Besides, you probably weren’t going to read the novel or watch the program anyway, right? OK, now that that’s behind us. In the universe of The Leftovers, a cult-like group called the Guilty Remnant forms in the wake of people’s search for answers and established religion’s immediate failure to explain this mysterious phenomenon. Its members dress all in white, smoke constantly and say nothing. They are agitators, and get into silent confrontations with non-members, but with a purpose: to remind people that they are the leftovers, that this “Sudden Departure” did indeed happen, and that they couldn’t just pretend as if it did not, like it was just another day. If the Guilty Remnant were to be the world’s conscience, as frustrating and inconvenient as they were, so be it.
On Friday, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, with Mike Pence assuming the office of Vice President. No, some 2% of the world’s population did not spontaneously disappear, and yes, as has been the custom, there was an Inauguration Ceremony as with other presidents who have come before Trump. But Donald Trump and his campaign were quite unlike anything we have seen in modern history—and this is not a celebration of that idea. The way Trump conducted his campaign, and the way he conducts his affairs in general, are not normal. The sense of empowerment and entitlement he has given to those who ascribe to an exclusionary, prejudicial and xenophobic worldview, and the acceptance of this element in our society, is not normal. And while the proceedings of Inauguration Day occurred in accordance with tradition, as with the reaction of people to the Sudden Departure, to behave like this ceremony as a culmination of what occurred in this nation over the election cycle is just another day is to engage in serious self-defeating, self-deception. This all is not normal, and we can’t pretend like it is.
Let’s start with what was said during President Trump’s Inauguration speech. A lot of the ideas within it are by now familiar to us, but the tone and a key phrase within it are important to note. Trump, as is his custom, painted a picture that speaks to the United States in a bleak state, and to average American men and women as forgotten. Here is a notable passage from his address:
From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body—and I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.
We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world—but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones—and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
It would be a good speech, if only it weren’t so terrifying and disturbing. In this critical juncture of President Trump’s address, he establishes the theme of his comments and likely of his domestic and foreign policy at large: “America First.” More on that slogan, if you will, in a moment. Trump vows his utmost efforts on behalf of the American people and promises the U.S. will start “winning” like never before, apparently ascribing to Red Sanders’ oft-quoted (and misattributed) view that “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”
The question a lot of us conscientious objectors would have, though, is at what cost, and that’s where the sentiments within Pres. Trump’s speech get so frightening. As usual, stressing the “Islamic” aspect of terrorism risks conflation of jihadism with Islam at large, thereby increasing the danger to Muslims around the world sympathetic to America’s cause and morally opposed to ISIS. As I’ve heard the analogy before and have used it in my writing, peace-loving law-abiding Muslims are to organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as the Ku Klux Klan is to white Americans who disavow its agenda. Jihadists pervert Islamic principles to suit their own destructive purposes, and though this criticism is nothing new as regards use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” that solidarity with Muslims who live in and love America isn’t made clearer by Trump is nonetheless disappointing.
What’s more, Donald Trump speaks to a “total allegiance” to the United States as a bedrock of our politics, as if plain old regular allegiance is insufficient. As with the insertion of Islam into the abstract concept of radical terrorism, the vagueness of this phrase allows for more sinister interpretations of the language. If everyday Americans seem less committed to patriotism and the U.S. as rabid Trump supporters and jingoists do, do the more fervent believers among them have the President’s blessing to admonish and harass the dissenters? I, in expressing my contempt for Donald Trump shortly after being sworn in, was told by someone on Facebook to “show some f**king respect” and to “move to Canada” if I couldn’t show my American pride—and I feel like I got off light. Moreover, if we talk about allegiance as a bedrock of our nation’s politics, do those who would subvert Trump’s will or stand in opposition to conservative values and Republican ideals become somehow less American? It’s a worrisome inference, to say the least.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the unfortunate legacy of that phrase “America First.” Christopher Brennan, writing for the New York Daily News, outlines how the America First Committee was an organization formed in 1940 by Gen. Robert E. Wood and Charles Lindbergh (yes, that Charles Lindbergh) which resisted the United States’ intervention to aid Great Britain when it was under attack by Hitler’s forces. As Brennan details, a significant portion of the Committee were Nazi sympathizers, and if we know our history, Lindbergh traveled to Nazi Germany numerous times and even received a medal from the Third Reich. Wait, you’re thinking, Trump is stupid—he has no idea of the historical implications of what he’s saying. Except for the idea the Anti-Defamation League has already asked Trump not to use the phrase owing to its associations with fascism and anti-Semitism. Regardless, President Trump’s ignorance on this count would be dubious at best. In all likelihood, Trump is speaking in coded language, appealing to those who bleed red, white and blue at the superficial level, and giving a nod to alt-righters, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in any form. Our President or Mein Führer? With a hint of sadness, I’ll note the allusion is not as crazy as it might seem.
