Meet the Swamp

From the January-February 2017 PNL #854

by Thomas M. Keck

President Donald Trump’s Cabinet has garnered significant attention for being the richest in US history. Wilbur Ross (Secretary of Commerce nominee), Steven Mnuchin (Treasury), and Betsy DeVos (Education) are actual billionaires, and Rex Tillerson (State), Tom Price (Health & Human Services), and Andrew Puzder (Labor) are also members of the super-rich 1%. What is perhaps even more striking, however, is how many members of the Cabinet have built their careers on hostility toward the central missions of the federal agencies they have now been appointed to lead. Indeed, the human imagination can scarcely conjure a clearer collection of foxes guarding henhouses.

Department of Justice (DOJ)

Mission: Ensuring “the fair and impartial administration of justice to all Americans” (from DOJ website).

Jeff Sessions is a senator from Alabama deemed by the Senate to be too racist to be a federal judge in 1986. He has consistently voted against the rights of LGBTQ people and women.

Sessions has a long-standing record of hostility to racial equality and the voting rights of African Americans. President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions to be a federal District Judge in Alabama The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee refused to confirm this appointment because Sessions had repeatedly made racist comments while serving as a federal prosecutor and had initiated groundless investigations of “voter fraud” to discourage the registration and mobilization of African American voters. If he was too racist to be a federal judge in 1986, he is too racist to be Attorney General today. In the US Senate, Sessions has voted in favor of a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and supported proposed legislation that would have cracked down on Sanctuary Cities for undocumented immigrants. He also voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act; he has also opposed efforts to restore and update the 1965 Voting Rights Act. No credible case can be made that Sessions will ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice to all Americans.

Department of Health & Human Services

Mission: Protecting the “health, safety, and wellbeing of America,” with significant regulatory responsibility over health insurance, medical research, food and drug regulation, and nutrition and education support.

Tom Price, an Alabama Representative, has consistently fought the Affordable Care Act (ACA), sought to defund Planned Parenthood, and supported the privatization of Medicare.

Conflicts of Interest:
Price has substantial investments in pharmaceutical and medical-device companies, as revealed in his financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate. In Congress, he has supported the legislative changes these companies have lobbied for.

Price has repeatedly voted in favor of repealing the ACA, which would strip 20 million Americans of their health insurance. He has also repeatedly introduced legislation to ban federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which would restrict women’s access to affordable birth control, increase health care costs for women, and jeopardize programs that have successfully decreased rates of STDs, HIV and teen pregnancies. Price has supported the privatization of Medicare, a top priority of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, which would force seniors to purchase health insurance from private providers.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Mission: “To protect human health and the environment.”

Nominee: Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, is a climate change denier who built his career on suing the EPA! He is more concerned with the profits of coal, oil, and gas companies than our nation’s environment or the health of its people.

Conflicts of Interest:
Scott Pruitt has extensive financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Pruitt is a leading climate change denier, rejecting the overwhelming scientific consensus that current trends will produce massive sea level rises, increased flooding, super-storms, severe droughts, wildfires, crop failures and mass extinctions. He even rejects the view of US national security experts that climate disruption will force millions of people to migrate from low-lying coastal areas, with the potential to destabilize democratic governments worldwide.

As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt repeatedly sued the EPA to block enforcement of regulations regarding power plant emissions, protection of wilderness areas and preservation of clean water. Most importantly, he has repeatedly challenged and will now seek to eliminate President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which is the largest US effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in history. These lawsuits demonstrate that Pruitt is more concerned with protecting the profits of coal, oil, and gas companies than he is with safeguarding our nation’s environment or people’s health. His refusal to accept the reality of climate change threatens the well-being of everyone on the planet. No credible case can be made that he will use his authority to protect human health and the environment.

Department of Education

Mission: “To promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access."

  Betsy DeVos is a billionaire anti-public school and anti-union activist who has devoted her wealth to dismantling public education in Michigan. She does not support enforcement of federal law protecting children with disabilities.

DeVos has proposed transferring billions of dollars in federal funding from public to for-profit, private, and religious schools. She has long pursued an anti-union agenda, blaming hard-working teachers for the shortcomings of our educational system. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, describes DeVos as “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education. In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.” DeVos has no meaningful experience working in or with public schools, which educate 90% of students nationwide.

At her confirmation hearings in January, she confessed ignorance of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the most important federal law protecting the rights of students with disabilities. She also said that it should be up to states to decide whether guns are allowed in schools, citing potential grizzly bear attacks in support of this position. The Department has the third largest budget (after Defense and Health and Human Services), and its leader has the power to affect the lives of millions of children, families, and teachers across the country. No credible case can be made that DeVos is qualified to promote student achievement and ensure equal access to a quality education.

Department of Energy

Mission: “Ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.”

  Rick Perry couldn’t remember the existence of this department, said he wants to abolish it, and didn’t know its primary function.

When he ran for president in 2011-12, Rick Perry proposed to abolish the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy, though he was famously unable to remember the name of the third agency in a November 2011 televised debate. No matter, now he has been appointed to run it rather than abolish it. When Trump offered him the job in December, Perry happily accepted, reportedly because he was eager to serve as a global ambassador for US oil and gas interests. Only after accepting the nomination did he discover that the agency’s principal function is maintaining and safeguarding the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

The last two Secretaries of Energy, Ernest J. Moniz and Steven Chu, were award-winning scholars with PhDs in physics. Presumably, Perry will figure things out as he goes. Like Pruitt, Perry is a well-known climate change denier. No credible case can be made that Perry is qualified to safeguard the country’s nuclear weapons.

Secretary of the Treasury

Confirmed: “Foreclosure King” Steven Mnuchin got rich at Goldman Sachs by foreclosing on homes after the 2008 financial crisis, including the infamous case of a 90-year-old woman whose mortgage payments were short by 27 cents. In his financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate, he failed to disclose nearly $100 million in assets and omitted mention of his role as director of an investment fund located in the Cayman Islands.

Secretary of the State

Confirmed: Rex Tillerson is chairperson and CEO of ExxonMobil and yet another climate change denier. Like Trump himself, he has had extensive business dealings in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Secretary of Commerce

Nominee: Wilbur Ross built his wealth as chairperson of a private equity firm that regularly buys, dismantles and re-sells failing businesses, consequences for the workers and creditors be damned.

Editors Note:
confirmation information is as of February 20. Due to space constraints the PNL was able to profile only some denizens of “The Swamp.”

Trump's nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, with crocodile body.
Trump's nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was deemed to be too racist to serve as a federal judge in 1986.


Tom teaches political science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School.