November 11, 2016

The Trump Swamp: Government By The Lobbyists


As we walked down my Washington DC block on election eve, before the returns starting coming in, a stranger in a darkened doorway suddenly addressed me and my friends. “Are you ready,” he asked tauntingly, “to drain the swamp?”

A few hours later, the remark seemed ominous. But of course, just days after, it has proved to be ridiculous. Because Donald J. Trump, who promised his working class supporters he would fight for them, seems to be building an administration dominated by the same revolving door corporate lobbyists who have made our nation’s capital a corrupt cesspool.

Politicians from both parties have used the phrase “drain the swamp” to express their contempt for a system controlled by special interests. Running an outsider campaign, Trump embraced the metaphor, tweeting in October: “I will Make Our Government Honest Again — believe me. But first, I’m going to have to #DrainTheSwamp in DC.”

The pledge to clean up Washington likely solidified Trump’s support, especially among white working class voters. Like Bernie Sanders, Trump appealed to many Americans who believe the economic system is rigged, that policy is dictated by the wealthy.

I believe Hillary Clinton has been committed to economic justice. But some voters saw her as a symbol of the insiders who have gotten richer in an America that has left many people behind. It didn’t help that many of Clinton’s campaign advisors, bundlers, and vocal supporters were revolving-door influence-peddlers for oil and gas companies, Wall Street banks, predatory for-profit colleges, multi-level marketing scams, sugary drinks, and other special interests — people like Tom Nides, Heather Podesta, Steve Elmendorf, Anita Dunn, Jamie GorelickEd Rendell, Lanny Davis, etc.

But by Thursday, Trump’s working class / outsider facade had been torn down, and it was clear that his transition operation was stacked with Binders Full of Lobbyists. The list of potential Trump cabinet members had been revealed to include lobbyists and executives of  big corporations, such as former senator and coal industry lobbyist Jim Talent and oil and gas CEO Harold Hamm. Meanwhile, his transition team, as recounted by the New York Times, includes:

Michael Catanzaro, a lobbyist whose clients include Devon Energy and Encana Oil and Gas, holds the “energy independence” portfolio.

Michael Torrey, a lobbyist who runs a firm that has earned millions of dollars helping food industry players such as the American Beverage Association and the dairy giant Dean Foods, is helping set up the new team at the Department of Agriculture.

Michael McKenna, another lobbyist helping to pick key administration officials who will oversee energy policy, has a client list that this year has included the Southern Company, one of the most vocal critics of efforts to prevent climate change by putting limits on emissions from coal-burning power plants.

Martin Whitmer, who is overseeing “transportation and infrastructure” for the Trump transition…. He is the chairman of a Washington law firm whose lobbying clients include the Association of American Railroads and the National Asphalt Pavement Association.

David Malpass, the former chief economist at Bear Stearns, the Wall Street investment bank that collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis, is overseeing the “economic issues” portfolio of the transition, as well as operations at the Treasury Department. Mr. Malpass now runs a firm called Encima Global, which sells economic research to institutional investors and corporate clients.

[Jeffrey] Eisenach, as a telecom industry consultant, has worked to help major cellular companies fight back against regulations proposed by the F.C.C.that would mandate so-called net neutrality — requiring providers to give equal access to their networks to outside companies. He is now helping to oversee the rebuilding of the staff at the F.C.C.

The triumvirate of politicians most associated with Trump have also been in the game. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani presides over a law firm that lobbies on behalf of fossil fuel industries — oil, gas, and coal — and that has been at the forefront of efforts to strike down in court President Obama’s climate change regulations. Ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich has worked for, among others, the mortgage giant Freddie Mac, advising its lobbying team, although he preferred to call himself the company’s “historian,” and he has shilled for the disgraced predatory for-profit college industry.

Chris Christie, meanwhile, while still the governor of New Jersey, has held a series of meetings with Washington trade groups and lobbyists on behalf of Trump, in one meeting reportedly reassuring banking lobbyists that while Trump had endorsed reinstating the Glass-Steagall law, according to CNN “Trump is often open to changing his mind when he gets input from people with expertise.”

Most striking was this analysis, offered to the Times, from the always folksy and always ridiculous Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican Leader and now a lobbyist for a wide range of corporations: “Trump has pledged to change things in Washington — about draining the swamp. He is going to need some people to help guide him through the swamp — how do you get in and how you get out? We are prepared to help do that.”

Blatant lies and deception have always been powerful currencies in Washington, but Lott’s statement is hard to top: one of the highest paid revolving door lobbyists in the city — who resigned from the Senate a few weeks early in order to avoid new government ethics legislation — offering to guide Trump in cleaning up Washington.

Lott and his firm, Squire Patton Boggs, received $1.44 million over four years, ending in late 2015, to lobby for the for-profit college trade group APSCU, which has included in recent years many of the industry’s most troubled companies, such as Corinthian, Education Management Corp. (EDMC), ITT Tech, Kaplan, Career Education Corporation (CEC), DeVry, and Bridgepoint Education. APSCU also included ATI, which was shut down by the Justice Department in 2013 for systematic fraud, and FastTrain College, whose CEO was sentenced to eight years in prison in May 2016 for defrauding the government.

The head of that now heavily-discredited trade group, former congressman Steve Gunderson, who has thundered against the alleged “ideological bias” of the Obama Administration (actually bias against the deceptive practices in his industry that have ruined the economic futures of veterans, single mothers, and others seeking a better life through education), seems to be over the moon about the Trump victory.

Trump’s campaign was one long con, directed by a candidate experienced in pitching non-existent condo resortsa multi-level marketing company selling “video phones,” and the fraudulent Trump University.

Now it should be clear to all that the one redeeming aspect of Trump’s platform — the commitment to fight against the special interest dominance of Washington — was just one more lie.

So we’re left with an unfit president who is ready to instead accelerate the corruption of policy by big money.

Since the GOP leaders in Congress also are under the thumb of the business interests that fund their campaigns, the outlook for federal laws, regulations, and enforcement is bleak — in terms of slowing climate change, fighting pollution, protecting against financial, consumer, and education scams, and much more.

What we will have left — in addition to the authorities of some public-minded state attorneys general — is something pure and simple: the truth. Our media outlets — from the Times and Wall Street Journal, to bloggers like The Intercept‘s Lee Fang and the team at DeSmog, to the brilliant John Oliver and Samantha Bee programs — will be essential.  Investigative reporting about corporate abuses — scam lenders, scam colleges, scam marketers, defective products, toxic spills — can educate consumers, investors, and voters, and make it harder for Washington to behave so badly. Activism can carry those truths forward, along with truths about racial injustice, abuse of immigrants and LGBT communities, sexual assault, and all the other stark concerns raised by the rise of Trump.

This article also appears on Huffington Post