If Donald Trump’s swearing in as the 45th President of the United States was the culmination of a brutal election season, the confirmation hearings for various Trump Cabinet appointees leading up to the Inauguration could presage a likewise unbearable agenda for his administration. It is one thing that a number of them seem to espouse positions that run contrary to what a majority of Americans believe, and certainly speak to views which fly in the face of what more liberal Democrats and progressives hope to achieve. It is another, however, that they appear to be woefully unqualified for their intended office if not wholly incompetent, or otherwise seem to possess a rather cavalier attitude given they are representing the American public and are supposed to be acting in its interest. Here are the nominees for whom hearings have been held so far (not listed are Gens. James Mattis and John F. Kelly, who represent the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, respectively, and who already were confirmed prior to this writing):
Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson
January 11’s scheduled hearings for Cabinet picks saw two heavy-hitters tested on their qualifications fairly early in the confirmation process. Jeff Sessions, Pres. Trump’s pick for Attorney General, to his credit, said he would oppose the use of torture by military personnel, as well as a ban on Muslims entering the country and a registry for Muslim Americans, three things that Trump insisted on throughout his campaign. On the other hand, though, Sessions harped on the criticism that police forces have received for doing their jobs in the wake of high-profile shooting incidents—without much apparent credence to civilian deaths—did little to nothing to allay concerns that he respects civil rights, specifically voting rights, and seems to have intentions for his would-be department, the Department of Justice, to more vigorously enforce immigration law. As someone who has been met with allegations of racism in the past concerning his record during his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, despite his insistence he will uphold and enforce existing laws, seems only somewhat committed to issues affecting blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, and women, among other groups. Not entirely surprising coming from a moneyed white male (Sessions’ estimated worth is about $6 million), but surely not altogether encouraging at the start of a presidency of a man with historically-low approval ratings.
That Sessions seemed to soften on certain hard-line stances meant his hearing was still uneven in light of his judicial and legislative record, but nonetheless, he made his bid for confirmation more plausible, if not highly likely. Rex Tillerson, um, did not fare as well in his confirmation hearing, as Tessa Stuart of Rolling Stone indicated in a feature article. Among the points during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing which merited criticism of Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State—which is, by the way, a natural stepping stone for a CEO of ExxonMobil, a role that does not require specific foreign policy experience:
He wouldn’t say if he supported sanctions against Russia if it turned out allegations that the Russians tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election were true, and claimed he has yet to have an in-depth conversation about Russia with Donald Trump.
He claimed to have no knowledge of ExxonMobil’s attempt to lobby against sanctions against Russia, when in fact, the company had and Tillerson was involved in conversations about these matters.
He deferred to the notion he would need to see more intelligence before labeling Vladimir Putin a war criminal despite allegations the Russians targeted and killed civilians alongside the Syrian government army, not to mention well-documented accounts of having political rivals and critics of Putin murdered.
He similarly dismissed the human rights violations of Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in the Philippines and the treatment of women in countries like Saudi Arabia.
He expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
He would not commit to the Paris climate accord.
He acknowledged that climate change exists, but wouldn’t comment on whether or not humans play a role in it, and when asked by Sen. Tim Kaine on whether or not he lacks the expertise to answer the question or the will, he quipped, “A little of both.”
He said that despite being with the company for some 40 years, he had no knowledge of whether not ExxonMobil has done business with Iran, Sudan or Syria.
When asked specifically by Tim Kaine regarding the evidence that Exxon knew about the role humans play in affecting climate change and funded efforts and research contrary to this science, Tillerson claimed he could not comment because he was no longer part of the company. Because apparently, when you resign from an executive post, your memory is wiped along with it.
