It was extraordinary that Walter Shaub, the director of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, wrote that letter to Senate leaders last week about the slipshod vetting of many Trump Cabinet nominees. He said that he couldn’t recall any prior occasions when hearings went forward before an ethics review was completed.
Yet here is Mitch McConnell, rushing these people through as if the United States would be utterly incapacitated if they aren’t ensconced in their new positions by the day President Trump takes office. On one level it’s a small thing, whether Jeff Sessions becomes attorney general on Jan. 20 or Feb. 3 (the date in 2009 when Eric Holder was sworn in). But I think it’s a very big thing because the way this is being handled tells us something important about both Trump’s attitude toward ethics, and the Republican’s views about the Trump era.
Trump’s attitude toward ethics, we know. It’s roughly John Dillinger’s attitude toward bank guards. Shaub also noted in his letter—this will shock you—that Trump transition officials weren’t answering his emails after the election. “We seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election,” Shaub wrote in a Nov. 18 message to transition aide Sean Doocey. “I will be talking to Don McGahn as soon as I can pin him down to a time for a call, which is proving to be difficult. However, I don't have confirmation from anyone on the transition team or from OMB that he is serving in any official capacity. It would help to have confirmation that he is authorized to speak for the transition.”
Let’s be generous and attribute some of the delay to confusion around the fact that they didn’t expect to win. OK, that buys them what, four days? Shaub was writing 10 days after the election.
And now we have the news that Trump will go ahead and test nepotism laws and name Jared Kushner to a White House post. There is a gray area in the question of whether the White House is an “agency” in sense that the anti-nepotism laws mean the word. So we’ll see about that, but in the meantime, it’s Trump’s way to think the hell with these stupid laws. It might be fine if his son-in-law had some experience in government or public policy, but he’s a real-estate magnate/newspaper-ruiner who coincidentally got into Harvard after his father cut the school at $2.5 million check.
The lack of normal vetting for Cabinet designees is exactly Trump’s style, of course, because Trump cares nothing for rules of any kind, and if a conflict ever should arise, he’ll simply lie and say it’s no conflict and it’s all Meryl Streep’s fault or whoever it is he’s trash-talking that week. No one expects any better of him.
And how nicely it dovetails with the Republican’s agenda for the Trump era, and this is the most important point here. McConnell—and Paul Ryan, and everybody at the Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and all such redoubts—want the Trump era to start yesterday.
They all have reservations about the man. Sometimes very grave reservations. How could they not? But he’s useful to them because he’s going to let them do the thing they’ve been yearning to do for 30 years—dismantle vestiges of liberalism from the Obama term back to the New Deal. To them, the Trump presidency means one thing: We assume this unstable man might serve only one term, so let’s destroy everything we can while we can.
From that vantage point, it does make a difference whether Sessions becomes AG on Jan. 20 or Feb. 3. The quicker he can get in there, the faster he can start hiring lawyers from Ave Maria and Regents University law schools to raise their microscopes against what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton—a Wall Street lawyer and foe of financial regulation, to head the SEC!—has to get in there asap to oversee the dismemberment of Dodd-Frank. And so on down the line.
A clock is ticking on the walls of leading Republicans and conservative organizations. They have 80 years of history to undo. Workplace regulations, environmental regulations, workers’ protections, social safety-net provisions, various minority-group protections, non-discrimination laws, and most of all business and corporate regulations—all of these and more have to be, uh, reexamined these next four years. Every day counts.
You may think (if you’re on my general side of the ideological fence) that past conservative administrations have done damage to the social fabric and the last-resort guarantor of dignity for the least fortunate Americans (the state). And they have. But they’ve done nothing compared to what we might see in these next four years. There are briefing books sitting around Heritage and other such places that, after eight years of Obama and with Hillary looking like a winner, they were probably thinking of chucking in the shredder.
But now they’ve dusted them off. And at the NRA, too, which wants an America in which a person in possession of a concealed-carry permit in State A can go to State B with confidence that his permit has the force of law there. A raft of things, plans drawn up in the Reagan era but never quite acted on, may now get their moment in the sun. That’s the only way to understand congressional Republicans’ solidarity with Trump: They’ll let him have his Twitter tirades and little victory dances in Elkhart, Indiana, over 700 jobs, as long as he lets them take apart the New Deal. That’s what explains McConnell’s hurry to fill Trump’s Cabinet.