Rex Tillerson’s experience with the oil industry and his ties to Russian interests and Putin in them of themselves made him a questionable pick for Secretary of State. Now with his testimony on record, the doubts are stronger and more numerous. Tillerson shouldn’t be confirmed for Secretary of State, even though he probably will be owing to the Republican majority in the Senate.
Ben Carson, Elaine Chao, Michael Pompeo
Ben Carson, like Rex Tillerson, was nominated for a position in Secretary of Housing and Urban Development that his personal experience in no way prepares him to hold. As aloof as he often seemed during his presidential campaign despite, you know, possessing the acumen to be a freaking neurosurgeon, Carson largely managed to hold his own, although it should be noted that observers described efforts by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike to challenge him on his qualifications as fairly tepid. The tensest moments came from lines of inquiry from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Warren asked Carson point blank about whether or not he could assure the Senate and the American people that any HUD money would not be lining the pockets of Pres. Trump, a question he seemed ill prepared to answer. Brown, meanwhile, confronted Ben Carson on how his department could avoid conflicts of interest with Donald Trump given his family’s involvement in at least one subsidized housing project, and though he expressed his willingness to work with the committee, again, he didn’t seem to have much of an idea of his own. Ben Carson realistically won’t always be able to phone a friend, if you will. So, while he wasn’t Rex Tillerson bad, he wasn’t top-notch either.
Elaine Chao, in the running for Department of Transportation, like Carson, while not offering anything that raised any giant red flags, similarly didn’t offer a lot of specifics for the possible direction of her agency, especially as a subset of the Trump administration. All in all, though, most in attendance were in agreement that Chao seems highly qualified for her position, with the various reports covering Chao’s hearing describing it as a “love-fest” full of laughs and smiles, or otherwise referring to her “skating” through her confirmation process. So, yeah, Elaine Chao looks like she’s good as gold regarding her nomination, and I maintain her most questionable bit of judgment preceded her hearing: that of marrying Mitch McConnell. Sorry, I just can’t with that guy.
And then there’s Mike Pompeo. Despite positions expressed during his tenure as Senator from Kansas, Pompeo seemed to allay concerns that he was not a dogmatic follower of hardline conservative principles. He pledged to defy President Trump if asked to resume torture as a primary interrogation technique, expressed his belief that the conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence leaders that Russia tried to intervene in our election, in part, to help Trump was a sound one, and vowed that he would “speak truth to power” if confirmed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. So, basically, Mike Pompeo promised not to be Donald Trump. Atta boy, Mike! In the time I took to write this post, Pompeo has been confirmed, so that hurdle has been cleared, but as CIA Director, his greatest test may just be beginning, namely that of getting his agency and the President himself to work together. Because right now, quite frankly, they ain’t. Thus, while I wouldn’t have nominated Pompeo in the first place, I wish him the best of luck. Because I wouldn’t wish Trump on my worst enemy, let alone the head of the CIA. Best of luck, Mike—you’re gonna need it.
Betsy DeVos, Ryan Zinke
We’ll get to Ms. DeVos in a moment. First, let’s skip ahead to Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Zinke, like other Cabinet picks of Pres. Trump’s, may acknowledge climate change exists in the abstract and therefore diverges from the belief that it is an outright hoax, but it is still dangerously reluctant to recognize the role we humans play in contributing to effects like global warming. This stance is significant, because Zinke, as head of the Department of the Interior, would oversee all federal lands as well as the resources on and below them. This means he could and likely would be instrumental in opening expanses up to coal mining and oil and gas drilling that were previously unavailable for these purposes under Barack Obama. Seeing as Trump has already signed executive orders to revive the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone Pipeline XL extension, Ryan Zinke is poised to be a partner in crime—that is, “crime” against the environment—and should be admonished as a nominee for his intended position.
Speaking of admonishment, the hearing for Betsy DeVos, tapped for Secretary of Education, rivaled if not surpassed Rex Tillerson’s review in terms of being, as the kids call it, a “hot mess.” DeVos, apparently, is to knowledge of the United States education system as Sarah Palin is to mastery of U.S. geography. Among the revelations from Betsy DeVos’s hearing:
She evidently believes guns should be in schools, or at least won’t commit to the idea schools should be gun-free zones.
She expressed the belief the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be left to the states to apply, despite this being a federal law.
She would not agree to the idea all schools which receive federal funding should be held equally accountable.
She would not commit to enforcing gainful employment regulations which prevent for-profit universities and other career training programs which bury students in debt with little ability to repay from receiving federal subsidies.
She did not appear to understand the accountability debate regarding whether testing should measure students and schools based on proficiency or growth.
She did not answer a direct question about the failure of charter schools and other “school choice” iterations to perform markedly better than public schools. Probably because she and her children have never spent a day enrolled in public school and, what’s more, she has a vested financial interest in K12, an online charter-school and home school curriculum resource. As usual, it helps to follow the money.
In short, Betsy DeVos doesn’t have a clue about the state of education in America at large, especially public education. She should be nowhere near a department as critical as the Department of Education, or any federal public office, for that matter.
Nikki Haley, Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Wilbur Ross
Wilbur Ross, like Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire. Unlike DeVos, however, he, from nearly all accounts, acquitted himself quite nicely of his ability to serve in the capacity for which he was nominated: that of Secretary of Commerce. Certainly, his tone on important economic issues was appreciably more moderate (and sensible) than that of the President, and though this is not a particularly high bar to clear, he seemed better prepared and more readily forthcoming than either Betsy DeVos or Rex Tillerson. Wilbur Ross is not necessarily above criticism, as he, like so many within the Trump administration not to mention the man himself, comes with concern about potential conflicts of interest due to his shipping investments. This notwithstanding, his expertise and support from labor leaders makes Ross a likely confirmation, and quite possibly the best of the bunch (again, perhaps not a particularly high bar to clear).
Now then—let’s get to the other riff-raff, shall we? Nikki Haley, who, like Mike Pompeo, has been confirmed by the Senate since I began this post, will serve as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations. This despite having any foreign policy experience. Welcome to Donald Trump’s Cabinet—actual qualifications need not apply. At the very least, Haley said she favored a tougher stance and the preservation of sanctions against Russia, condemned the extrajudicial killings of Rodrigo Duterte’s regime in the Philippines, cautioned a measured approach in deciding whether or not to scrap the Iran nuclear deal, and said she opposes the creation of a Muslim registry. On the other hand, she seems to echo Trump’s strongly pro-Israel stance on the Middle East, and even supports the controversial relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. As with Secy. Pompeo, Nikki Haley has my best wishes, and I similarly hope her appointment won’t be one we look back on with regret.
Where there’s good, though, there is frequently the bad and the ugly, and Scott Pruitt is where the January 18 hearings start to slide downward. Scott Pruitt has been nominated for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he has sued (unsuccessfully, at that) some 14 times as Oklahoma Attorney General, and one which he has explicitly referenced as deserving of having its regulatory power diminished and has accused of an “activist agenda,” as if activism is an inherent force to be resisted. So it should be no surprise, though no less disheartening, that Pruitt professed that his feelings on climate change were immaterial and would not commit to the idea humans play a significant role in promoting it, nor would he give credence to the idea man-made air pollution could be behind the comparatively high rates of asthma in his state. And talk about ethical concerns—Scott Pruitt has received buku bucks from the energy industry, notably from fossil fuel companies. He is not only arguably highly incompetent, but a shameless shill for Big Oil as well, and in no way should be confirmed for the post of Secretary of the EPA, let alone being considered for it.
Tom Price, meanwhile, is no stud in his own right, as he possesses his own bevy of ethical concerns to weigh, including failure to disclose late tax payments which were discovered upon further investigation, improper valuation of shares he owns in an Australian pharmaceutical company, allegations of insider trading with respect to those shares, and proposing legislation which would benefit other investments of his. All this on top of concerns that Republicans’ desire to repeal ObamaCare comes without a credible and fair replacement and that the GOP appears to want to turn the current Medicaid system into a “block grant” format that conceivably would make access to health care more difficult for more disadvantaged Americans. Price, simply put, is a poor choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Or as Happy Gilmore once so eloquently put it, “The [P]rice is wrong, bitch.”
Rick Perry, Steve Mnuchin
Last but not least—OK, well, possibly least—we have the likes of Rick Perry and Steve Mnuchin. Perry, as been oft referenced, once was responsible for a gaffe in which he forgot the name of a third agency he would get rid of as President during a Republican Party debate. That third department, as it turned out, was the Department of Energy—the very department he is now being asked to preside over. I see you starting to pour into that shot glass over there, and I’m with you, my friend. Perry, to his credit, seems to see value in renewable energy sources, but like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke and Rex Tillerson and God knows how many other Republicans, doesn’t place a great deal of weight on the human factor in climate change. Rick Perry’s intended “all-of-the-above” approach is indeed a bit problematic when considering that a major point of the DOE is trying to make energy more affordable for Americans. Also, concerning nuclear power, which falls under the Department of Energy’s banner, a critical issue is how to store nuclear weaponry and nuclear waste, and while Perry seems open to suggestions, he doesn’t seem to have many concrete ideas on his end. To put it bluntly, Rick Perry was a dumb choice in the first place for this post, and from what I’ve seen and heard of him, he seems like kind of a dick (see also his potshot at Sen. Al Franken during the review for being a former cast member of Saturday Night Live). Even if he didn’t flunk his hearing outright, I can’t seriously consider him for Secretary of the DOE.
Speaking of kind of a dick, it’s Steve Mnuchin, who, apropos of nothing, I have a persistent urge to want to call Steve Munchkin. Mnuchin, Pres. Trump’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, has a checkered past that raises serious doubts about his worthiness for his intended role. Most notable is his legacy as the “foreclosure king” during his time as OneWest Bank, and the committee had plenty of testimony at its disposal from OneWest customers with their horror stories from during Mnuchin’s tenure. Yet again, there were failures to disclose critical financial information regarding real estate and other assets totaling upwards of $95 million, as well as troubling ethical positions revealed in Steve Mnuchin’s past assistance of helping clients avoid taxes through tax havens. As with Rick Perry, even if he didn’t crash and burn, on principle, I can’t get behind Munchkin. Dammit, I mean, Mnuchin.
Donald Trump’s blustering rhetoric is worrisome, especially, um, the whole allusion to anti-Semitism bit, but ironically, much as he chides lawmakers for being “all talk, no action,” we know some if not a lot of what he said in his Inauguration speech stands to be empty promises. Trump’s picks for key government positions, on the whole, are troubling, for when they are not flagrantly unqualified or engaging in activities that are borderline unethical/illegal, tend to be sparing on specifics regarding how they would achieve what they profess they and President Trump wish to accomplish. Still, there is the chance that some of these nominees won’t be confirmed, even if remote, and either way, we’ve survived idiots holding public office over the years. My, have we survived it. From my perspective, though, maybe the most frightening sign of what’s to come from a Donald Trump presidency, especially if left unchecked, is his administration’s relationship to the press and to objective facts. In what may be the example par excellence of the slippery slope Trump and his lackeys are greasing, both press secretary Sean Spicer and whatever-the-heck-she’s-technically-considered Kellyanne Conway tried to argue that Donald Trump’s crowds in attendance for the Inauguration were the biggest in U.S. history. This is objectively false, and there’s no getting around it either, for Trump didn’t even manage to surpass his predecessor in this regard, let alone all previous American presidents, or even the Women’s March throngs in protest of his presidency the day after.
Spicer, though, for his part, held a press conference with the apparent intention of dispelling the myth that President Trump’s ceremony wasn’t the biggest and best in our nation’s recorded history, in fact, his first press conference of the term. The Washington Post offers an excellent transcript of this moment annotated by political reporter Chris Cillizza. Within his annotations, Cillizza notes the following:
Sean Spicer cited numbers regarding how many people can physically fit in proscribed sections of the National Mall, saying “we know” this much, but these have the ring of guesses more than anything.
Spicer claimed Metro public transit numbers from Inauguration Day for Pres. Trump exceeded those of Obama’s two ceremonies, but this is simply inaccurate. Donald Trump managed just over 570,000 people, based on numbers from the Metro. Barack Obama, meanwhile, accrued 1.1 million in 2009, and 782,000 in 2013. The math doesn’t lie.
Spicer alleged Trump, in his recent visit with the CIA, was greeted by a raucous crowd of some 400-plus employees, but Cillizza characterizes this visit as mostly—surprise, surprise!—another attack on the media, and the 300 to 400 attendance were likely mostly Trump supporters.
Spicer attacked the media specifically for “sowing division about tweets and false narratives,” as if the press is supposed to cater to the whims of the White House.
Spicer uttered this: “This kind of dishonesty in the media, the challenging—that bringing about our nation together is making it more difficult.”
On that last count, Chris Cillizza was notably, for lack of a better word, defiant. And I quote:
The idea that the media “challenging” (Sean’s words) claims made by Trump and his team somehow undermines an effort to bring the country together is simply a false choice. The media’s job is to probe and prod to make sure that what is being sold as fact from the White House – ANY White House – checks out. A healthy democracy includes a free and independent press keeping those in power accountable to those who they govern. Period.
Sean Spicer, too, advanced the notion that the press should be held accountable, which Cillizza agrees with and you and I can get on board with as well. However, as Chris Cillizza points out and as is critical to stress, the press shouldn’t be threatened or intimidated for doing its job, which is the tone Spicer strikes here. And he also probably shouldn’t walk off without taking any questions. Which is what he did. So much for a “press conference” where you don’t actually talk to the namesake of the term. Not an encouraging start to this relationship, no, Sir or Madam.
If Sean Spicer’s first press conference was a serving of state-controlled ice cream, Kellyanne Conway’s interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press was the whipped cream and cherry on top. As with Spicer, the theme was the tally of Trump supporters and others in attendance at the inauguration proceedings, and the veracity of his administration’s claims. Chuck Todd, in fact, asked Conway about Spicer’s press conference in particular:
You make a very reasonable and rational case for why crowd sizes don’t matter. Then explain…why did the president send out his press secretary, who’s not just the spokesperson for Donald Trump? He could be—he also serves as the spokesperson for all of America at times. He speaks for all of the country at times. Why put him out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood? It’s a small thing. But the first time he confronts the public it’s a falsehood?
Chuck, I mean, if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great open relationship with our press. But look what happened the day before talking about falsehoods. We allowed the press…to come into the Oval Office and witness President Trump signing executive orders. And of course, you know, the Senate had just confirmed General Mattis and General Kelly to their two posts. And we allowed the press in. And what happens almost immediately? A falsehood is told about removing the bust of Martin Luther King Junior from the Oval Office.
This is what my father and I refer to as a “yeah-but.” Yeah, Ms. Conway, TIME Magazine Zeke Miller initially reported he thought a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office, but he was mistaken, and moved to correct himself in the minutes and hours after the fact, issuing multiple mea culpas in the process. This was just one detail, and Conway was rather obviously dodging the question, which is why Chuck Todd pressed her on the issue of the crowd size:
You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood. Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on Day One.
And this is how Kellyanne Conway replied, and I am not making this up:
Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What—you’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.
Todd did not let Conway off the hook, telling her, “Alternative facts are not facts—they’re falsehoods,” but I must stress this attitude, above all else, goes to the point I made in the opening to this piece. Conway’s thinly-veiled threat about having to “rethink” her and the White House’s relationship with Chuck Todd, as well as the sheer notion something like “alternative facts” could exist, speaks to the dangerous state of affairs we are in regarding the perceived role of news media, the perceived power of the President and his surrogates, and the perceived value of observable facts over strongly-held opinions. The press is not beholden to the Trump administration. President Trump should not be allowed to think he can do whatever he wants in violation of ethics and international law just because he won the electoral vote this past November. Furthermore, the veracity of factual information should not be determined by who yells loudest, interrupts the most or acts the most threatening. For anyone believing Donald Trump’s presidency is some sort of “new normal,” it is not and should not be treated as such.
So, after 5,000+ words, what am I trying to say? We of the Resistance should develop a smoking habit, dress all in white, and become mute? No, the Guilty Remnant as a creation of fiction is enough in it of itself. Rather, any way we can question the legitimacy of Donald Trump and his Cabinet where this scrutiny is due, or to reject the authoritarian and prejudicial aspects of his presidency, is encouraged. I try to inject humor into these entries when I can, and I applaud acts like the Dallas Stars jokingly displaying the night’s attendance as 1.5 million on the Jumbotron in an homage to Trump and Company’s wayward estimations of the Inauguration ceremony’s attendance, or Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account defining the word “fact” for Kellyanne Conway’s sake. By and large, however, these are not laughing matters and, indeed, these are troubling times. For those of us who haven’t fallen for Trump hook, line and sinker, we are the Leftovers who have to try to make sense of the apparent Sudden Departure of many here in the United States from the realm of sanity.